10 Questions for Hercules Technology Growth Capital CFO Jessica Baron
Name: Jessica Baron
Time with company: Almost 6 years
Education: Bachelor of Arts in human biology and Master of Arts in sociology from Stanford University; MBA with an emphasis in finance from the Haas Business School, University of California at Berkeley
Company headquarters: Palo Alto, California
Countries of operation: U.S.
Number of employees total: 50
Number of employees the CFO oversees: 8
CFO's areas of responsibility: Accounting processes and financial reporting, some operational duties, mainly serving the loan portfolio
About the company: Hercules Technology Growth Capital provides customized loans to public and private technology-related companies, including clean technology, life science and select lower middle-market technology companies at all stages of development. The company has committed more than US$2.8 billion to over 200 companies.
1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I started at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Internet go-go years and worked with a lot of startups as well as some venture capital firms and really enjoyed the venture space. It quickly became clear that a life of auditing or consulting was not for me, and I left PWC to join Dominion Ventures, which also had a debt portfolio -- unusual for a venture firm.
When the Internet bubble popped, Dominion scaled back, and I went to work for Levi Strauss, which was an entirely different experience. I had always wanted exposure to retail and I got that -- working for an iconic, 100-plus-year-old apparel company in a finance role supporting the U.S. sales team. As my family moved down the San Francisco peninsula, it made sense to work in technology and I spent a few years at Cisco Systems.
Eventually, I wanted to return to the investment field and to work for a small company again. At that time the opportunity at Hercules was available and I joined the team in 2006. The highlights of my past experiences are present at Hercules. This is a public company with a small company feel. Here at Hercules, we provide debt financing to venture capital backed startup companies in technology related sectors including life science, and clean technology spaces. With almost all of our debt investments we receive a warrant, or an option to purchase equity in our portfolio companies.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I think the most influential manager I had was the CFO at Dominion Ventures debt company. He came to Dominion with an experience leading at both large and small firms.
The CEO at Dominion was very ambitious and aggressive and the CFO calibrated that energy effectively. At the same time, he did a great job of nurturing and cultivating his employees. He was level headed and managed to keep everything in perspective. He showed me how to deal with the unpredictable internal and external challenges, such as the internet crash. He built a great team and fostered a very positive environment for everyone to work in.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
Within our industry, a big challenge has been the implementation of some of the changes to the valuation accounting rules. We hold different types of positions in around 200 companies. As a Business Development Company (BDC), we are required to quarterly mark to market each and every one of these investments. Because we have an extremely unique portfolio of illiquid investments in venture backed startup companies, it has been a challenge to create a valuation process that applies the rules -- based on "a current market approach"-- without unnecessarily wasting resources.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
A good day for me is when I'm working on lots of different elements of the Hercules business, especially those related to our portfolio. Every day is different. We could be engaged in treasury functions to support our investment activities in the morning, and then later, in discussions with leaders on how we plot a course on the changing landscape in the U.S., especially as it relates to life science or technology investing.
I really enjoy supporting the talented individuals that we have on the front lines -- whether it be on deal origination or credit management, or within the finance team performing financial analysis or executing our quarterly close. A great day is when I see the Hercules team executing to the best of their abilities in these areas and even expanding their capabilities.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I'm fairly organic and natural and not someone who goes through a three-point plan in addressing my team. I really like to see people coming up with their own ideas and then I help shape them.
Having people out on the front lines be successful is really more important than me being successful. I'm here to help them, is the way I view my role.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
I look for people who have a good fit with our culture -- specifically quick-thinking, intelligence and someone who wants to work really, really hard in a fast-paced environment.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
I like for people to provide their thought process about a problem they've encountered and how they've addressed it. I'm generally not satisfied with one-word answers. Candidates should explain their logic and their thought process. I want to see that there are lights on upstairs.
If I'm interviewing for a leadership position, for someone who will be managing the success of others, it's very important for them to explain how they set out that road map for people. It's always a big red flag for me when people say I want to lead because they think it is simply the next step in their career progression. I think there's a lot of responsibility embedded in that, where you have the success of others on your back.
It concerns me when someone says something that sounds like a mindless check-the-box. If someone says I want to be a manager or I want to be a CEO someday, I want to know how they got to that conclusion. If there's no thought process, no logic behind it, then we can't afford to have people like that here.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?
We are such a unique company. We're publicly traded and we provide customized debt financing solutions. There are only a few of us out there.
We, as well as many of the other BDCs, have been active in the debt and equity capital markets lately. This isn't about just closing the books -- this is about optimizing our balance sheet and I think that's really exciting work.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
I don't know if unwind is part of my vocabulary. I have a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old at home. I go from this fast-paced environment to a joyfully chaotic environment at home. I would not have it any other way.
10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
I would probably have some sort of role at an investment company with a little bit more balance and a little less time on the road. I'd spend more time with my family; maybe I'd pick up some hobbies. But I love what I do.