Two Minutes with a VC: Sonia Gokhale of Dubai’s VentureSouq

Two Minutes with a VC is a series of quick interviews with VCs from the Middle East & North Africa. 

Sonia is one of the Founding Partners of VentureSouq, a Dubai-based investment platform that enables individuals to invest in high-growth technology companies all around the world. VentureSouq’s portfolio includes over 90 startups including the big names like Andela, Frontier Car Group, Onfido, What3Words, Zoomcar, Telfaz11, and Souqalmal.

Previously, Sonia was a consultant to an investment professional in the Global Special Situations Group of Abu Dhabi Investment Council (ADIC), a large sovereign wealth fund based in the UAE, focusing on venture capital and tech deals. Prior to this role, she was an Actuarial Consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting in its Dubai and Toronto offices.

She obtained a BSc from the University of Toronto (with distinction) and majored in Actuarial Science and Statistics and is a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries. Here’s our quick chat with her.

How’d you get into venture capital?

I started as an angel investor. My husband and co-founder at VentureSouq, Suneel, and I were previously investing in traditional asset classes – real estate, listed shares, etc. But, we were young and wanted to take on riskier investments. The fear of missing out got the best of me and we started to make a few angel investments before we moved to Dubai. Those investments taught me so much about how to be an investor and what to look for and what to be wary of in terms of red flags. It was not long before we were actively looking for more opportunities. We started VentureSouq along with our other partners Sonia Weymuller, Maan Eshgi and Tammer Qaddumi to create a platform to democratize investing in early-stage tech companies and make global venture deals are more accessible.

What’s a day in your life as a VC like?

Every day is very different. Some days we are fund-raisers and other days we are screening companies, but every day we are investors that are looking to invest in start-ups that are changing the world. My day is usually filled with meetings with investors or family offices looking to invest into VentureSouq opportunities or start-ups looking for funding. Everyone on our team rolls up their sleeves and due diligences the companies in our pipeline for a potential VentureSouq investment. I’m an actuary so I enjoy sinking into the financials/projections and key metrics of the business. Since VentureSouq has a global portfolio the day moves from meetings to calls with the rest of the world as Africa, Europe, and the US wake up for the day. My workday usually ends with calls with portfolio companies, companies looking for funding and other VC investors we co-invest with in the US/Bay Area.

What is it that you love about being a VC?

Since we are investors that are global and sector agnostic, we get to see the latest technologies from all over the world. The is the best part of the job. We get to witness innovation as it evolves, which I consider a real privilege.

What is it that you look for in startups/founders when making an investment?

Our best founders are all on a mission to build a product or service that solves a real-life problem; basically, something that the world is not doing efficiently. I look for founders that are incredibly hard-working, that reach for the stars but are able to identify their own limits and fill those gaps. A good founder is insanely curious, a problem solver and knows her business and the industry she is disrupting inside and out.

What’s the biggest turn-off for you in a startup pitch?

Egos are the biggest turn-off. A start-up is about learning and adapting.

A piece of advice for first-time founders?

Focus on fundamentals, the rest is smoke, mirrors, and hype. If your business is solving an inefficiency in the world or a real-life problem, is scalable to a large market and your product can be offered at a price that has good, healthy margins – you’ve got a winning combination.

If you could go back in time and invest in one MENA-based startup that’s not in your portfolio, who would that be?

Of course Careem! Careem was just slightly before our time, as institutional investors at VentueSouq. It’s a great success story for the region that paved the way for so many start-ups to follow. Careem was able to expand across the MENA region (which still is a challenge), customize the product for the local markets and is a very desirable place for people to work through its internal culture.

You have made investments in many American & Indian startups as well. What’s one thing you’d want MENA to learn from those ecosystems?

We travel to the US and India often searching for innovative start-ups. There are a few things that both American and Indian start-ups have in common – high quality, hard-working, well-educated founders and teams, large addressable markets and the ability to produce a product with healthy gross margins. MENA has all of these things, we just need to make it easier to expand/scale across the region.

What’s your favorite tech product/tool?

I’m a sucker for any app that makes my life easier. I am a mom of a young toddler so, like many moms, I need to juggle work and home life. There is no time to roam the aisles of the grocery store so I run our household on my phone! I use the latest local apps for grocery delivery, dry cleaning, shoe repair, shopping for diapers and even petrol for the car. My life is infinitely easier because everything gets delivered to my front door and is well-priced.

Sonia can be reached on Twitter or LinkedIn

Zubair Naeem Paracha
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