Nov. 29, 2017

#17 Investor Spotlight: Jillian Manus

#17 Investor Spotlight: Jillian Manus

You’re probably familiar with Jillian Manus the investor — but in this episode, we dig in a little deeper to understand how she became the VC force she is today.


Enjoying the podcast? Use this link to text a friend!


Become an insider

Go behind-the-scenes with the founders and investors on The Pitch



From Gimlet, you’re listening to The Pitch. I’m Josh Muccio.


This week we’re going to talk to someone listeners of The Pitch know very well.


Jilian: I actually know this space very well


Our own Jillian Manus. Of all of our investors, she is the one we get the most fan mail about—it seems like everyone loves Jillian. She’s been with The Pitch since the very beginning and has invested more on our show than any other investor so far. And when she goes in, she goes in with passion.


Jillian: The fact that you have built this, okay, to me is incredibly important. And if somehow we can get this in front of as many people as possible, then we should. 


When it comes to VC, Jillian is the real deal. She’s a managing partner at Structure Capital, a seed stage firm with investments in companies like Salesforce and Uber.


Jillian: I’ve invested in sports management and literary agencies and media investment And all the different aspects of my life so you can pop them into one column and say OK that's Jillian's life. 


But this picture of a successful businesswoman doesn’t tell the full story. To understand Jillian Manus, you need to know where she came from. And what she had to overcome along the way.


Jillian: I know what it's like not to have money and a house, food, security. I had a blanket and I slept on the floor. I know what it’s like to be broken open and have to rebuild yourself. And I know what an emotional roller coaster ride life is. To tell my life story is really a patchwork, that it's a quilt.


Jillian’s story begins in New York where she was born. The daughter of a lawyer and a high school teacher, early on she was marked for success. She went to boarding school in London and later attended both New York University and Oxford where she studied English literature and dramatic writing. And before she even graduated, Jillian was already beginning to make a splash.


Jillian: while I was in school I wrote some made-for-television movies 


Josh: You wrote movies when you were in college?


Jillian: Made-for-television movies. They were called MOWs, right? Scripts. I sold them And I had a rep, I had a wonderful agent and he was at William and Morris but I didn't want to go to William Morris but I loved the whole Agent aspect. When he would say to me we have an offer for this. I'd say well how can we, how can we better it, how can we create a bidding war. So I always had that sort of Hustler mentality, if you will. 


After college, she got a job working at International Creative Management (ICM for short) -- a New York-based Talent Agency. And you’d think her experience selling her own scripts would make her a perfect fit at a talent agency.


But things actually got off to a rough start.


Jillian: This is a great story. I was first an assistant and for a very prominent talent agent and within about six months or less he fired me.


Josh: WHAT 


Jillian: And He said you're the worst assistant. Yes. Because I couldn't type. And so that was just not my strength. And so I was fired. but I was rehired within like a week because they said that I was so good with clients and I was so determined and I had such great skills as an agent that they hired me on as a junior. 


Josh: Yeah. So you were fired as an assistant after six months 


Jillian: [LAUGHS] Less.


Getting fired seems like the best thing that could’ve happened to Jillian - when she was re-hired as a junior agent, that marked the beginning of a series of promotions that brought her all the way to Hollywood.


Jillian: I got recommended to the development department at Warner Brothers Studios, and then became a director of development there, and then Universal Studios, and then Dino De Laurentiis’ company as vice president of production 


Josh: OK so it sounds like you moved up pretty quickly.


Jillian: Well, I don't know, I don't know if I moved up quickly. I think that I took on a lot responsibility at a very young age. And the movie industry and especially development, we were all called “D-Girls,” development girls, But being in development it was critical for someone to come in and pitch you as a feature film by being able to distill it down to the very essence. so that's why I'm very heavily focused on the pitch. Right? The pitch has to be distilled. It has to be compelling. You have to get your value props out fast. You have to do it with energy. You have to do it with conviction. Alright and so this really began at the studios when people were pitching me their feature films. 


Jillian spent several years in movie development before moving on to a job at Credit Suisse in Switzerland. What Jillian didn’t know is she wouldn’t be in Switzerland long. And two things would happen that would shift the direction of Jillian’s life.


The first was simply a conversation with a hotel concierge.


Jillian: I lived at the Grand National Hotel in Lucerne and I worked in Zurich and Zug. and I had a profound conversation with the concierge at the hotel. And if you work as let’s say a concierge, that means that you took the last 20 years of your life you spent, and you did every single job. Every job in the hotel. And so I learned a lot about business discipline and about the evolution of what makes a strong professional. And I got that from Switzerland. 


Jillian didn’t know it at the time, but this advice would prove invaluable to her in the years ahead. The second thing that happened to Jillian was personal — and it would be the reason why she ultimately left Switzerland.


