Modern Meditations: Ann Miura-Ko
The Midas List investor talks about religion, cyber warfare, and David Swensen.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what investors, operators, and founders should know about Ann Miura-Ko’s meditations.
America is vulnerable to cyber warfare. Geopolitical conflicts don’t always play out on the battlefield. Increasingly, war is fought digitally, making cybersecurity essential. During her Ph.D. in Computer Security, Ann Miura-Ko saw this threat develop and suggests that the U.S. is vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
The legacy of David Swensen. A legend in the investing world, Swensen served as Chief Investment Officer of Yale’s endowment. He was also a mentor to Ann, who learned from his astuteness, originality, and decency.
Mastering knowledge management. Over twenty-four years of education, Ann has developed an obsession with knowledge management. She’s experimented with different note-taking techniques, tools, and styles. Today, she’s settled on using Mem.ai and hand-written notes.
Dissecting decisions. The job of a venture capitalist can be distilled down to a series of decisions. To improve her craft, Ann tries to be as explicit as possible about the decision being made, its rationale, and its eventual impact.
An age of economic power struggles. Our era will be defined by the U.S.’s competition with China and the changing nature of conflict. Specifically, Ann believes we are shifting from border-based to economically-driven clashes. As warfare changes, so do the stakeholders. Companies are increasingly becoming major players.This interview is part of the Modern Meditation series, where we ask the most interesting people in tech non-obvious questions. We hope to bring new aspects of their personality and processes to light.
Ann Miura-Ko is a co-founder and General Partner at Floodgate, a premier early-stage venture firm. Ann has invested in companies like Lyft, Refinery29, Studio.com, Emotive, and Starkware in that role. She has been named on The Midas List, a commendation highlighting venture capital’s best investors, multiple times.
Here are her meditations.
1. What would you be doing if you didn’t work in tech?
Teaching. Probably math, physics, or computer science. When I did my Ph.D. in Computer Security, I realized that I liked the research but loved the teaching. Breaking topics into their fundamental, ingestible components and imparting them to others feels very rewarding, and I know I’m good at it.
While I currently teach undergraduates at Stanford, I also enjoy teaching younger kids. The way the school curriculum is built, it’s hard to impart a love of complex topics to kids, and they can totally sense it. But, even the most basic topics can be so interesting. Why do we have the number zero, and why is it so important? What actually are negative numbers? When you take the time to explore topics with deep intent, it's rewarding for teachers and kids.
As our world gets more complex with technology doing more and more of the everyday work, we need to impart more curiosity to our kids. Getting them excited about the process of learning is even more important than what is being learned.
2. Which current or historical figure has most impacted your thinking?
That’s easy: David Swensen. He led Yale’s endowment for 36 years and was a mentor of mine. Not only did he influence my professional life, but he impacted how I think about things.
First of all, he was such an original thinker. When he arrived at Yale, as this young guy from Wall Street, no one saw endowments as anything more than a pool of money. David invented portfolio management and invested in illiquid and risky asset classes like venture capital which are higher beta but led to transformational returns over many decades. Those insights and many others changed how institutions oversee their money. Many of today’s endowments and foundations operate according to the Swensen philosophy.
Beyond his incredible professional accomplishments, I was even more influenced by the person he was.
David was a remarkable mentor to people from different backgrounds. He cared about diversity long before it was popular to care. David was always mentoring women and minorities because he believed it was the right thing to do and because he derived great joy from it. This started in his office with the people who worked with him and extended to the managers of funds he entrusted the endowment to.
Finally, David demonstrated it was possible to be professionally successful and a dedicated parent. A friend told one such story at his memorial. David coached his son’s Little League team for years and with incredible gusto. One day there was a Wall Street Journal article on David and the Yale endowment. A parent showed this article to a young seven-year-old teammate. The kid burst into tears and said, “Does this mean Coach Dave got another job?”
