Company: Canaan Partners
Title: General Partner
Born in Finland, Nina Kjellson lived there and then in Sweden before her father’s legal work brought the family to the U.S. for what was expected to be about six months. Instead, it turned out to be a lifetime.
Kjellson (pronounced Shellson), who returns to Scandinavia often, credits its heritage of empowering women—think government-sponsored day care and socialized medicine—along with a supportive father and family with sculpting her into a person who believed she was not only capable of doing anything, but entitled to it.
“I self-identify as Scandinavian. ... It is a more egalitarian society and its social welfare has informed my experience and my sense of entitlement and expectation as a woman," she said. "Also my commitment to healthcare and to the kinds of medicines I am interested in backing. I am very informed by my upbringing.”
Kjellson knew at an early age she would work in healthcare, planning to become a physician. But life got in the way, and she “pivoted from a medical trajectory.” In 2000, she landed in the venture capital business at Interwest in Silicon Valley where she got a “baptism by fire.” Two years ago, she moved to Canaan Partners, where she could continue to invest in both biopharma and digital health technologies.
“What hooked me and kept me in VC was the privilege to work with some of the smartest people in the world and to partner with people at the top of the fields of science and medicine, always learning and stretching,” she recently mused.
She prizes the relationships she has developed along the way, and in turn, those she has worked with note she is a humble person with a “deep passion for the industry” and beloved by all entrepreneurs.
She is also “gratified and proud” of having a portfolio of successful investments. One of those was Labrys Biologics, which Teva bought in 2014 in a deal worth up to $850 million to get the the monoclonal antibody for chronic and high frequency migraines Labrys was developing.
While she has flourished at the intersection of VC and biotechnology, she realizes neither industry is an easy field for women to break into and succeed in. There is the “vicious cycle.” Men hire the people they know through the traditional male networks, meaning there are few experienced women to draw on.
So in addition to nurturing start-ups, Kjellson works to bring more women into the field and keep them there. She advocates for more women in the C-suite roles while actively pushing some for board slots on the companies with which she works. Like other women on the list, she keeps and constantly updates a list of women she has learned about whose skills and accomplishments would add depth to any company.
She is vocal to ensure the companies she works with have policies like those at Canaan Partners, that are inviting and retentive of a diverse workforce.
She would like to think that the industry is past the need to show that diversity delivers more creativity and dynamism. “I would like to think that that evidence is so overwhelming that it is bedrock. That now what we need to be talking about are the tactical strategies,” she says. " ... At Canaan, one of our vectors is in service of diversity.”
She is active in Women in Venture, or WoVen, Canaan's thought leadership and networking programs intended to cultivate community and support among women in tech, biotech and venture capital, and, of course, mentors. In fact, she does lot of networking and mentoring and sponsorship to advocate on behalf of minority populations.
While she grew up believing that “hard work would be the ultimate currency” of success, she had to find her own way to the top. She now tries to help women discover some of the tools she picked up to “fight the loneliness” of being in the minority in a male-dominated business. She also wants them to understand the importance of general self-care.
Kjellson is a voracious reader but also an outdoors person who hikes, bikes and paddleboards. “Nature is my religion,” she explains.
Her family is key, and she says she is “blessed” to have an “incredibly supportive husband who makes me laugh and two incredible step children,” including a teenaged stepdaughter, Julia, who she says has attended some WOVEN events and learned she has no limits as a woman.
Kjellson believes the business world is only getting better for young women like Julia. It has taken some very public scandals in Silicon Valley to get the dialogue going, but Kjellson says both the biotech and VC industries are now being demystified and are more welcoming to minorities of all kinds. It energizes and inspires her to see the strides and the differences they are making.
“On broad reflection, I have the feeling that on one hand biotech and venture capital are becoming more complex. The work feels more challenging and expansive,” she said. “And on other hand, it just gets better and better and more exciting.”