Jillian: I was in a domestically. I was in an abusive situation in Switzerland horribly so I ended up very very bad in the hospital for a long time. He was a Swiss, Swiss man so broke me apart bone by bone and my spirit as well.


This would prove the violent end to a relationship that had blossomed between Jillian and a Swiss baron. Her injuries were so profound, she left Switzerland on plane bound for NYC for medical care — leaving behind her job, the life she’d built in Switzerland, everything.


Jillian: When I got back from Switzerland I completely was destroyed, and mentally and physically. And that's when I decided to-to become invisible. And I moved down to the Bowery. And I didn't talk for a long time, actually, and I went from shelter to shelter, because at that time you couldn't really stay in one shelter. And I didn't talk to my family and didn't talk to anybody. I didn't really tell anybody where I was or what I was doing. I just disappeared. I even changed my name. My family really didn't know any of this until recently and probably they don't even know a lot of it. And when I lived in shelters I saw a lot of lost people and broken people. And I wanted to put every single one of them back together. But I had to put myself back together first. And actually the way I did that is I was an entrepreneur. I was in a shelter and I went to the soup kitchen and the, a soup kitchen in one of those shelters and they were they were very inefficient. And I started working in this soup kitchen, and I kept saying that they're wasting food and they're not using the talent in the shelter well and everybody had their areas of expertise and special skill sets. 


Jillian saw a problem and an opportunity: wasted food and the under-utilized talent around her. She figured out what each person was good at and empowered them to put their skills to work. Together they created a better way to run the shelter kitchen.


Jillian: And created a whole program in this soup kitchen. And then it was adapted by another soup kitchen. And then another one Because I'm a highly, highly educated I wouldn't say successful, but definitely productive, businesswoman. I had been. But I lost myself because I let somebody take me. And then through my brain and my, my skill set I realized that actually, I was a productive person and I did have a voice and I could actually empower others. 


Josh: so you're saying you built yourself up by helping other people in those shelters. That's how you rebuilt Jillian Manus. 


Jillian: I found myself. That's exactly right. I put myself back together by putting them back together and I found my voice by giving them voice and giving them purpose and giving them their pride back. 


Josh: Yeah, why do you think that building other people up builds you up? 


Jillian: Because I think more people need to understand that when you give to others, you truly give, the biggest gift is to yourself, and I wish— 


Josh: And you're saying that's just a principle of life— 


Jillian: I think, I think predominantly that human nature… I think we're all so mired in noise of others that detract from the very essential and intuitive nature, which is to help others. And if you help others I always say, as cliche, as that sounds, you help yourself.


When Jillian first landed in a shelter, she’d severed ties to the outside world, deciding, as she said, to “disappear.” But helping other people in the shelter had breathed new life into her. Jillian had begun to reclaim her sense of self — and she was ready to make a change.


Jillian: when I finally emerged and I, the cloud lifted and I said alright, I'm ready to get back into society. I went to this little hair salon and if I tell you I looked like a mess, I looked like a monster. My hair was matted and my nails were disgusting and I was a disgusting mess. I can't tell you. And I really didn't look into a mirror until I went into that salon and I was, it was bad. 


Josh: What were you thinking, when you looked at yourself in the mirror?


Jillian: I literally didn't even know that was me. 


Jillian: I was very, very painfully thin. I was really, really almost like Beauty and the Beast. I mean I really was a beast. I really looked at myself and I said well that's how I have felt for the last year. I felt like I had looked. And now I felt like I had light in me again and I really wanted that to be reflected. 


At this little salon in New York City, Jillian was ready to take her first steps toward rejoining society — but she didn’t even have a dollar to her name. 


Jillian: So I told them I had no money, I said, which I didn't. I had no money, even though I could have gone to my parents, my father, for money, I could have reached out to friends. But if you're so humiliated and you're so broken open, you can't reach out to anybody. I was, I was, I was done. And so I didn't have anything. And so I asked them could they, if there was any way I could help in the salon, or do something, and they would clean me up. You know, could I do anything. I would work, I would clean the floor. Like anything; I'd wash towels. What could I do? And they were so gracious and so kind and they said, you know what, we want to do, this is a project, we want to clean you up. It was like a make over. And they they cut my hair and they, they colored, they even colored it. And, and I was there for almost a whole day. And these women made me their project. And they took such pride in it. I emerged from that place looking like and feeling like I was human again. And years later when I came back into society and I reconnected and I started all over again. I actually gave the women a tremendous amount of money, 


Josh: You paid it back.


Jillian: Tenfold. And they moved back to Russia and they bought a house. And they, yeah. And they have a really good life.


After the break, we call Jillian back to find out how you rebuild your career after losing nearly everything.




Welcome back! Before the break, we talked to Jillian about how, after surviving a devastating domestic assault, she was able to rebuild her sense of self — first, by volunteering at her shelter, and later with the help of two Russian women who gave her a makeover.


