😇 Angel interview #18: Chenelle Ansah

"Instead of focusing on the cheque size, focus on how you can support the founder and add value."

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Here’s today’s edition:

  • 🔍 Interview with Chenelle Ansah, angel, partner at Cornerstone Partners & consultant

  • 📚 Reading corner

🔍 Interview with Chenelle Ansah, angel, partner at Cornerstone Partners & consultant

Chenelle is the head of Cornerstone Partners, an angel syndicate whose mission is to discover and invest in amazing founders from black and diverse backgrounds here in the UK. This group is often overlooked and underfunded in the investment landscape and Cornerstone Partners is dedicated to bridging the gap. Chenelle is passionate about disrupting finance and, as a result, has led the build and launch of three digital banks in the UK.

Can you give a quick introduction of yourself?

I am Chenelle Ansah. I currently head up an organization called Cornerstone Partners, based in the UK. We are an angel investment syndicate that specializes in investing in founders from black and diverse backgrounds.

Outside of that, I'm passionate about financial disruption and have a consultancy firm that specializes in helping FinTech companies with strategy and operations, and specifically building digital challengers or neo banks.

I wear many hats, to be honest. Outside of my consultancy and investment work, I work with a few charities and am part of the leadership team for the Salvation Army based in London and Advisory Board to Crisis Ventures. Outside of that, I am London-born and bred, a black woman passionate about creating access to space for people who aren't afforded that space because of the color of their skin, gender, or background. Through Cornerstone I provide access to capital, through my work in the FinTech sphere, making financial services more user-friendly, more accessible, and a lot more fun, and through my charity work for Salvation Army, providing opportunities to those in need at a point in time. It's about giving people access to opportunities when they're in a disadvantaged position in society when it is no fault of their own and I’m keen to play a small role in driving change where I can.

It's about giving people access to opportunities when they're in a disadvantaged position in society when it is no fault of their own and I’m keen to play a small role in driving change where I can.

Those are different but important ways to provide access. How do you balance everything?

Good question. I picked up different elements that I am involved in at different points in my life and that staggered approach helped me juggle all the different balls that I currently have up in the air at the moment. My background is in financial services and consulting so that was a nice transition into me setting up Nell Consulting, taking my learnings and experience over 13 years, and putting that towards helping FinTech start-ups to build banks that were disrupting the current market.

Angel investing came slightly later, about three years ago. I was angel investing and didn't even really know that I was angel investing if I'm being completely honest. I invested in businesses set up by people that I knew: one was by an ex-colleague and one was by a friend. I just knew that they were amazing people, both women, and I knew that whatever they put their mind to, they'll be able to do great things and I just wanted to support them financially and see their businesses do well and succeed.

In 2019, I decided that I wanted to be a bit more intentional with my investment efforts and that led to me joining Cornerstone Partners and take on the role of Head of Cornerstone Partners Angel Syndicate.

Since you started three years ago, how many investments have you made?

I've made six investments to date. It wasn't intentional and I didn’t have a set investment thesis, but it's interesting how everything has aligned and without me being intentional. My investment activity has aligned with my values and what I believe in. For me, it's about being more intentional about investing in women and people of color. 

As a black woman, I get quite annoyed when I hear people refer to women and people of color as a social impact cause or being something that we have to support because we are in need. From an investor's perspective, it's more about the fact that it's a missed opportunity. Investors want to make a return on their money and investing in groups where the investment landscape doesn't typically look at creates ample opportunity for more significant returns.

By default founders who are women and people of color have to work twice as hard to achieve anything and so as a result, they're more resilient. They do a lot more with less and their tenacity and drive are unmatched.

As a black woman, I get quite annoyed when I hear people refer to women and people of color as a social impact cause or being something that we have to support because we are in need. From an investor's perspective, it's more about the fact that it's a missed opportunity.

There are many overlooked founders, and because of that, there are many more opportunities to back some of the best people.

Exactly. I always refer to this group as a missed opportunity for other investors. Let's stop thinking about female founders, and people of color, and diverse founders as an impact cause. It's a missed opportunity, as you just basically need to get in before you miss the boat.

You have a strong thesis around supporting female and diverse founders. Do you have anything else that you look for in founders?

For me, it's all about the founder and whether I think that I can add value in some way, shape, or form. Being coachable is quite important to me because it lends to my requirement to grow from strength to strength. As a founder you are coached by your customers, they teach you what you need to build a successful business, so being able to listen and learn is important. Having worked with many founders as an investor and as a consultant, having a founder that proves that they have the tenacity to push through, that is open to continuously learn and evolve.

In terms of businesses, I make it a point to invest in businesses that are generating some sort of revenue. At least this gives me comfort that they do have traction, and they have people that are willing to pay for their products or service. They don't need to be making significant amounts of cash but as long as they can prove traction, and demonstrate that people are willing to pay for what it is that they're offering, then that gives me an extra level of comfort.

I get excited when I sit down and talk to founders, I hear about their vision and their aspiration. I like founders that think big, it helps bring tenacity.

As a founder you are coached by your customers, they teach you what you need to build a successful business, so being able to listen and learn is important.

You mentioned, coachable founders, people are open to receiving feedback. What are some questions that you ask to be able to tell that?

I like to understand the founder's personal journey and story, it's more about their experiences. When I speak to founders about their fundraising journey, it's never easy for the founders in the groups that I tend to invest in.

