In conversation with Jennifer McMahon
Partner, Seroba
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Inspirational Women: Jennifer McMahon, Seroba  

“Private Equity is not a dog-eat-dog industry”

Jennifer McMahon is Partner at Seroba – a European Life Sciences venture capital firm that focuses on biotech and medtech. She’s also the International Chair of Level20 Europe and the instigator of the Irish chapter. Here Jennifer explains why there are more misconceptions than mountains to climb when it comes to life in venture capital and why opportunities often masquerade as obstacles.

What’s exciting about your industry – life sciences investing?

I’m a scientist by training, with a background in pharmacology, but I knew that I didn’t want to stay in the lab forever. I was keen to work in the commercialisation of scientific innovation. I was offered an internship at Seroba. And ten years later, I’m a partner. The majority of my investment team are also scientists. We’re driven by clinical innovation, learning more about diseases and how we can better treat them. From a private equity perspective, we are selling something that people now really understand and it’s providing value in society.

How varied is your role?

There are three main phases in venture capital investing that together make up my day job. First is deal origination – proactively looking for areas and companies to invest in. For me, this could be looking for a new therapeutics for cancer or perhaps for a device to treat strokes. Then there’s the due diligence phase; this can take anything from three months to size months for each project. I might be speaking to regulatory or reimbursement specialists  or doctors, to find out their appetite for the opportunity. Then there’s the deal closing phase and subsequent investment. Following investment, we usually hold a board seat until an exit point which is three to seven years later. This is my favourite part of the job – forming relationships and rolling up my sleeves. The other aspect of the role is investor relations, which involves us engaging with existing and new limited partners.

What challenges have you faced in venture capital?

At first I found it hard that I was the most junior person on the team. I had no idea if I was doing a good job! There was no benchmark. A lot of it was just lacking confidence and self-belief. Later on, I was the first person in my company to take maternity leave. But, many of my team have kids and they were all very understanding and supportive. They were the ones to tell me to ‘just get through the day’ rather than hurry back to my desk. I always try to turn perceived obstacles on their head, and use them as opportunities. And I have certainly learnt a lot since having kids.

How much flexibility is there for women in PE?

I think there’s a misconception that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’ll be working on deals every minute of the day. Actually, you find that there are very busy or quieter periods and this career has afforded me flexibility; it’s very doable . A lot of the challenges we have in attracting women into the industry might be the misconceptions that it’s not family friendly. On the contrary, it’s worked really well for me. You can make it work for you.

What role models have you had in your life?

Without a doubt, my mum. She was born clinically deaf and no one knew until she was eight or nine. People thought that she was slower on the uptake at school, but actually she just couldn’t hear anything. She taught herself how to lip read, because she thought that’s what everyone did. My son calls that ‘Nana’s superpower’. She’s always worked that bit harder to achieve. And so, from an early age, I never saw barriers as impossible hindrances.
How did you get involved with Level20?

I’m really passionate about gender diversity and I thought what Level20 was doing was really exciting. They weren’t trying to change the dial by only leveraging the efforts of women. They were very  inclusive from the get-go. You can’t try and change things if you’re leaving the majority of the private equity population out. I thought that was a really fresh take on the problems that faced us. I started attending some events. Then I thought it would be great to have something in Ireland. There were lots of women in VC or in private equity here that didn’t have any group support structure. Since its establishment in 2019, the Irish chapter has been going from strength to strength. And internationally, we’ve now got seven different territories involved in mentoring programmes across Europe. It’s such great exposure to so many inspiring women in our industry.

What advice do you have for women considering Private Equity?

There are times in your career when opportunities are presented to you. You can jump at them or you can let them pass you by.  I would really advise people to give things a go. And I am a firm believer that you can turn the ‘gender challenge’ on its head. I have no doubt that being young and female in private equity has really stood to me in good stead. There’s a well-known quote that resonates with me: ‘The comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there’. I would say: roll up your sleeves, work hard and give it a go.  As investors, we get the great privilege of working with really exciting entrepreneurs on a daily basis. There are not many roles that will afford you these kinds of opportunities.