An inspirational figure

Regard d'expert

May Samali

Senior associate 

Urban Innovation Fund

Growing up, I was very aware that the opportunity I was given was unique. So I felt some kind of social and moral duty to help others.        

Although May Samali always imagined herself fighting on behalf of the victims of crimes against humanity, she actually became an investment expert. However, the two careers are perhaps not all that far apart when a startup in which you are investing sets out to improve people’s daily lives. In that case both result from a passion for social justice and a desire to help others. May tells us: “I come from a family of Persian parents who migrated to the USA before the Iranian revolution and then chose Australia as a home – where my brother, sister and I were born. Growing up, I was very aware that the opportunity I was given – to live in Australia – was unique to me. If I'd been born in Iran, life would be completely different. So I felt some kind of social and moral duty to help others.”

In order to be able to do so, May Samali studied international law and political science – first in Sydney, where she was born, then on an exchange programme in New York City. She underlines: “I worked very hard to secure that one spot at NYU Law School, because NY is where many international institutions are headquartered. It was the US hub of international law, like Geneva or Brussels in Europe.” Her time spent in NYC was fruitful as it led on to other projects. She recalls: “This was a decade ago when we were starting to see the beginnings of the current wave of what is now known as ‘impact investing’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’.”

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Like a good Australian, May Samali began to surf this particular wave a few years after finishing her studies. She explains: “I was exposed to businesses that were solving real social and economic problems using a sustainable and scalable business model. And I thought to myself: business can also serve as a tool for empowering people and provide a means to become self-sufficient, and perhaps even more effectively than the law.” After keeping her promise to return to Australia and work for Judge Beazley – “one of the first female judges in Australia, and an amazing role model for me” – May joined a law firm, where she quickly realized that she preferred to work on a Pro Bono basis for social-impact enterprises and non-profit organisations than on mergers and acquisitions. She was “particularly enthusiastic when people wanted to use technology and a business model to solve social and economic problems.” Until that point in time, the young lawyer had always thought that it was up to governments, not businesspeople, to solve that kind of problem. Then a chance meeting propelled her into a new career. She recalls: “All within a one-week period, I met the managing partner of Alchemy Growth Partners, an amazing mentor who still plays a role in my life, who offered me the opportunity to come work with him; I quit my law firm job and started working at my mentor’s advisory and venture firm; I did some lectures at some universities to make an income; and I got into the Harvard Kennedy School of government.”

The project

URBAN INNOVATION IS

NOT CONFINED TO THE IOT

So what exactly is ‘urban innovation’? May reveals: “We have an intentionally broad definition of ‘urban innovation’ – it’s not just about smart cities and IoT or infrastructure. If a company is solving a problem that positively impacts the life of city dweller or cities themselves, then we’re interested.” In actual fact, Urban Innovation Fund focuses more on solutions than on a particular technology. May points out: “Some investors will focus on particular horizontal technologies such as AI or Blockchain. Instead, we look for tech-enabled solutions – not just pure technology solutions – as applied to a number of diverse industry verticals.” This is the case with Voatz, a mobile voting platform which uses Blockchain technology to collect and audit voting data in a secure and anonymous manner. “As a CivicTech and GovTech company, Voatz is strengthening democracy through blockchain technology,” argues May Samali.

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Among the other startups in which the Urban Innovation Fund has invested, some are working with Artificial Intelligence or robotics – such as BumbleBeeSpaces, which manufactures modular ceiling furniture designed to make small spaces more attractive. Housing and transport are two areas which need to be improved in San Francisco and plenty of other cities as well. Unsurprisingly then, Udelv, which manufactures autonomous electric delivery vehicles designed for the ‘last mile’, is another of the startups in the Urban Innovation Fund portfolio.

