- Masha Drokova is the founder of Day One Ventures, a new US venture capital fund that will back startups in crypto, health tech, self-driving cars and other sectors.
- Drokova’s new project comes years after national profile in Russia when she was a prominent figure in a pro-Putin youth movement.
- She announced the fund in Davos this week and spoke with Business Insider about her philosophy and plans for the fund.
DAVOS, Switzerland – “I’m a very untypical type of Russian,” says Masha Drokova. “I’m a happy Russian. And I’m not a drinking Russian.”
She may be an atypical Russian nowadays, through her work as a venture capitalist in San Francisco seeking to fund startups in industries ranging from crypto firms to health tech and self-driving cars.
What also makes her rare is that she’s a female VC founder. There were only four other venture funds led by women in the US last year, according to Crunchbase.
Many years ago, before she moved to the US, Drokova had a high profile in the Russian political establishment through her involvement in a pro-government youth activist movement called Nashi which she joined as a teenager.
She became known as “the girl who kissed Putin” from a moment caught on camera when she met the Russian president and embraced him, planting a kiss on his cheek. She was awarded a national medal recognising her campaigning efforts, reportedly on Putin’s orders.
Drokova is no longer involved in politics and has spent the past year raising money for her fund, called Day One Ventures, based in San Francisco.
At the Belvedere Hotel in Davos this week, on the fringes of the World Economic Forum annual meeting, Drokova spoke to a group of about 50 entrepreneurs and investors about the launch of the fund, saying it was “a few dozen million” in size.
Business Insider understands the fund totals around $30 million.
She’s managed to secure the backing of investors after living in the US for just the last four years, only two of which have been in San Francisco. She initially lived in Boston and New York.
The backers are all technology entrepreneurs, and are based in cities around the world including Barcelona, London, Zurich and San Francisco. There are Russian investors too, but they’re “not in Moscow”, Drokova says.
The fund has been in stealth mode until now, but has already invested in 14 companies, including Lvl5, which creates high-definition maps for self-driving cars, and machine learning customer service platform DigitalGenius, whose existing clients include BMW and Unilever.
Day One Ventures is unusual in that not only is it female-led but it also provides marketing and public relations services to companies it invests in.
The Bezos connection
The firm is named after a business philosophy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: the principle that companies should always behave with the same self-belief and determination that they exhibit on their first day in operation.
“His path and his life inspired me to stick with this concept,” Drokova said. A critical part of the philosophy “is obsession with customers, and we’re trying to look at startups through the prism of this concept,” she said.
Drokova says Bezos is not just an inspiration but something of a mentor to her. “We just know each other. We talk sometimes,” she says.
Her unconventional background, she says, helps her “notice the companies that other investors don’t notice, and I think the way to look at founders is a bit different. One is this ‘day one’ concept, and two, I look at lot at their culture, and on moral values of the founders.
“I wouldn’t undervalue that, because I think, as business has evolved – it was a very masculine approach, and you would just look at numbers, and you’d look at how aggressive founders are. And I think time is changing a lot… Gen Z people who wouldn’t work for the founder who is rude, who is not nice, who is not keeping their word – I think moral values, and kindness, and real ethics are becoming more and more important.”
The transition from her political activism in Russia to where she is today – a path that has included a successful angel investment in facial recognition startup NTech Lab, which increased in value by over 1000% in 18 months – has made her philosophical.
“I believe every action – thought, word, or action – comes from two sources: love or fear,” she said “And I think whatever comes from love, it will lead you to good things. And whatever come from fear, it will lead you to scarcity… you can create something but it will never be beautiful and authentic.”
She adds: “Whenever I need to make a decision, I ask what’s going to be the decision coming from love, and what’s going to be the decision coming from fear? And it simplified every decision-making process, and simplified my life very much, and started bringing me amazing opportunities.”
Although her life has changed significantly since moving to the US, she sees the utility of some lifelong character traits in her new line of work.
“I think there was two qualities of me that have always been here. I’ve been always brave, for some reason, and didn’t see reasons to not be brave… and it comes to the way I behave with goals. I’ve never been interested by small goals.
“I wouldn’t be doing investing but for it’s an opportunity to influence the culture in business, and an opportunity to influence more of humanity.”
She says she’s also driven by “sincerity”, which originally got her into political activism. Drokova drifted away from the Nashi movement after a controversial period, which included a journalist claiming he was beaten by suspected Nashi members because he had written an article critical of a Putin associate.
But while she was involved, she was clearly enamoured with Putin: she once said in an interview that when she met him she felt “our spirits were kindred” and that he was “the role model for the person I’d like to share my life with”.
“I wanted to contribute something to the society I’d been brought up in,” she told Business Insider of her reasons for joining Nashi. “But then, I lost this moment when it stopped being just good; it stopped being just the calls to action, and started being more like a pro-government thing.”
She sees venture funding as alternative way of making a social difference.
“It is so easy to attract a crowd of people when you have an enemy,” she said. “It’s much harder to lead a crowd of people when you have a positive message, not scaring people. It’s like when Russia was like ‘oh, let’s be scared about America together’, or ‘let’s be scared about the opposition, let’s hate them’ – it’s easier, right?
“It’s much more sophisticated to use language as a tool, and stories, to make people move in the right direction. Because when you move in the right direction, when you become kinder, more truthful, the thing is you’ve made a commitment to behave like that but in your life there are still fruits of your previous actions.”
In any case, Drokova believes the power of politicians to shape and control societies will be constrained by the social and technological changes currently underway.
“I’m trying to stay away from politics in every country. I think right now with blockchain and cryptocurrencies, it may take a long time, but the financial system is changing, and becoming more liberal; a more libertarian generation is slightly taking some of the power of more conservative generations. A lot of presidents of current countries, they’re representatives of conservative circles. And I think power is, a little bit, getting removed and changing,” she said.
“I know that I don’t have enough experience and I don’t have enough solutions for how to improve politics, [either] in Russia [or] America. If I had, I would do this, but right now I like to be in this space where I can really create something.”