Venture Fund

Featured Alumnus: David Lee ’99

David Lee

David Lee ’99, chairman, Refactor Capital

What made you decide to pursue a career in entrepreneurship/venture capital/startups after NYU Law?
I always wanted to be in an advisor role to builders and creators. My dad was an entrepreneur, and I didn’t think I could do what he did. But I loved being a part of that process. I knew I always wanted to be more of an advisor than a principal, and with a couple of lucky bounces, I had a career in venture capital.

How did NYU Law prepare you for this career?
NYU Law was great because it encouraged students to pursue whatever interested them. Students were encouraged to pursue their intellectual and professional interests—for example, public interest, internships at startups, research, and so forth. And one could pursue their interests among some of the best mentors, companies, and advisors.

Why do you think lawyers find success in this career path?
Lawyers are taught to start with the facts, not frameworks. Then you apply the legal principles, laws, etc. to those facts. For me, it’s very similar to how an engineer or scientist thinks about how to solve problems. You don’t start with frameworks; you start with the problem you’re trying to solve. This first principles–type of thinking is invaluable for investing and working through startup challenges.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as a lawyer in this career path?
The biggest challenge is to demonstrate that you are thinking “what if” in the most valuable way. In the corporate setting, lawyers are taught to think about “what if” as a risk management exercise. Entrepreneurs think “what if” in a value-creating way—what if we created X, what could that create for the world? You can be pigeonholed as a risk manager, not as a risk taker.

What is the most important thing students should do to prepare themselves for a career in entrepreneurship, venture capital or at a startup?
This is a very tough question to answer! So much of entrepreneurship, VC, and startups is random—a lucky bounce here or there. So, I guess the question becomes how you can manage randomness to create the outcome you want. I don’t have any great advice here, but I guess there are two thoughts.

First, always pick the path that is more interesting, that piques your interest more. Second, try to avoid doing what everyone else is doing. I went to law school when everyone said I should go to business school, for example. It was the first dot-com boom and having an MBA-like background was more of a conventional and direct path to get into startups. But law was more interesting, and I liked that it was a different path from others. It took a lot longer to get to where I am, but I have no doubt that I would not be where I am if not for going to law school.

What was the most important lesson you learned in your career thus far?
Michelangelo said, “Genius is eternal patience.” I love that line. It’s a great reminder of what it takes to get what you want.