“Beyond housing and mobility, we've also invested in startups focused on energy, utility management, early childhood, EdTech, the built environment, food systems, the future of work, workforce development, and CivicTech, all areas which affect the city. We're looking for startups whose solutions can scale quickly across cities and positively impact the way we live, work, play, move, eat and sleep in cities,” explains May Samali. This mindset sometimes leads the three partners to get involved in highly original ventures. May tells us: “If someone had said to me a year ago: ‘You're gonna invest in MilkStork’ (the first breast milk shipping service for business travelling, breastfeeding moms), I would have said: ‘Er…what?’ But the company makes sense. The product is integral to workforce development, the future of work and public health.” However, as the fund is “not funding ideas, we're funding companies,” hard criteria such as “How large is the market size? How experienced and resilient is the team? Can they turn their vision into reality? What momentum have the team and the company shown to prove that they are able to do this?” have to be taken into account. The fact that the fund is geared to seed-stage or early stage startups does not prevent them taking part in Series A funding rounds because “We like to follow on in successive rounds if possible,” May explains.

The impact

71%

OF UIF PORTFOLIO COMPANIES

have a woman or a person of color on the founding team

Focusing on the needs of cities and urban dwellers makes perfect sense, argues May Samali, given that “81% of the US population lives in cities and by 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. By definition, all the startups in the Urban Innovation Fund portfolio are working to make a positive impact, one example being Stop, Breathe and Think, a mental health and mindfulness app aimed at younger people. 

The Urban Innovation Fund also “takes diversity, equity and inclusion seriously,” underlines May, pointing out: “We track demographic factors such as gender and race at every stage of our funnel, from when we first get pitched to by an entrepreneur, right down to the ones we invest in. Some 71% of our portfolio companies currently have a woman or a person of color on the founding team and this is a statistic we're very proud of. I think that it's important also to note that we didn't select these companies solely because of this characteristic. Instead, we believe it's important to have diverse representation in founding teams because it makes for better teams, better products and better market penetration.” 

THE City of the FUTURe

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On the personal side, May Samali also helps foreign entrepreneurs “through very different organisations ranging from The Expat Woman to Transparent Collective, and Persian Women in Tech, because I feel a sense of responsibility. I have a social and moral duty to my community in the broad sense – whether that means women, expats, etc. –  and it also makes good financial sense for the Fund, because there are tons of brilliant entrepreneurs yet to be discovered in those pools. But even if some of these founders don't fit within the Urban Innovation Fund thesis, I try to connect them with people or resources and give them feedback on how to improve,” she confides.

One of the biggest obstacles the young investment professional has had to overcome was, “a mental obstacle – the idea that I had committed to being a lawyer forever. I wanted to be a lawyer for a long time and I did all the things that would help me achieve that so it was hard to go in another direction after committing so much time and resources. But I finally realized that the best thing I could do was to be kind to myself and to my evolving professional identity and dreams. A big obstacle was letting go of this expectation or preconception of what I thought I would be, and listening to my intuition, and to what made me feel joy and come alive. And also to think about where my skills are and where I can have maximum impact. I was a good lawyer and I enjoyed it but I love helping founders and I think I'm much better at it.”

The vision

Technology is a means, not an end in itself

So what does the ideal city look like? “It’s a city where there's a multi-sectorial approach to solving public problems – for example where a homeless person on the street is not the responsibility of only one sector but where there are actors from the private, public and non-profit sectors ensuring they have an integrated way of helping these individuals to reintegrate,” argues May Samali, adding: “We need a safety net and basic human rights and I think Maslow's hierarchy of needs has to be fulfilled. Startups have the capacity not just to solve some of those basic problems I mentioned but also to help us thrive as a society, to be more efficient, to spend less time on administrative tasks, so that we can spend more energy connecting with friends and loved ones and building an ever-advancing civilisation. I don't think technology is an end, but a means to this (…).”

HELPING young companies TO GROW

As far as the Fund is concerned, things are only just beginning, says May Samali: “We're in Fund 1 right now, we've invested in 14 companies out of this current fund and will continue to invest out of this fund before going on and raising Fund 2. The 25 or so startups we're going to be funding in Fund 1 will go on to grow into large companies so they can scale their impact across cities. These companies can succeed and we encourage them to do so in a way where they are collaborating with governments. We want to find the best entrepreneurs and we want to fund them.”

Meanwhile, May Samali has learned a lot by helping to build the Fund. Going forward, she says she would like to “continue to work with mission-driven businesses throughout [her] career - as an investor, advisor and potentially as an entrepreneur one day." She can see herself "wearing a number of hats in this world of using 'business for good.' ” But there is one important condition: “Whatever I do I want to remain true to what I'm passionate about in that moment.”

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist