On the Rocks with Tess Hatch
By SYDNEY BALLARD (Duke 2023)
Note: this interview was conducted in late-March of 2021.
“I imagine a future where we all travel to space with the frequency in which we currently travel in an aircraft.”
Tess Hatch has an incredibly cool name, but she represents an even cooler story of how a teenager exposed to STEM in high school can carve her path into what has now secured her a spot in the highly-coveted Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in the Venture Capital category while currently holding a Partner title at Bessemer Venture Partners (and she has even been featured in Bloomberg discussing aerospace startup acquisitions). Hatch is a person who inspires many of us who are newly entering tech to reach for the stars (quite literally). She has not only worked at companies in the likes of SpaceX, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and seemingly countless other super insanely cool aerospace companies before becoming involved in VC, but she is also immensely kind and candid. Our hour with Tess highlighted some key details of how a once curious child grew into a full-fledged tech badass.
Growing up in Los Angeles, California, Tess Hatch fortuitously attended the same high school as Sally Ride (the first American woman to go to space). In some crazy stroke of luck, Ride returned to the school to give a speech during one of Hatch’s years of attendance. Hatch recounts this as a sort of core memory and one that inspired her with the idea that she could pursue STEM; and frankly, the rest is history.
“She looked like me, I can do that!”
(According to an article about representation in STEM from the International Journal of STEM Education, there is immense importance in “meeting and being mentored in STEM by those of their same gender and ethnicity, either in person or through media.” Tess Hatch’s recounting of this experience only seems to further support the cruciality of representation.)
Following this newfound interest in engineering, Hatch aligned her academic and professional efforts to get into the aerospace industry. She joined a women in engineering program at MIT the summer before her high school graduation and then later secured an internship at NASA’s iconic Jet Propulsion Lab, where she personally experienced the “seven minutes of terror” in mission control for the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars in August of 2012 (she had been invited back for this after being a part of the rover’s final preparations almost a full year before its launch). She quotes this event as “the very moment that convinced me to pursue aerospace engineering” in a story published on Stanford’s engineering website.
Quick explanation of the “seven minutes of terror” (paraphrasing this short, informative video from NASA): Once the rover reaches the end of our Earth’s atmosphere, there are at least seven minutes before mission controls receives the signal of whether or not the rover has successfully landed on Mars.
Following her education at the University of Michigan where she studied aerospace engineering, Hatch briefly worked at SpaceX. She recounts the Falcon 9 launch days as triggering the same riveting, nostalgic emotions she experienced during the landing of Curiosity. After her stint at SpaceX she returned to academia to complete a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She jokes that this is all in an effort to “strengthen her application” for NASA’s astronaut program, revealing she was not selected for the recent Artemis program (but we have no doubts that a lunar mission could be in her future considering the passion and intellect she carries through the work she does and the conversations she carries).
Q & A
How do you see the accessibility of space travel unfolding?
“It’s about companies that are turning theories into reality… I believe as space continues to open for business, the barrier of entry gets lower and lower.”
Referencing aerospace startups in her VC portfolio, Rocketlab (their products were second to SpaceX as the most frequently launched rocket in the U.S. in 2020, having deployed over a hundred satellites in space at the time of this interview) and Spire Global (operating the largest general purpose CubeSat — think tiny satellite — constellation), Hatch describes the two companies as having “unique and proven technology” that are experiencing “hyper-growth” while both having founders named Peter (could this be the ultimate predictive trifecta of aerospace startup success?). As of August 2021, Rocketlab’s SPAC Vector Acquisition valued the now-public company at $4.8 billion; also in August of 2021, Spire Global’s SPAC merger with NavSight secured a valuation of $1.6 billion.
Hatch highlights the imperative nature of understanding current cutting-edge technologies (such as the work done by Rocketlab and Spire Global) as a basis for predicting the future of something like human space travel.
“I’m really excited for the next generation of space companies to follow in Rocketlab and Spire’s footsteps… and the path that Rocketlab and Spire have paved for startup space companies to be available to public markets.”
Hatch brings up the point of a multi-faceted use case for the growing urge to further explore space; as more “assets” are launched into space, there are growing business use cases that would align with the need for further extra-planetary exploration. Outside of the “coolest” example of space tourism as what Hatch coins as “pretty far-out, fun ideas,” she points out the potential use of something like manufacturing in space — “what if we remove gravity?” Using the example of the inventions of CT and MRI scanning technology as a byproduct of the Apollo mission.
This conversation relating to the expansion of space exploration highlighted another crucial point Hatch makes:
“We need to be responsible for our space… we need to be conscious of how we leave and treat our space.”
