IVCA Profile: Outgoing Executive Director Maura O’Hara, on Her 20 Years with the Illinois Venture Capital Association

November 15, 2023

One of the key tributes at the upcoming IVCA Awards Dinner will be for Maura O’Hara, who has shepherded the association as Executive Director from 2003 to 2023 … her final year was as a transitional advisor to the new Executive Director Christie Pruyn. In her tenure, the IVCA has grown from practically its origins to an expansive influencer in the ever-evolving industries of Venture Capital and Private Equity, as well as their support partners. The IVCA will honor Maura O’Hara at the Awards Dinner she was instrumental in establishing, taking place on Monday, December 4th, 2023, at the Four Seasons in Chicago.

Maura had her primary career beginnings with Stevenson & Company, Helene Curtis and Sears Roebuck & Company. The day she transitioned out of Sears in 2003, a former colleague named Steve Bietler – who had founded Dunrath Capital in the still evolving Venture Capital industry – introduced Maura to the newly formed Illinois Venture Capital Association, and she began working on developing the membership. Six months later she was named Executive Director.

In that position, she oversaw the IVCA mission for strong Venture Capital and Private Equity industry advocation, with pro-growth policies working with the State of Illinois, educational programming, networking opportunities and partnerships with like-minded Chicago organizations … which included her seat on the board of  the 1871 incubator/accelerator and Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center.

Over her 20 career she has … as she describes below … facilitated connections between early stage and later stage firms, strengthened the link between the VC/PE industries with the State of Illinois, expanded outreach to like minded national and regional associations/organizations like the NVCA, and influenced Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Within the debt of gratitude owed to Maura O’Hara, the IVCA got the opportunity to interview her about her tenure, in the following profile.

IVCA: You spent your early career with Stevenson & Company, Helene Curtis and Sears Roebuck. What skills gained in that career track helped to propel you forward and led you to the IVCA?

Maura O’Hara: My first career was in investment banking. I worked for a boutique sell side firm with a wonderful boss named George Stevenson. George had been in consulting, owned a manufacturing business, and then came into banking. One of the things I learned from him was that there is no replacing the knowledge you learn from working in a company. 

I wanted operations experience, so I went to work at a Helene Curtis plant where I learned about matching sales forecasts to production lines. I stayed there for four years, after which I went to work in Strategy at Sears. It was a heady time with Arthur Martinez at the helm. He hired great C-Level merchants and introduced “The Softer Side of Sears.”  It was amazing to work with smart, accomplished people every day. I moved from Corporate Strategy to strategizing in a new business unit … Sears Home Central … which combined all the autonomously run home service businesses into one brand. I then moved into marketing for that unit, and then back to corporate Sears where I ran customer research. It was a remarkable eight years.

IVCA: Going back to your origins with the IVCA in 2003, what was your process in making the transition from corporate work to directing the association?

O’Hara: Toward the end of my time at Sears it was apparent that the focus on growth had been replaced with a focus on contraction. My children were very young, and I wanted more flexibility in my hours. When I left Sears, I had three criteria: Work downtown, work at a place that values outcomes and work with people smarter than me.

My great friend Steve Beitler, with whom I worked at Sears and Helene Curtis, was a Founding Member of IVCA and asked me to come and work on membership for a couple of days a week. IVCA was founded by Jim Downing, who had done an exceptional job building the organization from scratch and wanted a little help with operations. Within six months Jim decided to go back to grad school and I was asked to become Executive Director.

IVCA: In the first decade as Executive Director, what initiatives did you begin that became major accomplishments in moving the IVCA forward and into new project areas and innovations?

O’Hara: When I joined IVCA we were still reeling from the Venture Capital crash of the early 2000s. Our first order of business was to expand our membership because we realized that many of our members were not going to raise successor funds. Our board recognized that much of the work we were doing was also beneficial to Private Equity firms, so we began reaching out to later stage investors and let them know that our lobbying work was beneficial to them.