3. What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past decade?
I’ve changed my mind about many things, but if I were to say where the change came from, it’s because I became less of a moral absolutist. In high school, I was very much into speech and debate, so I loved seeing both sides of any argument. However, while I intellectually understood the counterargument, emotionally, I saw the world through a pretty simple lens, refusing to look at nuance and circumstance when it came to moral judgment.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve been lucky to become friends with people with diverse viewpoints on myriad issues. I’ve also come to understand that most complex issues require a much deeper look than most of us are willing to take. Issues and people are rarely as simple as a children’s book where things are so cleanly “good” and “bad.”
Several years ago, my kids were really into the musical Les Misérables. I remember one of my sons asking whether Jean Valjean was a good or bad guy. I loved that question because while Jean Valjean was a righteous, heroic character, he had also been a thief. All of us have these elements of light and dark. In the last five years, I have discovered that there are people I love, who I know are good people, who believe things that I don’t. By not making a moral judgment on people, I think I’ve maintained an openness that’s allowed me to keep engaging. I know that I’ve become a more complete person by continually learning from and interacting with people where there are big and messy differences.
4. What craft are you spending a lifetime honing?
Decision making. Naturally, that’s fundamental to my profession. Venture capital is a series of decisions you make, but the same is true of life.
Increasingly, I’ve realized that it’s important to be explicit about how you’ve come to a decision and its impact. What made you take one path over another? What worked well and what didn’t? At Floodgate, when we make a mistake, we discuss how we came to our judgment and where we can improve our process. It’s not always a fun process, but it’s foundational, like a pianist practicing scales. You do it again and again and see if you can get better.
5. What is your most contrarian, high-conviction opinion?
I believe in the good of religion. That feels like a contrarian position in tech, where it's popular to scoff at those who believe in God or go to church.
There’s no perfect religion, but I know how powerfully good it is. The church is one of the only places where I meet a highly diverse group of people gathered by a common belief. Status, wealth, background – none of that matters. Church is also one of the few places where you regularly talk about what it means to be a good human and where you fall short. It’s a place for real reflection and commitment to change on a weekly basis.
Religion also acts as a conduit for so many great acts of sacrifice. It has galvanized huge humanitarian aid projects and everyday acts of service. I see CEOs of major companies, teachers, students, and community activists working side by side as equals to serve their community within the context of the church.
I volunteered at a free dental clinic on the San Mateo Fairgrounds a few years ago. People lined up overnight to receive dental work they desperately needed. Everyone I met that day – whether it was dentists, hygienists, or volunteers passing out food or translating for patients – were from local churches. When there’s a need, religious organizations can mobilize so quickly. We can all acknowledge religion has been a source of conflict, but without religion, I think there would be a massive hole in many, many people’s lives.
6. What piece of art can you not stop thinking about?
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Why do I love it? First, you have to understand what Beethoven was like and the stage of life he was in when he composed it.
By all accounts, Beethoven was a paranoid misanthropic man who drove away even those who loved him and who he loved. He was arrogant and didn’t seem to care much about the emotions of others. And to boot, when the Ninth Symphony premiered, he was completely deaf.
The Ninth Symphony is known for the famous theme in its last movement called the “Ode to Joy.” How does such a miserable man have any real understanding of the nature of joy?
What I find fascinating is that the full symphony demonstrates the journey required to achieve joy. The first movement hints at rage and tragedy. By the end, the symphony is transformed into a celebration of friendship and brotherhood. There’s something so poetic in the idea that to reach joy, to achieve transformational love, you have to endure misery. I think it says something profound about Beethoven. Despite the pain of losing his hearing, he had the joy of understanding the gift he had. It’s one of the most incredible compositions I’ve ever encountered because it tells us so much about him and our potential for resilience.
7. What are you obsessed with that others rarely talk about?
Something I’ve been obsessed with my whole life is personal knowledge management. I think it started with my summers in Japan. My grandmother owned an office supply store, so I know way more than I should about pens, pencils, highlighters, and notebooks. I spent my summers selling office supplies and have very strong opinions about these objects. As a student, this manifested in how I took notes. And by staying in school for so long (I think I have 24 years of schooling), I became an expert note-taker.