“Rocketlab has not left any debris in space,” Hatch shared proudly. She emphasizes: “we are being ethical,” and urges all other aerospace companies to do the same. She has even written an article about the importance of space debris removal.
Were there any specific instances that opened your eyes to venture capital and other business ventures that urged you to pivot from strictly engineering?
“I did not know what venture capital was or that it even existed before getting into grad school.”
“It’s intertwined in everything in Northern California,” referencing the tech bubble of Palo Alto in which Stanford University is located. It seems Hatch is suggesting the fact that a knowledge or involvement in VC someway or somehow is unavoidable in the Palo Alto entrepreneurial echo chamber she found herself in while getting her master’s. This exposure to the venture capital space has proven to be a crucial inflection point of her career, switching from highly-technical roles to ones that perfectly leverage her engineering skillset while growing her platform to influence new, exciting startups that are changing the world as we know it (BTW you can see her portfolio here).
She was specifically introduced to venture capital when she was selected for the Threshold Ventures Fellowship during her master’s at Stanford that introduced tech entrepreneurship and venture capital principles in a weekly two-hour class that sometimes included live startup pitches. Hatch recounts the time passing so quickly and always wishing the sessions could be longer.
In the second half of the fellowship program, Hatch was paired with an aero-astro PhD to pitch a product idea that related to space in front of Steve Jurvetson (Founding and Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson and board member of SpaceX amongst other magnificently impressive roles and titles) for two hours. It was through this fellowship that Hatch found her passion for deep tech investing, in commercial spaces specifically — drones, autonomous vehicles, and food and agriculture technology.
“My favorite part is partnering and working with my CEOs and founders… who I talk to sometimes more than my own friends and family.”
What do you look for in a company that you are considering investing in?
“At the highest level, there are four things that entrepreneurs should explain when pitching to a venture capitalist:
1. What is the problem you’re solving?
2. What is unique or special about your solution?
3. Who are your customers? Who’s going to pay for your solution?
4. Most importantly, why you? Why are you uniquely positioned to solve this problem?”
Hatch expands upon these points, stressing the importance of “falling in love with your problem” in order to truly achieve success in the startup world. She uses an example of building a bridge to cross a body of water and poses some questions — what materials do I need? How do I build it? Etc… The important question to be asking here instead of HOW does one build a bridge is WHY do you need to build it in the first place? If your ultimate goal is just to get across the water, there may be a more effective way to do so than by building a bridge. What if we build a tunnel? Or fly over the water? Why do we even need to get to the other side of the water? She sheds light on the fact that founders oftentimes become so obsessed with building their solution and creating a product that they lose sight of whether or not they’re effectively addressing the problem in the best possible way. “We don’t need to fall in love with building the bridge. We need to fall in love with getting to the other side of the water.”
In summary: Tess urges us to “have your North Star,” but to not be so rigid in your plan to reach it.
How do you feel being a woman in venture capital?
Hatch whips out her stats for this questions. She enlightens us with the percentage of female decision makers (check-writing partners) in U.S. venture capital firms over the past few years that has inched up from 5.7% to 12.4% in the period of 2016 to 2020.
“There’s a lot of work we need to do in this industry… in a lot of industries.”
She reveals a deep sense of gratitude she feels for the women who came before her in the VC space, “I am so grateful for the women who trail-blazed the industry ahead of me and allowed me to follow in their footsteps.” She takes time to specifically thank Heidi Roizen, the professor (now friend) from the Threshold Ventures Fellows program Hatch was a part of at Stanford (the one that sparked her entrepreneurial passion). She also credits Gwynne Shotwell, current President and COO of SpaceX, as an inspiration.
“When Gwynne Shotwell walks down the rocket aisle floor with her red-sole Louboutin heels commanding authority, but in a very feminine way, it is inspiring.”
“We want it to be 50% male, 50% female.”
“It’s not just gender. There are so many factors of diversity that are incredibly important that we need to work on.” Hatch points out the equal importance of representation for demographic factors of qualities that are “under the iceberg.” These include first-generation student status, socioeconomic status growing up, where your parents are from, etc.
Hatch sees a brighter future for our world — whether that be regarding the expansion of space exploration, the advancement of other technologies, or the increased representation of all backgrounds in STEM. She is contributing to that brighter future by her work at Bessemer Venture Partners and by inspiring and mentoring undergraduates in aerospace as a mentor for the Brooke Owens Fellowship. As a successful woman in engineering and venture capital, Tess Hatch is a prime example of how powerful and capable you can become when you find your passion, latch onto it, and carve out an individualized path that allows you exercise your skills and intellect all while making the world a better place.