Ellen is a wife, mother, and the Director of Strategic Partnerships at hims & hers. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Ellen has spent time working at Barclays Capital and Twitter. Ellen was also a Partner at Rough Draft Ventures where she invested in student teams from the Boston area. She also co-authored the book “Pitching & Closing: Everything You Need To Know About Business Development, Partnerships, and Making Deals that Matter.” Here is her story!
Who are you and what are you currently working on?
I am Ellen DaSilva. I am from New York, and first and foremost I am a wife and a mother. I don’t think of myself as being defined by my job, but in my current day job, I oversee the partnership and business development efforts at hims & hers, a health and wellness telemedicine business.
How did you come to be where you are now?
I went to a private school in New York City, so I was exposed pretty early to city life and all that entailed. For a while, I actually thought that I wanted to pursue a career in politics and I matriculated at Georgetown University with that thought in mind. I spent my freshman year working for Hillary Clinton–first in her Senate office in 2006 and then in 2007 on her first presidential campaign. I was primarily on the finance team, which I think was just randomly assigned. I decided that I was looking for more of a campus experience, and it was increasingly likely Hillary wasn’t going to win the nomination, so I transferred to Brown University. I was seeking more academic freedom, and the open curriculum that they provided. I spent my time at Brown focused on some politics type things while also getting my feet wet in business. I spent my summers working standard finance jobs.
My mom is a career banker, a private equity person, and I really look up to and admire her. Although, just by her insistence that I become a computer science major, I ended up studying English literature. I love to read and I decided that was probably the most transferable skill set that one could have; I recognized that being able to read with attention to detail, analyze quickly and write succinctly would be extremely important for anything I wanted to do later in life.
When I graduated from college, we had just braved the depths of the recession and it felt like there was no certainty about anything in the economy. By good fortune, I had an offer to work on the trading floor at Barclays Capital, which had just been bought by Lehman Brothers–my original offer was actually from Lehman Brothers. Showing up on Wall Street at that time was kind of like going to a post-war nation. It was a bombed-out experience and the ranks of people had been gutted. Everyone had clearly gone through this trauma, and they were trying to figure out how to rebuild. I entered that scene not particularly passionate about what I was doing, but I was on a team that was taking companies public, and I thought, “There’s definitely a glimmer of hope here.” Side note: The single most important thing that came out of that experience was that I met my husband! So, for all of my disdain toward the investment banking community it definitely had one very positive consequence.
Over two years in banking, I learned the soft skills: how to be a business person, how to present yourself in an office, how to respond to someone who’s unkind, how to work long hours, and how to articulate myself to adults. The second and probably most formidable thing that banking did for me was solidify my love for technology. I can remember working on a public offering, and watching Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, talk to the banking sales team and thinking, “You know what? I really want to be on the other side of the table. It’s much more interesting to build the company and tell the story than to provide a one-time liquidity event.”
I thought about the tech products that I liked the most, and I looked at it from a very consumer-focused lens. I was a very passionate Twitter user, so I spent some time looking for a job at Twitter. It was by good fortune that there was an opportunity to work on a new segment of sales operations and I fit right in.
I spent almost four years at Twitter, helping to build up the business operations team which primarily looked like an internal consulting role. We would spin up these big strategic projects and occasionally implement them, and that’s actually how I transitioned into what I do today. By the end of my time at Twitter, after we would come up with a big strategic idea or notion, they would say, “Okay, now go execute it.” I remember helping with our international market expansion, where I had the opportunity to go out onto the front line, connect with partners, and actually forge partnerships on behalf of the company.
At the end of my time at Twitter, I was managing a team and I felt that I didn’t actually have a ton of management experience. I also wanted time to confirm that I was in the right discipline and function, so I decided to pause, go to business school, and take two years to comport myself. I also wanted to take the time to obtain some leadership skills.
I applied to Harvard Business School and was so fortunate to be accepted. It was a fantastic experience. I decided tech was definitely the right field for me, and I spent a lot of time there doubling down on the industry. I liked consumer tech, but I thought that I wanted to focus on civics and I was hoping that the 2016 election was going to go in a different direction. I thought maybe I would go work with the U.S. Digital Service or something of that sort for two years, but when the election didn’t go that way, I had a bit of an existential crisis and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I began to look into gov-tech companies and I found a company called OpenGov which is kind of the gold standard for government technology. I got hired as their Director of Business Development focused on strategic partnerships, helping this software business grow. But when I got there, I learned rather quickly that as much as I am definitely passionate about civic technology, I was a little skeptical of the business model and I’m really not an enterprise-technology person. I like consumer tech. The company looked a lot like a B2B Saas company and that was just not something I could ever get excited about.
