Park Fellows alumni spotlight: Heather Henyon MBA ’03
Heather Henyon is Founding Partner of Mindshift Capital, a global venture fund investing in post-seed early-stage companies in the Middle East, US and Europe. Heather sat down with Roy H. Park Leadership Fellow Lenna Ohanesian, MBA ’24, to discuss her career path and lessons from her time as a Park Fellow at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Prior to Mindshift Capital, Henyon started Grameen-Jameel, which supports microfinance institutions with financing and technical assistance to alleviate poverty across the MENA region. She is also the founder of the Women’s Angel Investing Network (WAIN), the first and largest women’s angel investor network in the Middle East.
Tell us a bit about your career journey. What did you do pre and post-MBA?
Heather: Before coming to Johnson, I worked previously in project finance. I also worked in technology as a wireless analyst for the MENA region. Right before my MBA, I worked at WorldCom as a business analyst embedded within its network architecture group. My summer internship was at Standard & Poor’s within the bond ratings group in their project finance group. When I graduated, I went back to S&P where I was in capital goods sector for the credit ratings and spent about 2 years there.
In 2004, I came across a job posting about a program officer with the Grameen Foundation that focused on the Middle East region. The Foundation was started by Mohammed Younes in Bangladesh because he didn’t understand why people in these villages were continuously impoverished. He realized that a lot of them were taking a lot of high-interest shark loans to pay for material expenses. He believed that there was a way to provide some funding to women microentrepreneurs in these areas. This became known as the microfinance sector. While I was at Johnson, I had actually done a case study on Grameen Bank and was very impressed by it. I had always wanted to do something that was meaningful and sustainable, where you can see the impact, and so I definitely had a draw towards microfinance. My first day on the job was on a plane to Egypt because it was the first microfinance conference in Cairo in December 2004. I’ve been working and living in the MENA region ever since.
What was one of the most impactful projects you worked on with the Grameen Foundation?
Heather: I started a joint venture with the Grameen Foundation and a Saudi owned business, called the Abdul Latif Jameel group. This Saudi business was writing massive philanthropic checks to the Grameen Foundation to get them to do work in the MENA region, but they said they wanted to do something that’s sustainable. This resonated with me because I liked to use finance and business as a means to achieve better outcomes, something that I learned while I was at Johnson. So I suggested that we set up a business between the two foundations.
We set up negotiations in London with board members from both Grameen and the Jameel side. I remember being the only woman there. The people we were serving were impoverished Arab women – about 80% of their clients were women entrepreneurs. They had the business, but needed someone to lead and run it. I put up my hand without discussing it with anyone and said, “I’ll do it.” Afterwards, the Grameen management team was furious with me! Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Lebanon where I was setting up this new company.
We had to structure all of the M&A documents, which was super complex because we were doing a joint venture between a Saudi family and a US non-profit. It took us two years, during which the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was happening. We decided to move the company to Dubai because it was stable, and we could access the region really easily in terms of airport and travel. I hired 20 employees and created a loan guarantee fund to leverage foreign currency. A lot of these countries were taking loans in dollars, so they weren’t set up to work in emerging markets. That’s the thing I was most proud of in terms of what I built because we leveraged $50 million.
What were some of the challenges in establishing Grameen-Jameel?
Heather: Early on, I realized we were working on the debt side of the table. From my time at S&P, I also knew about the equity side and felt like we would have a lot of influence if we were shareholders as well. I saw this opportunity to do more equity, and convinced both sides to move into the space.
Microfinance is very profitable. Return on equity is north of 20% because the non-performing loans are very small because you’re lending to women in these groups; they cross-guarantee each other so investors are selective about who is in the groups. They want women who are going to pay back their loans and don’t want them to default.
The biggest challenge was the bias from the banks. Immediately, they would say, “We don’t want these people in our branches.” It’s the whole “bottom of the pyramid” issue where if you are only catering to the top 1%, your clientele is super limited because not everyone has a high net worth. In emerging markets, you have this massive pool of people such as in Egypt where there’s just no banks serving or working for them.
I was the broker between the bankers and the microfinance practitioners, who often had a distaste for each other. I could talk to both of them and relate. I kept seeing all of these opportunities financially. The Americans were worried about excess profit, but I explained to them there is a lot of things we can do with that profit, which was the whole the concept of creating a social enterprise. The excess profits would always be reinvested in the business, which meant that we could reach more and more women. Having more profit was good because we could expand our reach, which was still really limited.
What interested you in angel investing?
Heather: I was starting a family. I was a crazy workaholic and traveled a lot. I felt that it was time to move on. I then left [Grameen] and set up my own consulting practice where I had more flexibility and could work directly with the microfinance banks. I was also at the same time mentoring women entrepreneurs in Dubai and working on a FinTech start up in Jordan. I saw over and over that there were a lot more women entrepreneurs than I had thought. With the FinTech startup, I was pitching to angel investing groups mainly in the US and Europe. I didn’t really know then much about angel investing but started to see how these investment vehicles worked.
I gathered ten of the women in my network in Dubai to invest in women-led businesses. In 2013, we put out a call for applications for women-led businesses and got 75 responses. We were blown away! We didn’t expect that many applications, and most of them were tech companies. We invited some of the companies to come present to us. We did due diligence on a few of them and we had our first investment in 2014 in a company called Little Thinking Mind, which is an EdTech company that teaches Arabic literacy through a portal. At the time, it was all consumer focused but since then, they’ve pivoted to schools. I’m actually on the board of the company. It was started by a Jordanian woman and a Saudi woman. That’s the beginning of what we call WAIN, Women’s Angel Investor Network. We ended up having 50 women angel investors create this investor accelerator.
