INSIDER • • • • • • • • • •

Tamar Elkeles Is Investing in Talent

by Frank Kalman

Tamar Elkeles is no stranger to the world of startups — or high growth, for that matter.

In 1992, Elkeles joined technology company Qualcomm Inc. just after its initial public offering in December 1991. At the time, Qualcomm had roughly 700 employees, Elkeles said, and when she left the firm, about two and a half decades later, it had grown into a 31,000-employee juggernaut.

Elkeles was there through it all, most recently as the company’s vice president of learning and organizational development and as its chief learning officer — a role that had her overseeing Qualcomm’s entire employee development and organizational learning operation.

Still, Elkeles’ latest role puts her in what many would consider an entirely different world. With Silicon Valley riding its biggest wave since the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, and as valuations for privately funded startups reach all-time highs, Elkeles finds herself in the middle of it all as the chief talent officer at venture capital firm Atlantic Bridge Capital LLP.

Her job, Elkeles said, isn’t entirely uncommon for the industry; she works with the firm’s investment team to coach and assess talent throughout its existing startup portfolio as well as in its prospective investments. Most startup executives and founders come from highly specific, technical backgrounds, many of them based in computer programming or some other technology vertical. Elkeles’ job is to work with these executives to teach them the importance of talent and how to build and scale successful businesses and companies.

Building a great product or technology platform is one thing, building a successful company around that product is another thing entirely, and Elkeles is there to help show them the ropes.

What’s more, it’s a job that puts her at the center of the themes that have become so central to the intersection of business and talent, as so many of the insights that come out of Silicon Valley these days tend to make their way into traditional corporate America. From the importance of organizational culture to the new ways startups are reinventing the world of work, Elkeles sits in a unique spot able to observe the transformation first hand.

Talent Economy spoke with Elkeles about a bevy of topics, including her transition from corporate America to venture capital, her biggest insights from working with startups and ways to diversify the ranks of venture capital. Edited excerpts follow.

• • • • • • • • • •

Talent economy:You’re a chief talent officer at a venture capital fund. What do you do?

Tamar Elkeles: Well, it’s interesting, because most of the VC firms, especially in Silicon Valley, do have people in chief talent officer roles. And many folks in the corporate world may not know that, but what most venture capital folks realize is that talent is critically important to business success, and when they’re investing in the right companies one of the critical things that they do is to ensure that those companies have the right talent running the business. It’s a unique role, in that my role is around looking for great talent; it’s also around management and a lot of executive coaching that I’m doing and building leadership teams. So I will go into an organization, for example, and help with performance management, I’ll help them do organizational design and construction of a company, I’ll help them put in some of their HR practices, and really help them understand how do you scale from a small startup to a really large, successful company. Many times we’re working with these organizations to think about what are we going to do to be able to prepare ourselves for an IPO. What are we going to be doing around acquisition, of either talent or technology? How are we going to scale the business? And potentially how are we going to set ourselves up for a successful exit in maybe even an acquisition from a different kind of company who wants to get into a new space.

Tamar Elkeles

• Spent most of her career with Qualcomm, from 1992-2015. Saw the company grow from 700 employees to 31,000.

• Co-authored three books: “The Chief Learning Officer” in 2010, “Measuring the Success of Learning Through Technology” in 2014 and “The Chief Talent Officer” in 2017.

• In 2010, was named “CLO of the Year” by Talent Economy’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.

• Before coming to Atlantic Bridge Capital in 2016, Elkeles spent a brief period as the chief people officer at technology startup Quixey.

At A Glance

TE: When a VC fund looks to invest in a startup, what role does its management play in the decision to invest and how do VCs think about talent overall in their investment decision?

Elkeles: Talent is huge. In every pitch deck that I see, one of the biggest features is who’s your leadership team? Who are the brightest people behind the concept? Who are your founders? And what kind of smart talent have you assembled around you to allow you to scale the business? So in every situation that I deal with, we’re really looking at what’s the talent pool like and do we have the best talent to be able to grow the company?

“ Talent is huge. … who’s your leadership team? Who are the brightest people behind the concept? Who are your founders? And what kind of smart talent have you assembled around you to allow you to scale the business? ”

TE: You’ve spent most of your career in traditional corporate roles. What was it like transitioning to venture capital? What surprised you the most?