You hear a lot more about them as an individual when you ask them about their fundraising journey and some of the highs and lows. Some of the questions I ask:

  • Have you done this before?

  • Why this business?

  • How did this idea come to mind?

  • Tell me about your journey to date?

  • Is this something that they're doing short-term, do you have an exit lined up?

  • Have you established businesses in the past, Has it failed, why? What are the lessons you learned?

It's about the motivation behind why they set up the business and how their journey and life have led them to do what they're doing. That unpacks quite a lot. It's interesting to see how they respond to those sorts of questions.

A few founders talk about life challenges and that helps me understand and appreciate the tenacity. I like to play devil's advocate, not necessarily because I don't believe in what it is that they are doing, but to understand how they respond to curveballs being thrown at them.

It's about the motivation behind why they set up the business and how their journey and life have led them to do what they're doing.

I agree, I find it interesting because you get three types of responses: One, they've already thought about it and already have an answer already, which is the best thing. Second, they don't know and they're honest about it. Third, they don't know, but they try to make up an answer to support where they're going.

Exactly. It's the first two that I always welcome. If somebody doesn't know, that's fine. Half the time in life, we don't know, we just figure it out as we go along. Quite often, in a founder’s journey, they'll fall forward and figure things out.

It's quite important for me to understand that a founder is comfortable knowing that it's OK to not have all of the answers immediately as they're gonna learn a lot and figure out a lot and fail a couple of times along the way.

It's completely okay to fail and it's okay to say "I don't know the answer right now, but I'm gonna go and figure out."

Quite often, in a founder’s journey, they'll fall forward and figure things out.

What is the biggest thing you've done to support a founder, especially when they've faced challenges?

The last year has been challenging for founders.

One founder that I worked pretty closely with was honest and said, "Look, you know, it's been a really challenging year, and I'm having all these problems and work is affecting my personal life." They probably felt like they weren’t delivering to the best of their ability.

I enforced that they take some time off, switch everything off for two weeks, delete emails, delete everything, remove themselves from their platform, and have two weeks off to recharge. Self-care is important! As human beings, if we're not good then we have nothing to offer. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Self-care is important! As human beings, if we're not good then we have nothing to offer. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

That's a counterintuitive thing for an investor to do. Throughout your journey, what has been your biggest learning from angel investing?

The honest truth is that 80% of investing is based upon guessing and hoping for the best. That's the honest truth. Because you can assess, you can do your due diligence to make sure you're comfortable, but you never know what's going to come tomorrow.

The truth is that you take your experience, expertise and apply a level of judgment, help where you can and hope for the best.

Another learning for me was to add value beyond just the capital. Especially, if you're investing in early-stage businesses, you're going to be tied to their success story. Angels seek to add value beyond checks and help the businesses get to the next step. If we can write a check, we should be able to add some intellect and expertise into helping them make it too.

The last thing for me, no one should think that there is an angel investor profile, because angel investors look like all of us. I am a young black woman who is an angel investor and has made quite a few angel investments.

I think the hurdle a lot of the time is check size. Instead of focusing on the cheque size, focus on how you can support the founder and add value. The more founders you get exposure to and work with, the more it adds to your experience that will be more beneficial to you and future founders down the line.

Instead of focusing on the cheque size, focus on how you can support the founder and add value. The more founders you get exposure to and work with, the more it adds to your experience […]

What was your last angel investment and what made you decide to invest?

My last angel investment was with Cornerstone in a company called Hutch. They are a micro-warehousing service for e-commerce brands. One of their big clients is an organization called Afrocenchix, which is a VC-backed natural black hair care brand. They do all the fulfillment, logistics, and delivery.

The reason why I love Hutch is that the founder is amazing. In terms of tenacity and drive, he ticked all the boxes for me. In the beginning, I wasn't 100% sure about the business model because it's a brick-and-mortar business. Because of the pandemic, I initially said that I was not going to invest. After speaking with him, and getting to know him as an individual, I found out that he was a second-time founder and he was honest about his lessons learned and I really respected that. eCommerce has gone up significantly in the last year and founders who are selling products online are struggling with fulfillment. If there is a startup that can support the increase in demand for these merchants, then it's a no-brainer.

What's the number one piece of advice you want to share with aspiring angel investors?

Everybody has value to add in some way, shape, or form. Angel investing is the way that allows regular people to add value to founders with smaller investment cheques and tons of experience. Playing a part in helping these startups that are going to disrupt and shape the future is a powerful play.

Where can people follow you or reach out?

On LinkedIn or by email at chenelle@cornerstornepartners.co.uk


📚 Reading corner

the essential guide to syndicates by Paige Doherty

Paige is an entrepreneurial investor who is leading her own syndicate. She also is an engineer at WorkOS, a company backed by Lightspeed Venture Partners. In this article, she illuminates the definition of a syndicate, the advantages and the disadvantages of joining one. She also shares some tips if you’re interested in setting up your own syndicate (Note: This would mainly apply for those setting up syndicates in the US)

Honestly, Still Breaking into Venture by Sarah Holmes

Sarah Holmes from Unshackled Ventures wrote this article about her experience one year into being a venture investor. Her learnings also felt applicable to my experience as an angel investor. For example: “Venture is a marathon full of 1-mile sprints”. As an angel, I try to carve out interim time speaking to founders for potential investments, finishing my evenings with calls however the next few years determining what’s going to count.

P.S.: I’ve been trying to get more active on Twitter, let’s chat there. I’m @jeune_sage