What inspired you to start Mindshift?
Heather: I helped start up another angel group called Dubai Angel Investors. I was the only woman on the investment committee. 90% of the members were men, so for me it was interesting to see the differences between that group compared the all women group such as how the entrepreneurs were treated, the due diligence, the questions they were asked, and all of that.
In 2017 I was at the Angel Capital Association’s Annual Summit in San Francisco, and I heard Mitch and Freada Kapor speak. They had created a fund to invest in underrepresented founders. There, they talked about unconscious bias and how there was huge bias in the way that investors were evaluating the entrepreneurs. Female entrepreneurs were more like to be asked negative bias questions like “how big are your losses are going to be?” Whereas the male founders were asked positive questions such as, “tell me about your aspirations” or “where do you see this whole thing going?” That was the first time I had heard about this. A lightbulb went off and thought to myself: that’s what’s been happening all these years.
All of these years, I thought I was different because I came from a math and engineering background. I felt like I had really been trying to do my part in terms of getting the seat at the table, but I felt like it was the definition of insanity- doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I was thinking on the plane ride back to Dubai, what can we do differently that will actually create faster change?
I had a portfolio of about 100 companies and about 60% were women led. They were all outperforming the ones that were male only teams. They struggled to raise the institutional level of capital, so they could pull together a seed round or a small round of funding but getting to the VCs was very difficult for them. I had always thought women were not in the same networks, but it was actually more related to unconscious bias. So, I thought why not create a new venture fund? I had been teaching this and learned a lot from actually doing it, but I had never wanted to fundraise until this point.
I went back to Dubai and talked to some women who were in the WAIN network, and they thought it was a great idea. We thought through a lot of concepts and structures, including deciding on a focus on women in the MENA region. There’s very few female-led funds out there – only 2% of VC funds in the US are female. My theory of change was if we can build more of these women-led funds, we should see the capital flow to the other side of the table. Mindshift just invested in our 22nd female founder and we’ve invested so far in 17 companies.
The Park Program focused on increasing our capabilities as leaders to make a broader impact. How did you feel like the Park Program helped you drive impact? What were the lessons that you drew from the Program that translated into your journey now?
Heather: It’s funny, I was just looking at all the leadership materials from the Program because they’re the only materials I saved from my MBA. I think the process of self-discovery and self-development were most valuable to me to understand what my own version of leadership looks like and feeling more comfortable with what that is.
The service project was very meaningful to me as well. I worked with 2 other Parks on a youth entrepreneurship project with the Cayuga Youth Center, which helps disenfranchised kids in the area. The first semester we would bring in different role models from the community. I remember the first day that we met the kids, I asked them, “What kind of business would you want to start?” because one of my mentors from the program was Jeff Furman, who was one of the founders of Ben & Jerry’s and also lives in Ithaca. He would always talk about that you’re either an owner or a worker. I talked to these kids about that concept. They would explain to me that they don’t have money or a means to get any money. I actually put an image up on the screen of women in Bangladesh who were microentrepreneurs to show them that there were people who were also poor and had a means to get money to start a business. I was trying to dismantle assumptions they had made that became very self-limiting.
The second semester, we made the kids start a business. Some of them printed T-shirts, others made business cards etc. The idea with teaching entrepreneurship is you are teaching skills you won’t learn in a classroom. At the end of the year, I remember we hosted a lunch for them and their families where we gave them certificates and an awards ceremony. Everyone was in tears. It was so meaningful. That experience inspired me to do something that created impact. I wanted to be able to understand and empathize with what different communities needed or wanted and how to connect them.
What advice would you share with other Park Fellows based on your evolution as a leader to help them continue to evolve and expand their influence?
Heather: Keep learning. Keep stretching yourself. I’m a big believer and lover of travel. I think by traveling, living in other places, and being in communities that are different than us, that is the fastest way to accelerate growth. That’s where we start to see the leadership skills that we have learned in the classroom really come into play in the world. I just gave a talk on leadership to high school students. I think it’s really hard to learn leadership in the classroom. So much of leadership is learned through experience, so in order to learn we have to create those experiences that help to form us as leaders. That’s when we really start to see our own leadership personas form.
I think peer coaching has also been extremely helpful. When I was a Park, we used to do peer coaching between first and second-year students. Once you reach a certain point in your career, you learn what you can, and it comes down to giving and receiving feedback; a lot of that is from our peers. Peer coaching with Parks or others who you’re actively engaged with has really helped me and my development as a leader.
The other thing that I wish I had known about was meditation. About eight years ago, I learned transcendental meditation, which is what I practice now. Throughout college, I had always try to meditate but was never able to do it because I have an active mind. Transcendental meditation was the first time I felt I could do it, and it’s very easy for everyone to learn. It helped me manage my reactions and be more calm. There’s a cumulative effect to meditation, so when you see people who have been doing it for 20 or 30 years, they have a sense of peace about them.
About Lenna Ohanesian, MBA ’24
Lenna Ohanesian is a class of 2024 student in the Two-Year MBA program at the Johnson School. Prior to business school, she worked in strategy and operations consulting, where she mainly consulted government clients. During her time at the Johnson School, she has specialized in finance and investment banking. She will be pursuing a career in investment banking post-MBA. Lenna holds a BA in French and business administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.