Interview - JoAnna Muenks

Private Equity
Entrepreneurship
347

Today’s guest is JoAnna Muenks. JoAnna started her career at Grant Thornton, is a Venture for America Fellow, and recently joined a growth equity firm. Enjoy the read!

Contents:

  • Killing busy season for passion
  • Venture for America
  • Growth equity
  • A personal board of advisors

Thanks for joining us! Can you start by telling us about your background?

I can’t help but start with the fact that I grew up on a farm, because it’s a large part of who I am today. While I love any and all cities, I’m thankful for the simple roots and the life lessons that come from a rural childhood. That being said, I had less exposure to business careers at a young age and that’s something I want to change for rural communities.
I initially came to Kansas City because of the Trustees Scholarship at UMKC. I’m deeply grateful for the city leaders that support that program. I majored in accounting and marketing and planned to work at an advertising agency after college until a few accounting professors persuaded me otherwise. That guidance and my interest in entrepreneurship led me to become a CPA and start my career at Grant Thornton. I had a gut feeling that accounting would not be the end goal, but as they say, “the best option is the option that creates more options.” Public accounting is a highly versatile starting point.
Outside of work I film weddings for my small media company, JLMedia, volunteer with Junior Achievement, and travel as often as possible.

What was it like starting your career at Grant Thornton?

Grant Thornton was an incredible place to start my career, and I will always recommend it. There are many reputable accounting firms to choose from, but I believe that Grant Thornton is second to none. The people are great, quality is top of mind, and the firm gives back to the community. They invested in both my personal and professional growth which is a rare find.

Why did you decide to leave?

My goal was never to “kill busy season”. I wanted to put that same amount of effort—and more—into work that I’m passionate about at a younger company that I could directly impact. The word “passionate” is overused and vague, but for me it was about aligning who I am with my career. I wanted to be all in and start building a long-term future.
I first became involved in startups and entrepreneurship at UMKC through their various business pitch competitions and organizations. That interest continued into my public accounting career where I actively sought out startup networking events. This was how I first found out about Venture for America. The entrepreneurship-related training, resources, and the large community of diverse fellows in VFA aligned perfectly with my goals for the next step of my career.

Can you tell us more about Venture for America?

Venture for America is a two-year fellowship program for young professionals who are looking to become startup leaders and entrepreneurs. One of VFA’s main missions is to encourage talent to move to emerging cities like Kansas City as opposed to the classic coastal cities like San Francisco and New York. Community advancement is another large part of the program whether through volunteer work or future job creation. VFA cities are infused with vibrant talent that is ready to make an impact.
Once accepted into VFA, fellows undergo an intensive training program and interview for roles with young companies and venture capital firms within the 14 VFA partnership cities. Alumni of the program gain access to an accelerator and seed funds to grow ideas into new businesses, but the most valuable aspect of the program is undoubtedly the people. There are endless opportunities to learn from other fellows and collaborate on projects. I’m continually inspired by my peer fellows’ drive and ingenuity.

How do you get accepted into the fellowship?

There's a multi-stage application process and anyone interested can start here. It includes a couple of short essays, phone and video interviews, and a final in-person group interview that takes place in one of the VFA cities. The final interview was my favorite. It’s a series of group challenges where the team gets insight into how you interact, communicate, and lead amongst others in your group.
It’s a diverse group with the original class of 2020 fellows consisting of over 200 fellows selected from more than 3,000 applicants and representing 122 different colleges. It’s awesome to meet so many others that are excited about entrepreneurship with many of them already starting businesses themselves. I’m happy to talk more about the program so I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in applying to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Did your fellowship lead to your current role?

Yes, I connected with Five Elms Capital through the VFA network. Five Elms is a growth equity firm that invests in B2B software companies. I’m a Capital Markets Professional there and focus on strategic partnerships with other investors, accelerators, lenders, and intermediaries.
This role embodies a multitude of aspects that I was seeking in a career, so I feel lucky to be involved. While a growth equity firm may not be considered a traditional “start-up company”, the firm is young and has been growing quickly so it’s a fast-paced environment. There are plenty of opportunities to add value, share ideas, and take ownership of my work. I love building relationships with founders and other investors.

Tell us more about Five Elms.

We’re a growth equity firm that invests exclusively in B2B software throughout the US and internationally. Generally speaking, we invest $5- $50 million in companies that are around the ballpark of $2 - $20 million in revenue, but I’d say that the monetary investment is far from the most important value that’s offered. I really respect the genuine care and dedication given to our portfolio companies and their founders. We don’t push a playbook onto entrepreneurs, but rather we allow the founders to lead the conversation on how we can add the most meaningful value throughout the company’s growth. We’re very active with our portfolio companies and that’s led to long-standing success for both the companies we’ve backed and the firm as a whole.  
Another great aspect of the firm is the people. My co-workers are as down-to-earth and supportive as they are talented. There’s a widespread commitment to growth and that creates an energizing work environment.

