Nov 8, 2019 | Kayo Women, Professional Advice, Your Community, Your Path

Our cities are changing right before our eyes. It’s incredible to be alive in an era that continues to catapult advances in technology and science, providing knowledge and information like we’ve never seen. But these aren’t the only changes we are seeing. Our cities and urban communities are faced with challenges of increased population, living costs, cultural changes, diminishing resources, and so much more. At the cross-section of technology, real estate, energy, power, and finance, you can start to see where the future is headed.

Our first-ever pop up in San Francisco focuses on The Future of Cities, featuring a panel of investors and entrepreneurs who shine light on emerging technologies that will improve the overall function of cities, spur environmentally responsible economic growth, and enhance the quality of life for residents. We sat down with panelist Julie Lein, founder of Urban Innovation Fund, a venture capital firm that invests in startups shaping the future of cities. Here is her story.

What led you starting Urban Innovation Fund?

My background is in political polling and consulting, and I went to business school thinking I would start my own company in the space. I ended up working for a healthy school meal startup – Revolution Foods – that was quickly scaling to cities across the US. The experience opened my eyes to the immense potential of startups.

I met my co-founder Clara during business school at MIT Sloan, and she had a similar experience while working for a real estate tech startup called Fundrise. While at school, we conducted a research study around what we started calling “urban innovation startups” – which were using technology to tackle tough challenges in our cities. And we decided to use that research as the backbone of an investment thesis. In 2013, we started an urban ventures accelerator called Tumml, where we incubated 38 startups in the space. We then launched the Urban Innovation Fund in mid-2016 to provide seed capital and regulatory support to startups tackling our toughest urban problems.

What are the most important urban problems you are trying to solve?

Rapid urbanization is one of the most catalytic trends of our time. 82% of Americans live in cities, and two-thirds of the world’s population will be urbanized by 2050. With this growth comes an ever-increasing number of challenges for city dwellers – including traffic congestion, the rising cost of housing, access to good jobs, etc. Each of these areas, on their own, represent a multi-billion dollar market opportunity.

These unprecedented dynamics are giving rise to a new type of entrepreneur – the “urban innovator.” These startups are working in areas like transportation, energy & water, and the future of work. And they are fundamentally enhancing the livability, sustainability, and economic vitality of our cities. These entrepreneurs are developing products that impact the lives of millions – and hopefully billions – of city dwellers.

What about your job most excites you?

There are two best parts of my job. First, partnering with my co-founder Clara, who I intend to work with for the next 40 years (and hopefully longer :). The second is meeting with entrepreneurs and hearing their business ideas. I think you have to be naturally curious in this job, and I love digging into new startup ideas. Also, there’s a tremendous passion that founders need to have in order to start something new. I always like to hear the entrepreneur’s founding story – there’s incredible tenacity in building something that literally didn’t exist before.

What is your favorite city and why?

San Francisco! It’s where I live and the first city that truly felt like home to me. While we have our fair share of problems (as do all cities), I believe the overall ethos is very progressive and inclusive, which I love.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Show them the fish, hit them with the fish, and show them the fish again.” Basically that you need to constantly say and remind people what you do, why you do it – and don’t be afraid to repeat that message a bunch of times for emphasis.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Have the confidence to start a company as early as possible.

Don’t miss our San Francisco Pop Up on Tuesday, November 12. Register here.