Strong Voice Interview #29: Laura Plunkett
We are absolutely delighted to present Laura as our Strong Voice for this month. She is not only one of the best MBA friends and mentor of Steffi, our COO, but also a successful role model for numerous women. Laura's remarkable career trajectory in male-dominated industries, rising from humble beginnings, and her unwavering commitment to empowering women make her an outstanding role model. Her inspiring journey showcases how success and support are attainable for everyone and through this interview, Laura teaches us that career doesn’t need to follow a red thread - sometimes it’s worth saying “yes” to unexpected opportunities.
"I believe it's about a balance of strategic career decisions and the willingness to say "yes" to unexpected opportunities - you never know where it might lead."
Laura Plunkett - Executive Director, Startup Engagement at Comcast NBCUniversal
You've gone through different stages in your career - you started in financial planning and then moved into venture capital and start-up engagement. What factors were decisive for you to take this path?
I started my career in finance and consulting mainly because I was unsure what I wanted to do exactly, and these fields provided a lot of variety. However, over time, I realized that I desired a change. After my time at business school, I got the fantastic opportunity to lead a venture capital team at a French manufacturing company. There, I discovered my passion for this function and have remained faithful to it since 2016. I'd like to claim that my career has been charted with intentionality, but sometimes life happens and plans change. A good example of this was when I got the chance to move to Shanghai, China, early in my career. It was very disruptive at the time, but I can honestly say that this moment has sustainably changed my life for the better. It completely altered the course of my life and career. I believe it's about a balance of strategic career decisions and the willingness to say "yes" to unexpected opportunities - you never know where it might lead.
What helped you the most to follow your path and pursue your goals? What factors motivated you? Did you have a particular "mantra"?
The motivation that determines my career path is very personal. It's not particularly inspiring or glamorous, but it's authentic and based on how I grew up - and that's my desire to be comfortable financially and to care for the people I love. I never wanted to be dependent on someone to take care of me. This has definitely influenced some of my career decisions. Honestly, the best decisions I have made were those driven by the encouragement of my wonderful community of women. I am fortunate enough to have friendships from all walks of life and consider myself lucky to have this incredibly talented, loving, and supportive group of women by my side who are always there for me, in good and bad times, both personally and professionally.
You are/were in very male-dominated industries - what experiences did you have as a woman in a leadership position? What were the most challenging situations and what did you learn from them?
I have worked in several male-dominated industries, from the financial industry on Wall Street to corporate venture capital, and have gained many experiences. I've experienced everything, from people who thought I must be an admin and get them coffee, to unpleasant and gross interactions with colleagues on business trips or at events. What I learned from this situation is that there should be more women in these fields. There should be no male-dominated industries or jobs. My biggest advice is always work hard, but create a lot of space for more women! Bring younger colleagues to events, help them assert and lead, and make sure more seats are provided at the table. I think this is a long-term game, but it's the game that should be played.
How do you balance work and private life?
Hmm. Choose life. I don’t always follow this rule, but choose life more often than you choose work. Go to the theater. Get your workouts in. Enjoy a dinner out with friends. Make it to your kid’s sport. There are very few jobs where the work won’t still be there in the morning, or on Monday and it’s important to remember that.
You are very actively involved in the advancement of women, both voluntarily and politically: how did your interest and involvement in this area come about?
When I think about my devotion and passion for women, I wonder if it might be a particularly American perspective. But I have seen women in my life who could not make the right decisions for themselves and their families due to lack of economic security. I believe this security starts at a very early age - through access to good education, food security, and healthcare. Sometimes these issues are viewed as “women's issues”, but I think they are human issues. If we address them correctly, everyone benefits. I myself am the product of public schools and received government grants and financial aid to finance my studies. Now, I am a very financially productive member of society. Good things happen when you provide people with support when they need it, and I think it's especially important to stress that these are not handouts or charity. It's smart and gives a good return on investment if you want to look at it that way.
You are also very active in supporting Female Founders - be it in your consulting work or as an investor. What do you think is especially important to support Female Founders in their development?
I saw Sallie Krawcheck speak a few months ago who I love. There was a quote that stuck with me, which is “Nothing bad happens when women have more money” and the fact is… only 2% of venture funding goes to women. And it gets worse when you think about black women. Flip that around… 98% of venture funding goes to men. That is systemic, that is structural, that is stupid. So the support female founders need is access to capital. Write the check. Fund them.
If you were to give one piece of advice to young women who are just starting their careers, what would it be? What tip would you have wished for back then?
This is a great question! It’s hard to narrow in on just one piece of advice. I’d say… talk about money more. When you get a job offer, ask around to see if that feels right. Ask your girlfriends, but ask your guy friends too. Negotiate. You are not being ungrateful. And if it feels hard to do it for yourself, think about it like you’re negotiating on behalf of all women that come after you.
Laura Plunkett is a multifaceted professional who holds the position of Executive Director of Startup Engagement at Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs. Beyond her role in the company, she stands out as an exceptional finance expert, a visionary strategist, and a skilled leader, consistently discovering creative opportunities to fulfill customer requirements and enhance market optimization. Her extensive experience spans across diverse roles both in the United States and abroad, with a notable two-year stint in Shanghai, China, where she made significant contributions to sustainable development initiatives.