Ambiguity and Uncertainty

By Lauren Capelin - Meta Guest Essay

This week on Meta, Lauren Capelin takes us on a journey through a creative career, much of which was spent sitting in the ambiguous space. Lauren is a Principal at Startmate. You can find her on Linkedin, Twitter and Substack.

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As I approached the end of my university degree, I found myself in the career counsellor’s office more than once, in tears. My problem? Overwhelming anxiety over what kind of meaningful career paths were on offer for someone with my qualifications. I was about to be in the first full graduating class of the new interdisciplinary Creative Industries degree, with sub-minors in Journalism, Creative Writing and Theatre Studies, grounded in the very ephemeral theory of creativity. All of a sudden, the confidence with which I had pursued my ‘passions’ post-school evaporated, leaving me staring into a self-imposed abyss of unemployability and directionlessness. But as I faced my moment of truth, I reminded myself I had intentionally not committed to one specific discipline (hence the name of the degree), and was always more enamoured by the idea that the combination of these disciplines would add up to something unique, powerful and otherwise uncharted. Reflecting back on this turning point now, over 15 years into my career, it may have just become my superpower.

Instead of panicking, and signing up to do an alternative degree that would somehow make me more ‘employable’ (as many of my uni friends decided to do), I sat with the ambiguity. I leaned into my instinct around what the most interesting and energising pathways would be, believing I could continue pushing forward, and ultimately find the perfect ‘just-in-time’ opportunities at every step of the way. After all, the thing I was supposedly qualified to do was to be creative - leveraging imagination and original thinking to develop something new. In this case, the object in question was my whole career. I was about to learn just how vital the perspective of creativity could be in shaping what has become a hugely rewarding, if a little hard to define, profession. 

Sure enough, just as my studies were coming to an end, a lecturer offered me a role with her consultancy; a leadership training organisation that taught theories of neuroscience and psychology through principles of theatre, art and ‘play’. This first ‘real’ job not only gave me a view on creativity as a fundamental skill for personal and professional development, it showed me a world in which creativity could have an influential seat at the table alongside traditional business skills. It also catalysed a career that has looked anything but typical - one that career counsellor would never have helped me identify.  

L to R: Rachel Botsman, Tim Nichols from Hub Soman, Brian Chesky from Airbnb, Rob Garcia from Lending Club and John Zimmer from Lyft (Zimride at the time). The photo was taken by Lauren in October 2010 at Hub Soma on Market St.

The next inflection point in my career came in the form of the opportunity of a lifetime, and would cement my confidence in the pivotal role creativity plays in not just defining, but communicating key insights that can ultimately influence the broader social and cultural narrative. I had been introduced to the author Rachel Botsman, who was about to publish her first book charting the rise of what she called collaborative consumption (what we now know better as the Sharing Economy). After a few conversations, she asked me if I would work with her to launch the book into the world and grow what she viewed to be a global movement. This was an ambiguous role in an equally emergent field of work, and for all the logical reasons not something you would leave a secure and well-paying job for, but I knew it was the right next step for me. 

What started as an undefined and open-ended project around the book launch evolved into a five-year journey about what it means to drive a movement, how to build community and tell stories that can instigate change. It also gave me a front-row seat to one of the most pivotal periods in the recent history of startups. The early-stage founders we worked with, from Airbnb to Lyft, Taskrabbit, Skillshare and so on, were navigating uncertain market and business dynamics that required creative strategies. Many of these founders built some of today’s most significant companies, and fundamentally changed power structures across the industries they operated in. Ambiguity became a forcing function for creativity on a grand scale as the rules for how we live, work, consume and travel were rewritten. Personally, this experience helped me see how creativity could create opportunity when previously unconnected dots are linked together in unconventional ways, and ambiguity becomes the kernel of a new idea or way of operating. It was time for me to connect some new dots of my own.