Rewinding a bit, what are some big takeaways from your time in public accounting?

Public accounting is like bootcamp for the mind. No matter your career goals it undoubtedly conditions you for continual learning, pushing through tight deadlines, problem solving, and harnessing your intrinsic motivation to succeed.
I learned how important it is to feel aligned with company culture, to take time to travel, and to seek mentors within the firm and community. And on a lighter note, I learned that 90% of accountants are far from the typical accountant stereotype. It was a fun 3 years.

What advice would you give anyone working in public accounting or studying accounting?

First and foremost: it’s ok to not have it all figured out. I can’t count the number of existential crises on one hand that I had during my accounting career. Yet, it always works out in the end, right? And if it’s not fine then it’s just not the end. There’s so much of the journey left at this stage.
While in public accounting, take advantage of the resources and connections that come with being at a large company. Work with clients in various industries to see a wide range of business processes. Invite the opportunity to work in other cities to grow your network in different offices. Find a way to be a leader within your firm in an area outside of your main role such as through community involvement or recruiting.
Make time for networking and do it early and often. Meet with people in different careers to find what piques your curiosity. If you have a wide range of interests and opportunities, then figuring out what you don’t want to do is sometimes the best place to start.
Feeling “comfortable” should be your worst enemy. Explore outside interests and actively fight the temptation of complacency. Cultivate different skillsets outside of accounting to give you more versatility when it comes time to transition. It was important for me to stay creative while in a highly analytical field, so I continued to film and produce wedding films on the weekends.
And most importantly—never lose yourself or your health for the sake of your job.

Any general career advice you’d like to share?

Some may view my career path as a straight line, as if one thing naturally led to the other. Realistically, I felt lost throughout college and most of my accounting career. I think it’s important to be transparent about that because I remember feeling defeated when comparing my path to those who were in further stages of their career.
Be vocal about your interests and your career goals. The more people who know what you want, the more people who can help you get there. And in return, be a hype woman and connector for others. Cheer people on when they’re leading the pack and pick them back up when it’s not going as planned. I haven’t always realized this, but one of the most important roles you can play in any room is the connector. Being a resource and helping bridge the right information to the right people is invaluable.
And lastly, say yes to opportunities faster than your brain can convince you to say no. Give yourself more than a minute to think about it and your brain will gladly persuade you that you’re not ready for the next opportunity, you don’t know enough, and you don’t have enough time to make it happen. Say yes like a knee-jerk reaction and then figure out how to make it happen later. Spoiler alert: Nine times out of ten it ends up working out.

What motivates you?

What motivates me is the potential to impact the broader community and my family. It’s cheesy to say but my dream is not to own a big mansion on a hill and an expensive car (shoutout to my trusty 2007 Nissan…) I dream about enabling my parents to travel and retire comfortably. I want my future family to be able to experience the world and the many cultures, places, and adventures that it has to offer.
I also love mentoring students, especially high schoolers, and talking to them about business. Most kids don't grow up dreaming about being in a business role or starting a business of their own. We can forget to talk to our young people about all the opportunities in the business field and entrepreneurship because it’s not seen as a guaranteed success or a straight path. It’s a great avenue for young adults to harness their natural skillsets and figure out how those skills can fulfill a need in the market. By passing on my experience to students and connecting them to opportunities, I hope to make my community an even more vibrant place.

Who do you call upon for career or business advice?

Many of the mentors, professors, and peers that I connected with at UMKC and through the Trustees Scholars Program have continued to be vital. Whether it’s a career move, personal finance advice, or even real estate investments, there’s a huge community of alumni and supporters that are ready to help. Now that VFA is in the picture, I’m also continually seeking advice from peers within the program.
On that note, a piece of recent advice that I am trying to implement is to build a hypothetical board of advisors for my life. I want to seek out diverse advisors that align with my goals, connect regularly, and encourage them to call me out on both my strengths and weaknesses. After all, every successful business has an experienced board guiding it towards progress. So, shouldn’t we each have one, too?

What does the future hold?

Hopefully another Chiefs super bowl win, am I right?
Honestly, that’s a great question and I won’t pretend to have it figured out. I plan to keep giving it my all in my current career and welcoming growth opportunities with wide-open arms. In the short-term, I plan to invest in real estate, meet as many people as possible, stay active, travel when I can, and strive to be a resource. I want to continue connecting knowledge, opportunities, and resources with the people who need it.