By Marcella McCarthy
As more and more investors and techies alike look to Miami as a potential new home, I caught up with Maya Baratz, a former media executive, an investor and a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, to talk about her homecoming. Baratz is the CEO and a partner at Founders Factory New York, which is an accelerator, a ventures studio and an institutional and angel investor. She and her husband, an attorney, moved back to Miami in December 2020 after spending years in San Francisco and New York and have signed a year-long lease. In this Q&A, Baratz tells me how she got started in her career, how she moved on to becoming an investor, why potential movers shouldn’t fear the Miami school system, and why she’s making an early bet on Miami as the next tech hub.
You have a BA in English and Political Science from Wellesley College. What were you planning on doing with those degrees?
“I was planning on going to law school, I got into a few good schools, and I was set on going. But during my last semester of college, I had completed all my credits, so I decided to just take classes I was interested in. So, I took things like Italian Cinema, and I kept thinking to myself, “What am I going to create? What am I going to put into the world if I go to law school? So I took the less certain route and decided I would just figure it out as I go.” Baratz also took computer science classes at MIT while living in Boston and did a fellowship at Harvard University where she focused on messaging and AI use cases in media.
Your career has consisted of a mix of writing jobs and product jobs mostly in media. Can you tell me what drew you to media and tech?
“I always knew I loved to write, it’s honestly my earliest memory. Being an immigrant (Baratz was born in Israel), it was also a really great way to understand the world from someone else’s eyes. While in high school (Miami Beach Senior High), I won the Silver Knight Award in English and Literature. Most people don’t really understand the connection between writing and product development, but they are similar because in both cases, you’re creating something from scratch and bringing it out into the world. I took computer science classes in high school and when I moved to Boston for college, I saw the internet being used in really creative ways.”
Did you ever think, no matter what path I take, I’m going to excel on that path?
“I’ve always thought it was interesting to create something and have a complete stranger make use of it, and then come up to you and say that they used what you created.”
How did you jump from having a day job to becoming an investor?
“When I was at Disney [Head of New Products at ABC News], my role was to build new products. I was constantly thinking about, ‘What are the ways that people should want to consume media in a way that works for everyone?’ I also coached small teams on how to take single products and have them work for the masses. And some of those teams built companies that got acquired. As a result, I learned that I loved coaching early-stage companies as much as I love to build things. So I started angel investing and became a mentor at Techstars, and then Techstars asked me to be the managing director for a program where we partnered with NBC Universal and invested in 10 media companies, and that’s how I got into institutional investing.”
What are you looking for in Miami?
“I’m really looking to invest in Miami entrepreneurs, so I want to meet founders. For FFNY, I’m looking to invest in healthcare companies because we have a partnership with Johnson & Johnson, but I’m also an Angel, and those opportunities really run the gamut for me. I’m an advisor at Substack, for example.
To me, there’s nothing more exciting than meeting entrepreneurs who have a lot of passion and what you need to build a company, and being able to support that.”
You’ve lived in San Francisco and New York City, but you recently relocated to Miami with your husband. What brought you back besides COVID?
“I always knew that I wanted to come back - for me, this is a homecoming - I went to junior high (Nautilus Middle School) and high school here and actually interned for Xavier Suarez when he was the mayor of Miami. To me, Miami is full of amazing talent - it’s got amazing opportunity. What’s new to many people is that tech hasn’t been a huge industry in Miami, but it has a lot of potential and really excellent entrepreneurs. Miami is not a city of people that take anything for granted. I think it’s great that a lot of people are moving here now and seeing the potential of the city.”
You moved to SF in 2006, and NY in 2010. SF was just overcoming the dot.com crash, and NY wasn’t a tech hub either. What made you make those moves?
“As an investor, it’s important to see things early. What feels very familiar [here], is when I moved to SF and NYC, there was this group of people with this earnest desire to succeed together. It’s an energy that you only find at the beginning of something. When people talk about Miami being a strange place for tech, well, there’s no place that was a natural fit; it’s really about having the people to build it up.”
Since the Miami ecosystem is still in the early stages (compared to SF or NY), what are the watch-outs to keep in mind?
“I feel like culture is so key to an ecosystem because the startups that come out of the ecosystem are a product of the ecosystems themselves. I think that we have the luxury now - of having more than 20 years of experience in tech - to see what happened in the past and avoid those mistakes. I recommend founders think continuously about creating a team that represents the customers that you’re selling to. Also, just because you’re hiring someone diverse, doesn’t mean you’ve created an inclusive space for them. I love the Miami Tech Manifesto, and we should make sure that women - and that non-white founders - are very much part of the culture from day one, in part because culture is so integral in the success of companies and the ecosystem. It’s not always easy; there tends to be a bias toward money, and in the past, it might not have been possible for a person of color or a woman to gather that money. But we need to see talent for talent. I hope we don’t become a culture that just celebrates money, but rather prioritizes talent building and the solution to the myriad of problems that are out there.”
What do you want to tell others in tech who are thinking of moving here but have some unanswered questions?
“There’s always risks with anything that you do, especially in tech. There’s a good amount of risks that you’re taking, and you just have to know which risks you’re comfortable with. Every investor will say, ‘You can’t de-risk early-stage companies.’ The same goes for early-stage ecosystems. No location is perfect. I’m sure many people will be surprised with their first hurricane. But you move where you feel your people are. If you value the people around you, and you think you can learn from them, that’s what it’s really about. The biggest bet you can make is move somewhere that has great talent and untapped potential.”
What about for people in tech who are moving to Miami with a family?
“I can personally say, I’m a product of the public school system in Miami, and I feel they [Nautilus and Beach High] offered me everything and more from an education perspective. I took all the AP classes, and I got a Silver Knight award, and I went to the schools I wanted to go to, and not only did I not feel limited, but I felt that Miami really made me who I am.”
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