On the side, I was actually working on a company in the hair loss space. A few VCs caught wind of it and introduced me to Andrew Dudem, the CEO of him & hers. Basically, Andrew and I met, and he hired me almost on the spot and I think I was the 8th employee. I’ve been there for two years now–which is almost the entirety of the company’s life.
There are two key things that I forgot to mention. The first major thing is that in 2011 I met the single most important professional connection in my life, Alex Taub. Alex at the time was the head of BD for Dwolla. He recently sold his company, SocialRank, and is now the CEO of a company called Upstream. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend when I was looking for jobs in tech originally, and Alex has been tremendously helpful for me as I navigate my career. So much so that in 2014, he and I actually decided to write a book about business development in tech companies. It was published by McGraw Hill and it’s been a very good seller.
He remains to this day a very close friend and business confidant. I decided that when Alex started his own company that I wanted to invest a little bit and I wrote my very first angel check. Since then, I’ve continued to make angel investments. When I was at HBS, I connected with Peter Boyce from General Catalyst, which used to be headquartered in Boston. Peter was the head of the Rough Draft Ventures program that invested in student-founded startups. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with Peter while I was at HBS and I am very proud of the investments I made. One of those investments was a company in the civic engagement space called Shield AI, which is an autonomous drone company for the military, and another, called Meetingbird, got sold to Front last year.
Through Rough Draft, I was able to push my investing experience to the next level. I invested in a handful of companies, and even had an exit while I was there. When General Catalyst decided that they wanted to transfer their headquarters from Boston to New York, they also decided to start Rough Draft Ventures on the west coast. I helped them expand it out on the west coast, and until I went on maternity leave last year I oversaw a team of students who were making investments at Stanford and Berkeley.
Do you have any goals or plans for the future?
I’ve been involved in advocating for public transit, and I think it’s a huge issue in major cities. It’s such an important part of how cities run. I would love to do something civically inclined at some point in the next decade.
One of the things I’m most passionate about in my current role is advancing access to health care for women, especially contraception. So in my current function, I really want to double down on that. I feel like I’m adding value and meaning to the world through that lens and that angle. So I would say in the next 359 days of this year, that’s something I would really like to work on.
What does growth mean to you?
Growth is all about finding meaning, and being able to extract meaning from what you’re doing from day-to-day. I think we grow when we are looking for that meaning and then once we find that meaning, we continue to grow and expand our mindset. So for me, I’ve been on this quest to do things I think are meaningful in the world and that are giving back in a way that scales beyond just me, personally and professionally.
How do you overcome obstacles?
The first thing I do is consult the people who are most important in my life, and solicit input. My husband is my rock and sounding board, and he helps me through any obstacle that I’m facing. I think this term is kind of overused now, but I definitely have a sort of personal board of directors that I will always consult if I am facing some sort of obstacle. I also try to get dissenting opinions. I find people who will give me different angles, and help me troubleshoot from different perspectives so that I’m not totally biased.
Honestly, I think every barrier can be overcome. I really like to “brute force” things. I don’t take no for an answer. I sort of believe that if I will it, it can exist. I just kind of run through the barriers.
What do you do to take care of yourself?
A big part of taking care of myself is centered around food. I’m an avid cook. I read a lot about food and what’s good for your body. I would not say I’m a health nut–I think my most consumed food is probably chocolate–but I think a lot about what I’m making, what I’m eating, and whether I am enjoying it. So for me, cooking is totally my catharsis and my therapy and I try to do it as often as I can. It also gives me an opportunity to share that food with other people.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
My life motto is you don’t get what you don’t ask for. This comes into play both personally and professionally, and really in any aspect of life. If you want something, nobody is going to assume that you want it, you have to ask. I very dogmatically live life by that motto. I think it’s tremendously important to speak up, to ask the question and to be forthright and candid about what you want.
In my opinion, that’s the secret to success.