The law firm's new early stage/emerging company partner knows a thing or two about smashing paradigms, something startups constantly chase.
The first thing people notice about Lindsay Karas Stencel is her outgoing personality, brightly colored clothes and flamboyant earrings. There’s plenty of substance behind all this style, too: “She’s smart and a damn good lawyer,” says colleague David Willbrand.
Willbrand, chair of Thompson Hine’s early stage and emerging company practice, recruited Karas Stencel to run the large law firm’s Columbus office as a partner in March. In the male-dominated, business-suit-wearing world of venture capital, Karas Stencel has been a trailblazer, mastering several aspects of this entrepreneurial, high-risk, high-reward investment world. She has provided legal counsel for venture capital funds, represented startup companies looking for funding and helped create the for-profit fund of Launch New York, a Buffalo-based venture-capital development organization. Stencel is an adjunct professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and she and her husband, Chris Stencel, own CrossFit Westerville.
So, yes, Karas Stencel is a bit of a high-energy overachiever and glass-ceiling smasher. And a well-dressed one to boot. “I’ve always been a bright soul and I think, in recent years, I’ve embraced my light and fierceness and decided I’ll be me and I don’t have to dress like everyone else,” Karas Stencel says, adding she no longer even owns a traditional women’s business suit. “It’s important in venture capital to be authentic and true to yourself, in order to build a level of trust with the people you work with every day. If that means huge, feather earrings or bright-purple clothes, so be it, I’m going to be me.”Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
A new venture
All roads led to venture capital for Karas Stencel. Her interest began as an undergraduate at Canisius College in her hometown of Buffalo and continued through law school and business school at Ohio State University, where she earned a law degree and MBA. She landed a job at NCT Ventures in 2008 before graduation. “I always liked the idea of real-world finance applied to business,” Karas Stencel says. “How do we start and grow businesses, what drives people? Venture capital is a beautiful economic vehicle.”
Columbus-based NCT is an early-stage venture capital firm with three funds totaling about $76 million, Karas Stencel says. It specializes in logistics, energy, health care and artificial intelligence companies.
When she began at NCT, Karas Stencel was often the only woman in the room.
“I was one of the first female partners of a venture capital firm in the Midwest, that’s how bad it was,” she says, adding the number of women has increased, but not nearly enough. Less than 10 percent of the decision makers at venture capital firms are women, according to a 2019 Axios study. This is one of the reasons venture capital investment in female-founding teams was $3.3 billion in 2019, just 2.8 percent of the total capital invested in the United States, according to PitchBook. This is up from $2.1 billion and 2.2 percent in 2017.
Karas Stencel, who was NCT’s chief legal counsel and a managing partner when she left last year, is determined to change these dynamics and increase the number of women decision makers and female entrepreneurs who receive venture capital. “Women need to say, ‘I need to be represented,’ and deserve a position as a general partner [at venture-capital funds],” she says. “And men need to say, ‘We have to have other people at the table who don’t look exactly like us.’ Consistent pressure over time changes all things—that’s how diamonds are made.”
And women entrepreneurs need to be bolder, she says.
To apply consistent pressure, Karas Stencel created LKS Law (her initials) and co-founded the for-profit fund of Launch New York, a Buffalo-based, nonprofit venture capital firm. She has rolled her work for Launch New York and her LKS practice into Thompson Hine.
“Be bold. Be fearless,” she recently tweeted to encourage women entrepreneurs. “Ask for what you want and don’t act surprised when you get it.”
Karas Stencel is legal counsel for Constance Borro, a Columbus School for Girls mathematics teacher and co-founder and CEO of Mastery Portfolio, an app “that allows teachers to organize their curriculum in a more comprehensive way,” Borro says.
She was pointed in Karas Stencel’s direction by a mutual friend. “We interviewed a few other legal teams and Lindsay was by far the most experienced,” Borro says. “And, she really does have a passion for justice for small companies.”
NCT and Karas Stencel invested in Duane Clement and his company Data Inventions, an Erie, Pennsylvania-based startup that helps companies compile and utilize data to improve operations. “Lindsay was involved from the get-go and our relationship just took off,” Clement says. “She has so much energy and positivity and the strategy to really make things happen. And that’s all you need sometimes—one person who believes in you.”
Willbrand believes in Karas Stencel. Over the years, “NCT invested in some of my clients,” he says. “Sometimes we were on the same side of the table, sometimes we were negotiating against each other. I always liked Lindsay’s personality, she has such a good energy and is a builder.”
The move to Thompson Hine made sense for Karas Stencel. NCT, after raising three venture-capital funds, announced in 2019 it would not pursue another.
The VC world
The biggest venture capital funds are based in New York and Silicon Valley, and “these mega-funds are not flying into Ohio to invest [only] a million dollars,” Karas Stencel says. “But there’s an immense opportunity to provide that early-stage capital here in Ohio and the Midwest.”
Karas Stencel has identified characteristics that lead to success for startups: “How gritty is the team? How well do they work together and with others, including you?” she says. “We’re looking for ideas that will shape the next 10 years of industry and culture.”
For example: Educational technology, or “edutech,” in which schools and teachers utilize technology for online learning. “This is something I wouldn’t have thought about even a few months ago,” Karas Stencel says. And then came the Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing lockdown and rapid growth of this field.
Chris Stencel manages CrossFit Westerville, and his wife is a regular. Or was, until the lockdown. “I like to see people do something they didn’t think they could do,” she says of the super-competitive world of CrossFit. “That translates to all these other aspects of their lives and gives them confidence.”
It also translates to the world of venture capital, where Karas Stencel’s goal is to give the leaders of well-organized and gritty startups the funds, confidence and legal and business advice they need to thrive. “I think the words you’d use to describe me are wife, dog mom, an attorney and venture capitalist. Most importantly I think I’m kind,” she says. “I try and meet people where they are and demonstrate empathy in everything I do.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.