Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2007Kellogg School of Management
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Risk takers, value makers

Willingness to embrace change leads Venita Fields to private equity path

After 20 years as a finance professional, by 1998 Venita Fields was past the point when most entrepreneurs decide to fly solo. But that didn't stop the Kellogg School EMBA graduate from embracing change when longtime friend Gwendolyn Smith Iloani asked Fields to open a Chicago branch of Smith Whiley, the Connecticut-based private equity firm she founded in 1994.    

Venita Fields  
Venita Fields '88  Photo © Nathan Mandell  

"For the last six to eight years of my long corporate career I knew I wanted to do something else," Fields '88 reflects. "I was just waiting for the right opportunity."

Smith Whiley, which provides long-term capital for middle-market companies, has $200 million in management under the umbrella of two funds and is raising $250 million for a third fund.

As a career woman balancing the needs of job and family, the chance to join a woman-owned firm was a "good cultural fit," Fields notes. But paving the way as an African-American woman investing a first-generation fund was not always easy, she says.

"The first thing investors ask about is your track record. If you are just starting out, you don't have a long track record," says the Kellogg graduate. "Women and minorities, in general, have about a 20- to 25-year history in private equity."

Attracting clients can prove exceptionally challenging, says Fields. "You need to have great persistence to go through the barriers that exist. Many institutional investors, for example, don't invest in first-time funds. Or perhaps they don't like your investment strategy. You have to always continue to widen the net and not be overwhelmed at the daunting task in front of you."

While Fields's official role as senior portfolio manager and partner is to identify new clients and build productive relationships, the reality of entrepreneurship means embracing responsibility for just about every aspect of business — from customer service to the fax machine. For Fields, that was a sea change after years spent working in corporations with "layers and layers of support." "As an entrepreneur, you really have to have a 'the buck stops here' mentality," she says.

"Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone," she cautions. "I don't want to discourage people from trying it — anyone who has a burning desire or a dream should pursue it. But you need to have a plan to get there."

For Fields, that plan includes an ongoing relationship with the Kellogg School, which continues to inform her business strategy. Continuing education and networking opportunities have been critical to her success. Fields's service on the advisory board for the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice, for example, has helped her build close bonds with other successful entrepreneurs, who have proven to be some of her best sources for support and advice.

Now that she's translated corporate success into entrepreneurial success, Fields strives to give other under-represented groups chances to succeed. Eleven of the firm's 13 employees are either women or minorities.

—Kari Richardson
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