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New Houston venture capital firm makes first investment

The Artemis Fund, which focuses on providing access to capital to women-led companies, made its first investment. Getty Images

The new female-founded venture capital fund that launched in Houston in April has made its first investment. The Artemis Fund led Burbank, California-based U-Nest's $2 million Seed round.

U-Nest is a user-friendly app that allows for users to create a 529 college savings plan in less than five minutes and $25. This tool provides access to financial tools that previously were only available to wealthy families who could afford financial advisers.

Syndicate partners, including The Draper Dragon Fund, Band of Angels, and Pasadena Angels, also contributed to the round.

"I'm very excited that The Artemis Fund has led my seed round because they've proven to be an amazing partner that brings a lot of value to the company beyond the money," says U-Nest founder, Ksenia Yudena, in a news release. "During the fundraising process, they made a lot of strategic introductions to the partners and advisers that helped us grow the business. They also coordinated the due diligence with other co-investors that made the process very smooth."

Prior to launching her startup, Yudena managed $1.2 bullion in business as vice president at Capital Group America Funds, and she has over 10 years of experience in financial services.

"I believe that we need more female led funds, because they understand the needs and struggles of the female founders," Yudena continues in the release. "We're on the same page in all matters related to the fundraising and building the successful company."

The Artemis Fund was founded by Stephanie Campbell, Leslie Goldman, and Diana Murakhovskaya, all of whom have years in investment experience from various institutions across the country and here in Houston. The three women wanted to provide a platform to funnel funds to female-founded startups that are constantly overlooked by other VC funds. Only 2 percent of funding from VC firms goes to women-led institutions, the release cites.

Goldman was introduced to the U-Nest team through one of the startup's advisers.

"We are thrilled to announce this as our first investment," Goldman says in the release. "We just need 14 more founders like Ksenia. With her drive, determination, deep expertise in this area, and her ability to attract top, seasoned talent, she sets the bar high for us as we look for additional portfolio companies."

U-Nest's mission of making financial information more accessible to families who need it most was especially attractive for the fund.

"Through her experience, [Yudena] saw a real world need for access to education planning and developed an incredibly impressive product to meet that need," Goldman continues in the release. "U-Nest squarely aligns with the Artemis thesis: stellar management team, traction with a product that will have tremendous impact on people's lives, scalable with a large addressable market opportunity, and a realistic exit strategy that can produce outsized returns."

Peter Mansfield serves as U-Nest's chief marketing officer and previously served as a consultant to Marqeta, which has a slew of successful clients — to the tune of Square, Affirm, DoorDash, Kabbage and Instacart — and recently closed a Series E valuation of $2 billion.

"We couldn't be more excited to have Artemis lead our round. From our first meeting it was clear that The Artemis Fund team understood our mission to eradicate the college loan crisis and shared our desire to champion women entrepreneurs," Mansfield says in the release. "The Artemis Fund is a perfect fit for U-Nest."

The Artemis Fund was founded by Diana Murakhovskaya (left), Leslie Goldman (center), and Stephanie Campbell.Courtesy of The Artemis Fund

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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