In my post-school life, this has translated into a desire to document what I know and capture it in ways that are always searchable. I take notes on books I read and record the quotes I might want to refer back to in the future. I love keeping track of my meetings and what I learn from them. I’m constantly searching for a system where I can better synthesize my learnings in a reusable format.
At the start of covid, I created a study group where we learned more about knowledge management. It was a deeply passionate group, including a research scientist from Google Brain, a few founders, an early designer from Notion, and some product managers. I really enjoyed spending time every week diving into books, articles, and expert talks on the topic and going through a show and tell of various systems. I’ve moved from writing in notebooks to handwriting in digital notebooks to fully digital platforms like Evernote, Notion, and now Mem.ai. Today, I’ve settled on a combination of written notes, which allow me to remember and synthesize information, and Mem.ai, which I use as my kitchen sink.
8. What contemporary practice will our descendants judge us for most?
We’ve forgotten how to criticize our institutions from a place of love. So much of the discourse today is defined by disgust or hatred. We see something broken and want to annihilate it instead of trying to fix it. Not only do I think that’s a shame, but it also doesn’t feel effective. Would you ever listen to feedback from someone that hated you?
I read a biography of Abraham Lincoln recently. Lincoln thought it was important for schools to teach a love for America’s institutions. I think that’s missing today. We must impart that love to our children – to re-learn admiration for imperfect things and even people. Then, we can engage with them from a place of discovery and optimism.
9. What risk are we radically underestimating as a species?
Cyber warfare. It’s not well understood, and possible solutions are incredibly under-resourced.
I saw this threat develop during my Ph.D. Between 2003 and 2010, bad actors went from vandalizing websites to nation-state-level warfare. I still don’t think America has adapted more than a decade later. From a budgetary and infrastructural standpoint, we don’t have what we need, which puts us in incredible danger. It’s an area of risk the general public doesn’t consider because it is so invisible.
The primary challenge in this space is talent. We simply aren’t training enough people.
10. If you had the power to assign a book to everyone on earth to read and understand, which book would you choose?
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s an investigation into morality that unpacks how groups construct their own ethics. What Haidt does so well illustrates how cultures we might condemn as “evil” are just emphasizing different values to different extents. Though every group cares, at some level, about liberty, fairness, loyalty, and authority, political conservatives prioritize some traits much more highly than others. The same is true of liberals.
Haidt also makes it clear that we’re driven by intuition more than we might believe when it comes to moral judgments. He uses this metaphor of an elephant and its rider. While we all have a rational rider, we also have a much larger, more powerful elephant that represents our emotions. We may tell ourselves that the rider makes our moral decisions, but the elephant is often in charge.
11. How will future historians describe our current era?
We live in a historical inflection point in which two dominant visions of how the world ought to be governed are clashing. With its controlling and repressive regime, China has nevertheless demonstrated an ability to become an economic powerhouse through a very different political order. Simultaneously, the United States is struggling with a disaffected populace that cannot engage in a constructive dialogue about its collective vision for the future.
Equally, I think we are moving away from border-driven power struggles to economically-driven power struggles. While Ukraine may suggest otherwise, consider Russia's difficulty in overtaking a much smaller country through military might. Much of the impact of the war, here in the US and in nearly every country, is discussed with respect to the local economic impact.
Increasingly, governments are aware of corporations' power. Nation states are using companies (particularly social media businesses) to influence the body politic. In China, Jack Ma, the charismatic founder of Alibaba, largely disappeared from the public eye over the last two years after being sharply critical of the government. The power dynamic between corporations and governments will be interesting to watch, especially as crypto and web3 offer an alternative vision of the future in which currency and economic movement are controlled by code. This movement is more likely to catch on in developing countries, but as we know with startups, what seems like a niche movement can quickly become a disruptive force.
The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.