Lisa Lambert has come a long way since growing up in Toledo, Ohio, raised by a single mother in public housing.
At 55 – after a two-decade career at Intel and a stint in cleantech investing at the Westly Group – she is a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist with lofty ambitions to transform global energy. As founder and president of National Grid Partners, the venture capital arm of the London-based National Grid utility that also supplies energy to customers in New York and Massachusetts, she has already led $350 million investments in 40 startups designed to address climate challenges. to address change and increasing demand, including through an increase in electric vehicles.
She has also committed to supporting other women and minorities in business. In addition to leading Intel’s Diversity Fund, she founded a nonprofit network of female executives called Upward, which now has 30,000 members in 20 chapters.
Next on her list of goals? Manage a multi-billion dollar fund from its Los Gatos office.
How did this black woman of humble origins enjoy such a “metrise”? And why does she still face obstacles despite her decades of success? And what does she do to share her lessons along the way?
We spoke to her to find out:
Q As a leader in venture capital and as a woman, you are definitely part of a smaller group. What were your aspirations when you were younger and what made you a leader?
a I came from a single-parent family and didn’t have many role models to look up to from a professional point of view. We were poor. I was a latchkey kid. But what I discovered early in life was that if I applied myself, I could achieve anything I set my mind to, and that my circumstances didn’t have to stop me from having a vision. And I remember this clearly: When I was in fourth grade, I came home to my mom and I said, “Mom, I realize that I can get any grade I want if I work hard and put in the effort.” That was essentially the spirit of it. I think I took that principle and just ran with it. There was really no reason for me to be encouraged about my future. All my siblings really didn’t have a successful professional life. They were nice people, but they were poor people who grew up in an environment that was not so conducive to breaking out of children. And yet I broke out and I did so because I believed I could, and I learned that very early in my career. I had a lot of great teachers and I had people who poured their lives into me and cheered me on and I think it gave me the courage to chase my dreams.
Q What were those dreams?
a I planned to get my MBA from Harvard. And so I started chasing whatever work I needed to prepare for that. I didn’t get in the first time, but I did get in the second time when I signed up and from there my life really took a trajectory that I don’t think I expected. But I’m definitely flying in the clouds now. And that’s not something I think I knew when I was in fourth grade, but it’s definitely something I thought could happen. So that’s how I started.
Q What was a turning point or particular stumbling block you had to overcome as you got older?
a The challenges became real when I got to the senior level. After graduating from Harvard Business School, I went to the Bay Area. And this is in 1997, the dotcom media was still very popular. And I joined Intel, this legendary company, where I did product marketing engineering. Then after about four years I came across Intel Capital and started investing. And you’d be surprised how many people can ignore you when you’re on the job that doesn’t attract as much attention because you don’t have that much power or authority. I progressed very quickly and became VP in 2006, leading the software and services practice at Intel Capital for more than a decade. And so I had a meteoric rise. When I got my VP stripes, that was a really big deal. Once I got that position, it was amazing how much opposition you started to experience. Whether it’s because of envy or because they think you’re not smart enough or because you’re female or ethnic minority or whatever the reason – it became a much more competitive and a lot more aggressive environment. There is a certain amount of competition in venture capital in general, but this has been taken to a new level.
Q Do you believe part of that opposition was because you were a woman of color?
a I never really found out. So not sure if that was it. I’m not even sure it matters what the reason was, but it just got harder… It didn’t discourage me. It was different and it made it harder, and you can see why women and people of color give up because there aren’t many fellow travelers, there aren’t many role models to look to. There aren’t many mentors to look for either because the demographics don’t look like you and so there aren’t any natural allies you can call. So you had to fight it out. And one of the things I did in response to that increased intensity and competition was to form Upward Women.
Q Tell me about Upward – this non-profit network of executive women.
a I’m thinking there, you know, I’ve had a very, very kind of rapid rise to seniority, one of the few women and minority women who lead large investment teams that manage over a billion dollars in assets under management. And I have these difficulties in an environment where I should be rewarded for outperforming me. I think of all the other women who have these challenges, and minorities who have these challenges. And so I said let’s get together with other women – both to help me be a source of encouragement and support to me, but also to help other women who I know are going through the same thing. We had our first meeting in the backyard of my house. I expected to have 40 or 50 of my senior colleagues and I ended up having 90 people in that first meeting, 130 people in the second meeting and Upward was born in 2013 because of this difficulty that I had.
Q Do you feel like you’re still in the middle of the battle or do you feel like you’re past it?
a My challenges have not gone away. If anything, they’ve increased as you get more seniority, the more responsibility you get, the more attention you get. And so you must be ready to manage your success. You have to be able to handle the complexities that come with success and the spotlight… There is no Nirvana. You won’t find a place where you don’t have conflict for people. And you know, people disagree and there will always be conflict. I think the triumphant part of the story is how you overcome it.
Title: Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at National Grid and Founder and President of National Grid Partners, responsible for leading investment and innovation initiatives across the company.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems from Penn State; MBA from Harvard Business School.
Family: Married with two sons aged 13 and 11
Five things about Lisa Lambert
- She was the first in her family to attend university.
- She is six feet tall.
- She played basketball for Penn State from 1985-89 and was team captain for the past two years.
- She met her husband, Ross Evan Malinowski, through an online dating app and had their first date at Starbucks in Sunnyvale. She started her family with two sons in her early forties. Her husband is 12 years older and is a stay-at-home dad.
- She grew up with clarinet, alto clarinet and oboe.