But there’s more to this story. Jillian had once been at the top of her game professionally — and then she’d been forced to abandon her career. She had to make a plan to get it back.


So we got her on the phone to find out what she did next. And it turns out — she took a page from the book of the concierge she met in Switzerland. She built from the ground up — beginning at a temp agency.


Jillian: so I walked into this temp agency — I remember exactly which temp agency — and I said I need work and I'll do whatever, whatever it takes. I need work. And they looked at me. And I looked a little scroungy, but I— I was very chipper. And they said OK. And so I literally was a rollerskating waitress for MTV I was a switchboard operator on the graveyard shift. I did just, everything I could to put money together.


Josh: Just random stuff, whatever the temp agency or your friend could recommend you to. You would just take the opportunity.


Jillian: I've done a lot of crazy, crazy jobs in my life, and nothing was beneath me. And nothing to this day is beneath me. People look at me now, and I’ve really had people think that, you know, oh she’s so posh. The fact is is that I'm really, really not. I live in nice places. I have great houses. I've done very well in my life, thank God. But I worked my ass off and I still do.


Slowly but surely, Jillian worked her way back into society. She started a literary company, and then later a branding agency, called Broad Strategy, where she worked with both individuals and companies to help them build their brand. 


Little did she know, in doing so, Jillian was building her own brand. She started investing in companies and making connections with all kinds of people — from musicians to athletes to thought leaders. She became known as someone who could find their way around almost any industry.

Eventually, Jillian started her own personal angel fund. And at this point, she was able to leverage the incredible rolodex of people she was connected to. For every company she was invested in, she could introduce the founders to powerful players, potential customers, and strategic partners. 


In 2013, she joined Structure Capital, a VC firm where Jillian is now a managing partner. She brings to startups not only her branding expertise but also her formidable network. At this point, when Jillian invests in a company, it’s like getting an Oprah stamp on the front of your book.


Jillian: sometimes it blows me away that, that I can get to all these people, whether it be in politics and finance and media. I can be in the, in the corporate world, whether it be a chemical company or a fashion company. I mean it's really incredible. I surprise myself and I'm saying that with humility. I really surprise myself who I can pick up the phone and call at this point in my life. Partly it’s because I'm older, so you know you build a, a huge network. That's the value. And I what I say to people is I don't care how good your product is, OK, because that's not what business is built on. Businesses is built on relationships.That's what business is built built on.


Josh: Would that girl who you were when you were growing up be surprised at where Jillian is today? 


Jillian: Gobstopped. She would be absolutely gobstopped. 


Josh: Yeah. 


Jillian: She would be absolutely shocked. 


Josh: Is that what you mean when you say you're surprised by all the people you can get in touch with today — is it, it's just that feeling of, wow like what, what have I built? You know, I'm this, I can never, could have imagined this. 


Jillian: Not in a million years. Not in a million years and I'm continuing to surprise myself every day. I just surround myself with people that can better me. And if you do that you're going to get to the point where I am now and hopefully I'm going to even become better than this. But the point I am right now is because of the people who have bettered me, not just because of myself. My own tenacity and determination and grit has kept me on this earth and has made me a survivor. But what has made me a really good person and a person good to work with and a person that can mentor others is, are the people and the relationships that I've had for sure. 


Josh: Yeah. 


Jillian: So I'm hoping that I, that's what I provide other people. Pass your blessings forward.


That was my conversation with Pitch investor Jillian Manus. 


Next week we’re back with a new pitch. 


Stick around til after the credits to hear scenes from that episode.


Our show is produced by me, Josh Muccio, Kareem Maddox, and Molly Donahue. We are edited by Devon Taylor.

Our Theme Music is by Breakmaster Cylinder, with original music composed by The Muse Maker, Bobby Lord and Haley Shaw. We were mixed by Enoch Kim with help from Matt Boll.

And thank you Jillian Manus for always believing in our show. We are all eternally grateful.

All right -- you’ve been listening to The Pitch from Gimlet Media. See you next week.


Next week on The Pitch


Kevin: I think the timing is right for software that can support rowing based fitness and a community based experience at home.


Jillian: but in those days we really were, it was Jane Fonda, it was the Cher, we wanted to... And now it really is the exercise that fits us, fits our schedule.


Daniel: To me, this actually feels more restrictive.

Jillian Manus // Structure CapitalProfile Photo

Jillian Manus // Structure Capital

Investor on The Pitch Seasons 1–10

Jillian Manus is Managing Partner of an early-stage Silicon Valley venture fund, Structure Capital. Branded “Architects of the Zero Waste Economy," they invest in underutilized assets and excess capacity. She was named one of the top 25 early-stage Female Investors by Business Insider in 2021. Jillian serves on numerous corporate and non-profit boards, these include: Stanford University School of Medicine Board of Fellows, NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center Board of Directors, Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.