In one of her first acts as a start-up investor, actress Priyanka Chopra recently toured the San Francisco home of her new portfolio company, a coding education company called Holberton School.
The campus resembles a WeWork more than a school, with open-plan rows of desks, decorative neon lights and meeting rooms named after famous people. The school uses projects and group learning instead of more traditional courses, to teach software development. “You just hang out and you’re learning,” Chopra said. “It’s amazing.”
Chopra, 36, has been doing a lot of hanging out and learning in technology circles lately. In between presenting at the Emmys, sitting in the front row at New York Fashion Week, celebrating the birthday of her fiance, Nick Jonas, in Texas, and darting to her native India to act in a movie, she has squeezed in meetings with start-up founders and lined up future investments.
“Geeks are taking over the world,” Chopra said. “If they haven’t already,” she quickly added.
There’s no shortage of celebrities investing in tech start-ups. So far, deals from male actors, athletes and musical artists have garnered much more attention than those from famous women. Ashton Kutcher is a regular at tech conferences; Carmelo Anthony and Nas have their own funds; Leonardo DiCaprio has been an adviser to at least three venture firms.
Tyra Banks, Beyonce and Demi Lovato have participated in start-up deals. But few women have built robust portfolios.
Chopra said she did not yet know how many deals she will do or how much money she would invest, but she does plan on building a portfolio.
On Wednesday, she announced her second investment, in Bumble, a dating and social media app founded by Whitney Wolfe Herd, one of the most prominent start-up founders in tech. Chopra plans to help promote Bumble’s launch in India in the coming months.
Chopra was introduced to tech investing by her manager, Anjula Acharia, a founder angel investor who spent time as an entrepreneur-in-residence and partner at Trinity Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Acharia has worked with Chopra since 2010.
Acharia was the first investor in ClassPass, a fitness booking start-up; she made a return on the company’s most recent round of funding. She’s also invested in Bulletproof Coffee, Health-Ade Kombucha and The Muse.
She said Jimmy Iovine, a mentor who backed her entertainment start-up, DesiHits, taught her how to anticipate cultural trends.
Acharia has straddled Hollywood and Silicon Valley says that, as an Indian woman, she has been a rarity in both worlds. On weekends, at the Hollywood parties she has frequented with Chopra, Acharia noticed they were often the only South Asians in attendance.
Then, on weekday meetings with entrepreneurs and partners at Trinity Ventures, she was often the only woman. “I was always a minority,” she said.
With Holberton involvement, Acharia and Chopra are making an effort to help change the tech industry’s gender disparity. After the musical performer Ne-Yo invested in Holberton and began to promote the school to his fans, applications from underrepresented minorities increased. Now, two thirds of Holberton’s students are people of colour, and 30 per cent are women.
Chopra plans to promote the school to her fans as well.
“If one day, because of Priyanka, it became 100 per cent women, I’d be cool with that,” Acharia said.
Founded in 2015, Holberton teaches students to code for free, then charges 17 per cent of their paycheck for 3 1/2 years after they graduate. All of its graduates have found jobs. Chopra’s investment is part of an $8.2 million round of funding for Holberton which closed in April. She will join the company’s board of advisers.
Chopra emphasised her support for Holberton’s mission to educate people from underprivileged backgrounds. Her investments will skew heavily toward companies with an element of social impact, and companies founded by women.
“I don’t want to just be one of those people who’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to be on the tech bandwagon — how are they making so much money,’” she said, surveying the Holberton workspace in a cream pantsuit and snakeskin stilettos. “It’s not about that.”
Chopra has worked with Unicef to advocate for children since 2006, focused mostly on developing nations. But a dinner conversation with Acharia around the time of the 2016 election turned to education in America. That led Acharia to introduce Chopra to the Holberton School’s founders.
“I think Holberton was the gateway drug for Priyanka,” Acharia said.
Kutcher’s venture firm, Sound Ventures, is often cited as the most successful example of a celebrity investing in tech start-ups. Kutcher’s investments, made while working alongside talent manager Guy Oseary, include several of this tech wave’s most successful start-ups, like Airbnb, Uber and Spotify, as well hot up-and-comers like Bird and Casper.
At a recent conference, Kutcher was asked to offer advice to the scores of celebrities and athletes joining the tech investing fray. Kutcher said he dedicated a lot of time to becoming a credible venture capitalist, including attending every Y Combinator demo day for the past decade.
“If you want to have a job, you’ve got to do the work. It takes time, and a ton of mistakes,” he said.
Chopra said she found Kutcher’s investment approach inspiring.
“I’m extremely open to listening, learning and absolutely dedicating a part of my life to this,” she said.
Acharia plans to keep presenting her with new investment ideas. “Maybe we’re the new Ashton and Guy,” she said.