While most investors in private companies prefer to operate without much government interaction, we’ve learned that if State legislators do not understand the business model and benefits to the local economy, unintended consequences can be catastrophic.

IVCA: One of the areas of expertise within the IVCA is their lobbying arm in the Illinois State Capital. What have you learned about the legislative side of advocating for the VC and PE industries, and how have you seen government and the association best work together?

O’Hara: Legislators want to be well informed … it is our job to make that happen as it relates to private company investing. I’ve learned that legislators have very, very busy jobs and they must pivot from issue to issue on a dime.

Because of that, anything the IVCA could do to make it easier for them to understand our industries was really appreciated, and with those strong and collegial relationships with legislators it is much easier to avert disaster. When our members participate in legislator meetings, they always walk away with an appreciation for the job our friends in Springfield undertake on our behalf.

IVCA: You also sit on the board at the 1871 incubator/accelerator and have sat on other advisory boards associated with the city of Chicago and the VC/PE industries. What insight have you gained in these outside pursuits, that helped you become a more insightful director at the IVCA?

O’Hara: I learned that much more is accomplished working together without worrying about who gets credit. Chicago is a city of collaborators, and getting disparate groups together to focus on issues and outcomes together yields outstanding outcomes. 

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, then led by David Weinstein, recognized that connecting corporations to the startup community would result in economic growth and innovation. Working then with now Governor J.B. Pritzker – a founder of IVCA – and a team of local civic leaders, 1871 was created. 

Now we have a number of organizations focused on growing the entire pie … P33, TechNexus, iBio, World Business Chicago, Illinois Science & Tech Coalition, DPI, Chicago:Blend, Matter and many, many more. I could not have imagined all these organizations supporting each other 20 years ago and today it is a reality. Also working with the National Association serving private company Investors has also been a great experience in collaboration. IVCA was able to support and receive help from NVCA, AIC, SBIA and many regional associations. 

IVCA: From your IVCA career perspective, what programs or initiatives are you most proud of, and what has most satisfied you as they have grown in influence and importance?

O’Hara: I’m very proud that we have successfully connected early stage and later stage firms via the association. My dream has always been that we have a conveyor belt of funding available in the Midwest – that companies from the earliest stage to the buyout stage would find funding locally. I think we are a little closer to that.

I have also enjoyed working with Springfield. We can become cynical at the pace of change or the motivations of decisions. In my experiences, I have come to believe that within the interests in all of Illinois, that is what motivates legislators. And just asking questions is the best way to understand key decisions. 

IVCA: You’ve also been a prime mover in goals of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for the VC/PE industries and the association. What changes have you seen in your tenure, and what makes you optimistic that the industries are embracing DEI?

O’Hara: I firmly believe that what gets measured also gets managed and moved. As our industry has matured, firms are able to look around for ways to create more value for their investors. They have created functional expertise that can add value across a portfolio, they have brought in executives who can lead an organization, and in recognizing that diverse teams yield superior results they have actively worked to diversify their teams both within the firms and inside their portfolio companies. Change will be generational, but the effort will yield great results.

IVCA: Finally, in this long career ride with the IVCA, I’m sure there are many people you could thank, but are there any colleagues or mentors you’d like to acknowledge in that tenure, as you evolve to your next journey?

O’Hara: Too many to mention! I came to IVCA thanks to my dear friend … the late, great Steve Beitler. I miss him dearly and am grateful to him for bringing me into the   IVCA. And very little of what was accomplished in my tenure would have happened without Kathy Pyne … it was amazing to work with someone who could focus on the details and execute flawlessly every time.

Also without the members who have been willing to volunteer on committees, the IVCA would be nowhere. The ideas, insights and connections from those volunteers resulted in all the programming we have and every legislative success. And finally I was fortunate to work with 16 great Chairpersons over my tenure and I learned so much from each of them. I am pleased to consider them friends today. 

Kirkand & Ellis LLP presents the 2023 IVCA Annual Awards Dinner on December 4th, 2023, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. For info and updates, click here.

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