Erin is an early-stage technology investor focused on enterprise software and AI, with an emphasis on data, infrastructure, security, and automation. She is especially interested in products and technologies that increase resilience, foster collaboration and creativity, and support data-driven decision making throughout organizations.
Before joining Index, Erin was Head of Product for Palantir’s data analytics and machine learning platform. She holds an MSc from Oxford in Mathematics and Computer Science, where she focused on applications of algebraic topology to machine learning and computer science, and a BS in Engineering from Stanford University.
What do you look for in AI investments?
ERIN – My experience leading Product at Palantir helped shape how I think about AI and more specifically machine learning. Even though the field has advanced so much in the last few years, I think the core principles have remained the same. Effective AI starts with a workflow that combines “human-shaped tasks” with “computer-shaped tasks” and builds a product experience that allows that workflow to feel more and more magical over time as a model learns from the human-generated data. Everything else - all the neat technical underpinnings that I love to geek out over - are just details, subservient to the core workflow. The developments I’m most excited about in this space are (1) the movement from async to real-time workflows and (2) the massive improvements to pre-trained models which can help teams get started right away, without a dedicated data science org and a lot of labeled data.
What are the characteristics of effective teams?
ERIN – I spent years leading teams before becoming an investor so I like to get into the weeds of how to build high-performance cultures. One of my (maybe more controversial) frameworks is that good teams are either machines or cults, and you should know which one you’re building. With both, you’re looking for an output that is greater than the sum of its parts, but the patterns of work, structures, and even types of people you hire can be radically different. Cults tend to have a unifying mission that drives everyone but beyond that, they’re often chaotic and lack a formal structure. Leaders rise and fall as they assert true ownership over problems they are passionate about, and productivity comes in waves. Machines have a lot more structure, people are motivated by a set of goals and work together with a clear understanding of their role as part of a whole. I’ve found that a lot of company growing pains come from not having a clear idea of what type of organization they are building.
What motivates you as an investor?
ERIN – Becoming an investor was never on my to-do list and Venture Capital can often devolve into the type of echo chamber that I’ve always tried to avoid. But as I was thinking about how to maximize my impact post-Palantir on problems I care about - e.g. security, privacy, AI that supports the dignity of human work, climate - VC sort of pulled me in almost out of necessity. It wasn’t an easy transition from operating to investing because you lose the day-to-day, week-to-week output that helps you measure progress. Investors love to try to mimic that, but as much as we might tell ourselves otherwise it’s not the same as the satisfaction of shipping something to a customer that creates value. That said, now that I’ve been at this for awhile, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even on my darkest days, when I’m worrying about the future of humanity, the founders I meet who are tackling real and complicated and not always black-and-white challenges give me hope. Their bravery is inspiring and incredibly motivating.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
ERIN – I grew up in rural Arizona and have always felt most at home in wide open spaces. So when I returned to the bay area after a stint in London, my partner and I moved to an off-the-grid property in unincorporated Marin County, north of San Francisco. We have 10 acres which comprises protected forestland plus a small farm, and are trying our hand at a kind of millennial version of homesteading. Sometimes I’ll be on a call with a founder and a bobcat or a family of deer will walk by my office window, which I love. But it also means that a lot of my free time is spent figuring out how to prevent the wilderness from fully taking over. It’s not always convenient - there’s no Doordash or Uber and we worry about wildfires and the well running dry - but living so close to nature helps me keep things in context.