Nasir Qadree entered the world of venture capital six years ago, beginning with a role at Village Capital in Washington, then as an associate director of social investments at AT&T.
Qadree encountered even more opportunities to join established venture firms recently. In fact, he says that after deciding early last year to embark on launching his own firm — and garnering capital commitments for it — he became quite interesting to investors who tried bringing him aboard their own organizations.
He gets it, he says. “I think it’s great that organizations want to find new lines of business through their connections with fund managers who have differentiated sourcing and who will yield, I’d imagine, a more diversified portfolio.”
Still, he wasn’t going to hitch his wagon to another firm once he got going. “Venture capital is a wealth-creating business,” says Qadree. “I’m a first-generation college student. I grew up in the projects [and became] president” of numerous student-led organizations at his alma mater, Hampton University.
“I think it’s up to someone like myself and people who are constantly being asked these questions to have strong conviction around how to think about building your franchise. I’ve been through so much to get to this point that to give up my equity, give up my branding and ideas” was not going to happen, he says.
Qadree’s bet on himself appears to be paying off. His Washington-based venture firm, Zeal Capital Partners, today announced that it has closed its oversubscribed subscribed first fund with $62.1 million, making it one of the largest funds to be raised by a solo general partner to date. It was initially targeting $25 million.
That Qadree’s pitch resonated so widely isn’t surprising. Zeal is focused primarily on two sectors that are being reshaped fast: financial tech and the future of work. The themes play neatly into the firm’s overarching thesis around inclusive investing, meaning in this case that the startups that interest Zeal need in some way to address the yawning economic inequality in the U.S.
The firm’s current portfolio — it has announced five investments publicly — offers a flavor of what’s to come. For example, Kanarys, is a three-year-old SaaS platform that provides metrics to help companies prioritize and optimize diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the workplace. Zeal led its $3 million seed round, joined by Revolution’s Rise of the Rest seed fund and others.
Meanwhile, three-year-old Esusu automates credit building by reporting its customers’ monthly rent payments to credit bureaus in an effort to boost their credit score. The app also allows users to pool and withdraw money for big-ticket transactions, then reports the fulfillment of those obligations to credit bureaus to improve their credit profiles. Forbes wrote about the company — which has raised $4 million in seed funding — last August.
Kanarys’s and Esusu’s founders are Black, as is Qadree. But Qadree isn’t exclusively funding Black founders or Latino founders or women-led teams (though women founders currently represent 40% of the portfolio). While he says he is leaning into empowering founders who have been underrepresented in the tech world for decades, “being Black doesn’t mean we will only fund Black and brown entrepreneurs.”
He says he is far more focused on ensuring that a team has a specific strategy to evolve (quickly) into a more diverse group if it doesn’t start that way. Says Qadree, “If you’re building out a fintech company that’s rethinking FICO scores and you’re an all-white team, you have to show us that diversifying your management team is top of mind, that you recognize your blind spot.”
Zeal is also focused on founders who are outside of major tech hubs like the Bay Area, New York and Boston. These “secondary markets” as Qadree calls them (using air quotes during a Zoom call), are just as important to Zeal’s mission around inclusive investing. “We want to level the playing field geographically so that an entrepreneur in Nashville or Detroit receives their fair share of investment capital, just as the Harvard grad who lives in Silicon Valley and is an alum of Google.”
Zeal’s new fund is anchored by investors Truist and Paypal, with additional investments from Synchrony Financial, the Skoll Foundation, Foot Locker, DC’s RockCreek, Hampton University Endowment, Southern New Hampshire University and Gary Community Investment.
It also counts as investors numerous individuals who are also advising the firm, including NEA co-founder Frank Bonsal and Wes Moore, the former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation (and current gubernatorial candidate in Maryland).
Not last, Qadree has brought into the fold several operating partners, including Rachel Williams, who is the head of equity, inclusion and diversity at X, the “moonshot factory” that is part of Alphabet; and Kam Syed, a senior sales and business development exec at Amazon.
Pictured above, left to right: Andy Will, a senior associate with Zeal; Nicole Wardlaw, an analyst with the firm; Nasir Qadree; Nicole West, an executive in residence who was formerly a managing director with Legg Mason; and Jason Green, who co-founded SkillSmart and is also now an executive in residence with Zeal.