Elkeles: Well, you know, I have to go back to my Qualcomm days. So when I started at Qualcomm in 1992 when I was only 5 years old, there were only 700 people at Qualcomm. We had just launched an IPO in 1991 and we were what we used to say “a startup with a lot of cash.” But I really did grow up in that startup, entrepreneurial world. And so being in a startup wasn’t a big transition for me. It took me back to those early days. So when I started and there were a few hundred employees we were working very differently than when I left there a year and a half ago and there were 31,000 employees. I saw tremendous scale, but the transition was really about going back into that startup mentality. And I think the biggest thing that I see is the importance of talent and the importance of leadership. There are two things that make a successful company. One is leadership, and the other is execution. You have to do both really well. And what I’ve realized working with these talent teams and these VCs as well as the companies in our portfolio, is that talent really does make a difference. It’s the right people you have at the table. It’s developing those people, it’s coaching those people, it’s giving them feedback to make sure that they’re able to implement amazing business ideas and also make sure that there’s company success.

TE: Startup founders and CEOs are very product oriented in their specific fields. What has it been like coaching them on the talent side?

Elkeles: Most of these CEOs and executives across these firms really care about culture and really care about people. And they know that the success of their business is going to be based on having the right people there, so it’s about attracting the right talent, it’s about retaining them. Whether they’re schooled in HR or org design or org development or product engineering, it really doesn’t matter; what they’re really trying to understand is, how do I build a business? That’s all about the people and that’s all about the culture and that’s all about making sure the people are performing and that there’s high productivity. So every CEO that I work with in every portfolio company cares about that. One of the benefits is we’re working with folks that haven’t typically been classically trained in HR or in org design or development. What you get is a huge opportunity with them — a blank slate. They don’t know what they don’t know and they’re looking for guidance. So I think it’s a big opportunity for those in the learning and HR space, helping these people grow these businesses and teach these leaders about the importance of culture and the importance of talent.

“ There are two things that make a successful company. One is leadership, and the other is execution. You have to do both really well. … Talent really does make a difference. ”

TE: What can traditional corporations learn from startups and vice versa?

Elkeles: I think one of the biggest things that I’ve learned — and I say this, but I’m not sure that I’d publish it — is that it’s not always about the CEO. It’s really about the No. 2. And one of the things that I’ve found really makes a successful company is somebody that can really operate the business. Sometimes the CEOs are the ones that have the idea or they are the founder, but they may not be the best business leader. So for me some of the best CEOs really see their role as experts in helping fundraise, experts in the idea, experts around the product or the technology, but what you really need are some really good operators in the business who are going to be able to scale and take the organization forward.

TE: Venture capital is historically male-dominated. What does the industry need to do to be more diverse?

Elkeles: Well diversity and inclusion are a really big issue right now. And I think many people have seen what’s been happening in Silicon Valley as well as with some of the startup organizations and bigger companies around some of the leadership challenges they’ve faced and some of the lack of responsiveness to the diversity issues that have come up in their organizations, specifically around gender. You have to make a conscious effort, and I think that the most important thing is making a very conscious effort about bringing diverse candidates to the table, developing them, promoting them, making sure that there are more women in leadership roles. It is all about the culture you create within a company and how you treat people. And I think that it’s important to have that level of respect. At the end of the day, whether you’re a startup or whether you’re a larger organization, having diverse perspectives, having diversity at the table, we all know is critically important. I think we’re at an inflection point right now in the industry overall, and I think making conscious decisions about bringing more female leaders and more diverse leaders to the table is a key to business success.

TE: What is the biggest talent management piece of advice you’d give a startup founder that’s either about to receive their first major funding round or is approaching the point where they’re going to scale and need to start to institute some more formal talent practices?

Elkeles: I would say people are your largest variable, so select well. I used to think — if we didn’t have to deal with all those people issues, it would be really easy to implement the technology or the product. Right? No. Employees are the keys to business success. And so based on that the biggest thing is hiring top talent, respecting them, taking care of those people and getting the right people in the room bringing their ideas to the table. And the other thing to understand is that people peak at different times in their careers. And so based on that, you may hire someone today for a specific kind of a role. It’s our responsibility to develop them and make sure that they’re actually contributing to the business in year one, year two, year three, year four. It is different than just hiring them for a specific job today. In many ways we’re hiring people for jobs that we don’t even know exist yet. And when you’re in a startup organization you’re hiring just the best talent and being very opportunistic about that, but that person has to scale with your company. So the development of those people is really important. People peak at different times, so help them get through those challenges and changes in their organizations so they will stay engaged during their career with a company.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email