Caroline Xie, ICONIQ Growth’s newest general partner, on her values, strategy, and finding strength in discomfort

Will Griffith | January 27, 2021

I first met Caroline Xie just over seven years ago when ICONIQ Growth was at its infancy. She had zero professional experience in technology, but it absolutely didn’t matter. Caroline was incisively brilliant, confident, and amid a thriving career in healthcare investment banking she was insatiably curious. As a first-generation immigrant who was born in China, Caroline grew up in Singapore, graduated from Duke, and worked for years in Hong Kong. By our first meeting, Caroline was already a proven master at managing change and harnessing opportunity, making her a perfect fit for the opportunity at ICONIQ. Nearly seven years later, she has thrived in every dimension and has grown as a critical, load-bearing leader, and I could not be more proud to announce that we have promoted Caroline to General Partner.

Since her first days at ICONIQ, Caroline has been an innovative, creative, and inclusive leader whose success has only been matched by her humility. She is deeply passionate about supporting founders’ ambitions to effect change and lead large and meaningful categories, and tirelessly works on their behalf to help support their companies’ growth. And Caroline has crushed it. She has driven numerous cloud and vertical software investments including Datadog, Alteryx, Braze, Relativity, Komodo Health, QGenda, GitLab, as well as many others. Since starting at ICONIQ, Caroline has helped manage $1.7 billion in investments and has defined authentic partnership and the delivery of unique value. Caroline currently serves on three boards and has meaningfully expanded our healthcare technology efforts. She is also a consummate leader who exemplifies ICONIQ’s values. While her investment results are extraordinary, Caroline has helped build the foundations of ICONIQ Growth to provide leadership opportunities for the rising talent who will amplify our future impact.

On the occasion of her promotion to General Partner, I took the opportunity to ask Caroline for her investment wisdom. –Will Griffith, Partner, ICONIQ Capital

What are your core values and how do you apply them toward your partnership approach with founders?

Growing up, I’ve always understood the importance and value of hard work and have deep gratitude for those in my life, and for what I have. My father was the first in his family to go to college and went on to earn a PhD in engineering. My mother worked on a factory assembly line and taught herself to become an engineer. She saved for years to be able to buy a small piano so I could take lessons. Whether it was playing the piano or first learning English, I embraced all opportunities and knew that success would only come through hard work. I’ve been fortunate to have a supportive network of family, friends, mentors, and colleagues throughout my life. All good relationships, including professional partnerships, require trust, transparency, and follow-through on both sides. I strive to always go the extra mile for our portfolio founders and serve as a trusted partner.

I think it is incredibly important to be open-minded and to hear and evaluate arguments on all sides. We all have our own set of experiences and diverse backgrounds. Investors see many companies and may have opinions, even strong ones, about certain sectors, trends, and topics. But doing the less obvious, the less conventional, is often the key to successful entrepreneurship.

It’s easy to be honest when everything is going great but tougher when there is a less positive issue to navigate. It can be scary or lonely when I seem to be the only voice in a boardroom initially concerned about a particular issue. Whenever I’m raising potential issues, I want to be as supportive as possible with suggestions and ways we can help.

While I’m an optimist, I’m also a realist. I know that the entrepreneur’s journey is exciting but also full of challenges. The trajectory is never entirely up and to the right. I have deep admiration for the entrepreneurs we partner with, and respect for the challenges they are solving.

What made you decide to join ICONIQ in 2013, when the first Growth fund had just been launched?

I began my career working with financial institutions in Asia and later with healthcare businesses in the US. I learned a ton through these experiences. Having grown up around tech, I’ve always wanted to work with technology companies, and when the opportunity arose through ICONIQ Growth to partner with exciting, emerging technology businesses, I was naturally intrigued.

It was very clear from my first meeting at ICONIQ Growth that the team was not only exceptionally accomplished but truly cared about what I had to say. I was struck by their sincerity. And I was very impressed by the unique nature of ICONIQ Growth and the incredible ecosystem of founders and entrepreneurs from all industries, not just tech, who are excited about effecting impact and change.

I loved that ICONIQ was itself a “start-up.” I was the fourth person to join our Growth team and was excited to help lay the foundation, from setting up systems and processes to building out the team and charting out our vision. Today, ICONIQ Growth is nearly 50 people and globally distributed across three offices. Overall, ICONIQ Capital is 300 strong.

What is your advice to other female investors? What were your best lessons?

I was given advice early on in my career that the way I connect with founders is not necessarily going to be the same as the way they connect, but rather my own approach that I’d develop over time. You can learn a lot through osmosis but that can be more challenging when there are fewer female role models. As a result, you’ll mostly have to find and develop your own style. Depending on who you are, it could be through deep domain expertise or strong personal connection, or both. For me, my golfing skills are limited to Putt-Putt, and outside of college basketball (Go Blue Devils!), I don’t really follow sports. But I’ve found a lot of joy chatting about international travel, music, health and wellness, wine and spirits, and even Harry Potter trivia.

Also, do your research. Read as much as you can about the company and the sector. Be thoughtful, confident, and focus on the top things that matter. As you grow in your career, share what you’ve uncovered and solicit other views to round out your perspective.

Be uncomfortable. Make it a personal goal to speak up in settings that may be uncomfortable for you, internally and externally. Having grown up and worked in deferential cultures, I’ve intentionally embraced opportunities to strengthen my voice, such as competing in speech and debate nationally as a student and speaking at portfolio companies’ all hands meetings to 500 employees. I believe each of us brings unique perspectives and experiences that can result in additive insights.

Why should a founder choose to work with ICONIQ Growth?

It starts with our unique network and access. More than seven years in, I’m constantly amazed by the influential leaders in our network and their genuine interest in our portfolio companies. As a founder partnering with ICONIQ Growth, you become part of a group of what we believe are other best-in-class businesses, emerging category leaders, and current category leaders, and have the opportunity to learn from one another. I’m proud of our incredible team focused on facilitating mutually accretive connections across our ecosystem that span commercial opportunities, leadership advisory, and best practices in go-to-market and technology development.

We are entrepreneurs backing entrepreneurs and take a very long-term approach to investing. We are strategic, collaborative partners and we deliver on our promises. And we bring the full breadth of the ICONIQ team and network to support our founders.

Besides having a front seat to driving innovation, what else motivates you about your work?

One of my formative life experiences was during freshman year of college when I spent a few months volunteering at Dandelion, a school for migrant children on the outskirts of Beijing. In partnership with a global financial institution, we focused on bringing sustainable and affordable hot water to the boarding school. It was my first exposure to corporate social responsibility and solidified my belief that it’s important for businesses to do good for communities and make a positive social impact on the world.

While 2020 had presented extraordinary challenges, I’m inspired and humbled by the incredible resilience of our founders and teams. I’m particularly proud of the impact our portfolio companies are driving. Some of the many exciting examples include Benchling powering a dozen COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic research efforts, Komodo Health accelerating clinical trials with patient-centric insights, GoodRx making prescriptions more affordable, and Guild Education helping frontline workers build additional skills.

What is the single biggest mistake that founders make when pitching?

Being dismissive of the competition. Large market opportunities driven by existing pain points usually have incumbents. Attractive markets naturally have competition. Those companies may not be providing adequate solutions, but status quo and inertia are powerful. It’s important for founders to pay a healthy amount of attention to the market landscape and competitors’ moves. In a pitch, investors often know the sector and key players already. If not, they will find out soon enough. So, I’d advise being more direct and transparent about key competitors and persuasive about why your company will win.

Do you have one essential tip for founders seeking investment?

Be inspiring. Bring others along in your vision and lay out a thoughtful path toward achieving it.