While my experience with the Sharing Economy could have taken me in many directions, it took picking up on some adjacent threads of opportunity and interest to carve out my next chapter. Through my work with these early-stage startups, I had been exposed to the world of venture capital and the way it influences the kind of world we live in, depending on where that capital is deployed. I recognised that I had none of the conventional skills and background sought after in the VC industry, but I also noticed, perhaps more alarmingly, was the fact that only people who fit a very specific mould were able to influence these decisions. It was (and still is) my belief that to create the kind of future that was worth living, we needed many more diverse perspectives and backgrounds around the venture capital table, so I became motivated to work my way closer, with the skills and perspectives that were uniquely mine. I may not have come from a traditional VC background, but I had a deep understanding of the growing field of community-driven business models, and the power of community to create strategic impact. It was this lens that helped me to spot the growing popularity of a new kind of role within the VC org chart - portfolio community management. 

In 2015, there were less than 50 people in VC community roles globally, the new wave of Australian VC ecosystem was young, with very few employees not in investing roles, and the local startup scene was equally nascent. These were weak threads to pull on, but it gave me the confidence to put myself out there more than I ever had before. With an instinct to focus on building communities where there was an additional layer of commonality, I pitched the Partners of fintech-focused fund Reinventure with a plan for how to better support their investee companies. To their credit, Danny and Simon were strong believers in the benefits of community and were excited by what it could mean for Reinventure’s portfolio. Once again, thrown into a space of ambiguity, we built Reinventure’s portfolio community from the ground up, as well as playing a key role in the development of the broader Australian fintech ecosystem through a range of community initiatives like Fintech Australia. I also witnessed from the inside the explosive growth of VC community roles, not just in Australia but all around the world, where there are close to 1000 VC community operators today, six years later. Somehow, through joining disparate dots, creating opportunity and leaning into the ambiguity of undefined roles, I had found my bridge between the creative industries and the world of venture capital. 

Today, I have been able to follow my passion for investing in startups one step further. In my role at Startmate, I help identify the most ambitious founders and companies across our region and, alongside our mentors and investors, determine who we should invest in through our Accelerator program. Rather than thinking I am not equipped with the more logical or rational skills needed to operate in this role (as was my view of venture capital from the outside in), I have realised that my creative defaults are actually the same things I am looking for in the founders I speak with. Do they have a unique lens on the problem through combining experience and background in a few adjacent areas, aka newly joined dots? Can they operate in the ambiguity of being an early-stage business, while staying focused on a vision of the ideal future state and the steps they need to take to get there? Are they able to tell an inspiring story to attract the support of the people who will help them? These founders may not necessarily think of themselves as creative, but they are leaning heavily on creativity every day they build their business. The startup ecosystem is a world away from the pure creative industries, and yet I feel like I am back at my roots.

There are many reasons why I don’t ‘belong’ here. I didn’t study law, engineering, finance or science. I never had a graduate role in a big 4; bank, management consulting firm or otherwise. I don’t have an MBA. And yet I have found a home working at the intersection of high-growth startups, technology innovation and venture capital investment, in close proximity to some of the most impressive people you could ever hope to meet, who are quite literally changing the world. And instead of continuing to feel like I don’t belong, I have come to realise that the world of startups and venture capital is an inherently creative place to be, and people with backgrounds like mine shouldn’t be an exception at all. The reality is that, across every industry, job security isn’t what it used to be. Now more than ever, we need everyone to lean into the ambiguity, be curious about the possibilities and connect dots that others might miss to create their own pathways forward. These attributes are all inherent in creativity, and yet we don’t hold it up as a core skill of equal weight alongside its STEM friends. The world of startups demands creativity in equal measure to the more technical skills we promote and value so highly for precisely the reason that they aren’t technical skills, they are human skills. Our country, and our planet, has wicked problems to solve. While technology can certainly define how we get there, only creativity can illuminate where we want to go.

Thank you, Lauren!

Lauren is a Principal at Startmate, where she works to unearth the best founders in Australia and New Zealand. Before this, she was Head of Community at Fintech VC, Reinventure.