It’s okay to fail sometimes.
It’s a lesson that Jan Davis (MBA ’79) learned as a student at UNC Kenan-Flagler – and one she credits with helping her navigate obstacles and opportunities throughout her career as an entrepreneur and investor.
Davis has been involved in entrepreneurial endeavors since the late 1980s, when she left her role as a strategy consultant to join a startup.
“It was a very exciting time for entrepreneurship and for venture capital investment in startup and early-stage businesses,” she says. “It was the dawn of the personal computer age and there was a lot going on.”
Davis went on to co-found a venture-backed company and later served as CEO of another growth-stage enterprise. Throughout her career, she’s also dabbled in intrapreneurship – launching a new business unit in an existing company – and served on numerous advisory boards and boards of directors.
“The entrepreneurial mindset is a way to approach life,” she says. “And whether you apply it in a startup business or a nonprofit, there are lots of ways to be entrepreneurial.”
But the key to success in any venture is simple: You have to be all-in.
“I think that no matter who you are, you have to recognize that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be all-in – 110 percent – in the early days if you want to build something that is scalable and profitable,” says Davis.
The commitment required to bring a new product or service to market means that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. But for those with the passion, drive and a good idea, Davis is willing to help.
She stays highly engaged with UNC’s entrepreneurship community – mentoring teams through the 1789 startup incubator, coaching Undergraduate Business students in the GLOBE program, speaking to classes and judging events like the Carolina Challenge.
“When people ask me to do something, my default is to say yes. If I can squeeze it in, I try to do it,” says Davis, who previously served on the UNC Kenan-Flagler Alumni Council. “For me, it’s an opportunity for me to give back to a university and school that really made a difference in the trajectory of my career.”
Now, Davis is having the same impact on the careers of young entrepreneurs. “She is always wholeheartedly engaged and constantly there when you need her,” says GLOBE alum Bastian Lauer, who met Davis while attending the program through Copenhagen Business School. Lauer and GLOBE classmate Brian Ley (BSBA ’11) co-founded BiddRocket, a behavioral science startup that was conceived in Ted Zoller’s entrepreneurship class, and Davis mentored them throughout the program. Their relationship with Davis has since evolved from mentor to adviser and investor. “Her efforts go way beyond what you would expect from an adviser,” says Lauer. “She is an incredible asset for our company and an inspirational friend for life.”
Davis has also played a pivotal role in building the Triangle’s budding entrepreneurship community. As president of Triangle Angel Partners, she and other local investors and venture capitalists provide financing that allows entrepreneurs to stay in the area, benefiting the local economy.
“Usually angel investors want to invest in their own backyards because they want to work closely with the companies they invest in,” she explains. “If we didn’t have local sources of angel funds, we would be shipping our entrepreneurs off to New York and Silicon Valley. It’s really been great to see the explosion of resources for entrepreneurs here in the Triangle over the last five years and to see how many people are interested in angel investing and advising early-stage companies.”
With entrepreneurship flourishing at UNC, Davis hopes to see more companies with women at the helm. “Women ought to explore all of their opportunities. If they feel driven to bring a new product or service to the market, they should do it,” she says. “But they should recognize that it’s not a way to get more balance in your life – it’s working harder than you have ever worked to build something you feel driven to bring to the market.”
Part of that work is overcoming the imbalances – including gender and racial disparities – in the startup world. “Most venture capitalists haven’t funded a lot of women, and they haven’t funded a lot of people of color,” says Davis. “It’s almost like when they look at a woman, they don’t see an entrepreneur. It’s the same issue with board service and CEOs – if you’re 5’3” and weigh 110 pounds, you don’t look like a CEO.”
Davis encourages women entrepreneurs to combat these assumptions by acknowledging them up front. “Say, ‘I realize I don’t look like the founders that you usually fund, but here are all the reasons why this is going to be a great business – and why I’m the right person to lead it,’” she advises.
And Davis – who has achieved success as both an entrepreneur and an investor – is living proof that it can be done. “If you never fail at anything, you usually aren’t trying enough things,” she says.