Maria Velissaris (MBA ‘09), Founder and Managing Partner of SteelSky Ventures, Talks About Her Entrepreneurial Journey

Maria Velissaris
Stern Program: Full Time MBA
Current Role: Founder and Managing Partner, SteelSky Ventures
Industry: Venture Capital

Maria Velissaris (MBA ‘09), is a serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and founder of SteelSky Ventures which focuses on companies that are working toward improving access, care, and outcomes in women’s healthcare. Maria was recently named by Forbes as one of eight female venture capitalists to watch in 2021. So far, she has invested in eight women-led healthcare start-ups—including industry star 23andMe. Here she shares her entrepreneurial journey, what it means to be a ‘changemaker’ and what drew her to NYU Stern. 

As an undergraduate student, you started your first business, Wakeboxes (now Collegeboxes), which was later acquired by Uhaul. What inspired you to start that business and what did you learn about being an entrepreneur from that early success?
 
I had just started at the undergraduate business school and was very intrigued by my entrepreneurship classes. I was feeling inspired to build something and one rainy Saturday night, I was sitting in my dorm room brainstorming ideas of a company to start. A friend from Duke happened to call and mentioned he knew a really smart guy who also wanted to start a company and had an idea. I raced up the highway the very next morning. We introduced ourselves, architected an outline for the company, shook hands, and we were in business.
 
Even though we experienced tremendous growth, expanding to 49 schools in 3 years, I learned that there was still a lot that I needed to learn.

Can you talk about your journey from entrepreneur to investor? 
 
After my first entrepreneurial experience in college, I more fully understood the skillset I would need to become a successful founder or CEO. I carefully curated the next several years of my career, working at different types of companies, developing a diverse set of skills that I knew I would need to build my next empire. 
 
This eventually led to the launch of my first venture fund, The SteelSky Ventures-Empire Fund. 

You are focused on funding women’s health-care startups. Why do you think this area has been overlooked? 
 
Women’s health-care has historically been overlooked because investors like to invest in companies that they understand, in sectors that excite them. The venture-capital industry is very male-dominated, and therefore women’s health products and services don’t tend to resonate with the majority of these investors. As more women and diverse investors enter the landscape, we will see a shift in the types of companies and the types of founders that get funded.
 
What characteristics do you look for in a founder?
 
The best founders I see are coachable, adaptable, and have a fire to succeed at all costs. Add a dash of humility, vision, grit, and passion, and I know I’ve found a winner. 
 
What drew you to Stern for your MBA?
 
The culture, community, and that chocolate lava cake they have at all the luncheons. 
 
How have you stayed connected to Stern?
 
I’ve helped Stern out with interview days, attended Stern Reunions, and stayed connected to alumni on LinkedIn.
 
You were recently named an NYU Alumni ChangeMaker, which is a big honor. How does it feel to be recognized for your work?
 
My grandmother always said, “If you don’t see it, build it and if you don’t like it, change it.”
 
I have been building and inspiring change my entire career, both personally and professionally. It was such a special honor to have a school that I respect so much recognize the impact of my work. 
 
Have you taken up any new hobbies or interests during Covid times?  
 
Yes! I’m learning to play doubles tennis­–Venus and Serena, here I come!
 
Outside of tennis, what do you do to relax and unwind when you have downtime? 
 
Once I actually have some downtime to unwind, I’ll let you know. Right now, it’s still full steam ahead!