From JCI to VC, Gateway Capital’s Guthrie finds success in MKE
As an accomplished high school basketball player in St. Louis, Dana Guthrie '10 was receiving interest from colleges. Her mother had a rule, though: Any college she considered had to offer her preferred major, computer engineering. And Guthrie wanted to go to school in a city rather than a rural area.
That’s how Guthrie ended up at MSOE, which led to a career as a software engineer at Johnson Controls. But even while she was building a career that included running JCI’s largest global building automation software portfolio, she was nurturing another career interest: Helping startups.
First, she informally advised friends who were starting their own tech companies. Then she started to learn more about how startups get funded, and began networking with members of Milwaukee’s venture capital community. While working at JCI, she started her first fund, Alchemy Angel Investors, with a focus on founders and investors from diverse backgrounds.
In 2020, she was named managing partner of Gateway Capital. She originally set a fundraising goal of $8-10 million – and recently closed the fund at $13.5 million. Now they’re beginning to make investments in startups.
Guthrie spoke to Milwaukee Commerce magazine about her journey.
Running venture capital projects on the side seems like a significant commitment for a software engineer. Where did you find the energy?
There are a lot of parallels in in my background in terms of knowing how to develop software, and knowing how to manage a software development process from a product management perspective. Engaging with customers, the problem statement, understanding the business side of creating software and our value proposition to our end customer -- I had to do all of that within a large organization at Johnson Controls.
When you think about a venture-backable company, while they’re not all a technology company, many of them have some tech-enabled aspect to them. I thought that that was a differentiation, or something that was super transferable from my background.
Even back when I was at MSOE, I had very informally stood up investment groups with friends around different theses. One was around Warren Buffett value investing, then there was one very early stage with cryptocurrencies.
Starting Alchemy was formalizing all these things that I had pieces of throughout my professional career, or just on the side working with friends and being involved in an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In 2020 you were selected to lead Gateway, and then you went out and exceeded your fundraising goal. What did that mean to you?
Obviously it was exciting. The Badger Fund committing as lead investor helped, certainly. And then the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s significant commitment allowed me to gain momentum in Milwaukee. Both had a significant impact on the outcome.
I think that it spoke to Milwaukee’s appetite for something like this, especially with this strategy around pre-revenue startups and focusing on the Milwaukee entrepreneurial community. I think that our (limited partner) base is very reflective of the Milwaukee market in terms of Fortune 500 companies, local foundations, accredited business leaders. I’m proud of the fundraise because I know it was the work of the entire Milwaukee ecosystem, not that of Dana Guthrie.
What are some lessons you’ve learned throughout this whole process?
One is that fundraising is marathon, not a sprint. Not to get too down on the ‘nos.’ Not all investors are the right investors for everything, and this is true for fund managers as well. For founders, not every single investor is going to be the perfect fit for you. Through my experience working at Johnson Controls, part of my job was to learn how to qualify opportunities -- where I should spend my time? Where will I get the biggest bang for my buck or have the highest likelihood of success?
Black women are underrepresented in both software development and in venture capital. What has been your experience as a Black woman in these fields?
In software development, I’m always the only Black female engineer for sure. Oftentimes the only female engineer. I thought my uniqueness in my background, in my diversity, was my differentiation in thought. I think that that was my competitive advantage in engineering and I try to transfer that into every in every aspect of life.
When I first got to MSOE, that was a culture shock for me, because I grew up in predominantly Black or mixed schools. And then to go to MSOE and be one of very few minority and women on that campus that was just a total culture shock. It took me a year and half, two years to get OK with that.
What advice would you have for a young person from a diverse background who might want to follow your career path?
Be willing to put in the time. Be willing to learn, first. I paid to be in angel networks before I knew if I would get anything out of it. I was trying to invest in myself. I understand that not everyone can financially do that, but my point is just to find ways to learn and grow your network. I woke up and took a VC training course before going into work at Johnson Controls and on weekends.
VC is changing in that you don’t have to be the Stanford grad anymore, or the former investment banker. But they’re still working on things -- do the research, understand the market, understand your differentiation relative to other funds around you.
How would you describe the Milwaukee startup and entrepreneurship community?
Emerging. There’s no shortage of great ideas, but there’s still this need around education in terms of fundraising valuations, how to raise capital, that sort of thing, but definitely emerging. I also think that there’s this rumbling of a grassroots, entrepreneur-and founder-led community that’s happening. That is really exciting to me. That’s really good deal flow for Gateway.
What can Milwaukee do to make it grow?
We have some of the top Fortune 500 companies. We have a number of universities, Marquette, UWM, MSOE-- strong engineering schools that crank out a number of engineers every year right here in Milwaukee. Affordability. One of the top accelerators in the nation in gener8tor, and other competitive accelerators like Blueprint and For-M from the Milwaukee Tech Hub coalition.
So we have all of the ingredients, but no one has put the recipe together for Milwaukee. So I’m hoping that Gateway having a stake in the ground like, “We’re here, Milwaukee,” helps bring the recipe together. Everyone has their roles. Accelerators accelerate. Investors, be willing to invest early on. Some of the corporations should be open to being first customers. And I think if we all play our roles, we will see the ecosystem develop over time.
What can Milwaukee do to help entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds?
The biggest thing with entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds is a lack of network. People need to speak with others who don’t look like themselves. Be interested in hearing the problems that they’re trying to solve. We need to create more spaces that are comfortable, allow them to expand their networks, and last but certainly not least, fund them with the expectation of return – not just philanthropically.
For you, what’s the driving force for all of this?
To help create generational wealth. That’s accomplished through ownership. That can be through home ownership, that can be through owning businesses and ultimately selling those businesses. But that’s the driving force to make sure that we’re very intentional about creating generational wealth for people of all different backgrounds.