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Can you give too much? John China, President of SVB Capital, reflects on how mentorship helped him grow into an executive, and on whether, at some point, you need to see payback from all your giving. Spoiler alert: the answer is no. Never stop giving. 

In over 23 years at Silicon Valley Bank, John China has made it his mission to make connections between entrepreneurs, investors, corporations, and more. Many, many entrepreneurs at Techstars and beyond have benefitted from his Give First perspective on working with startups: that you “give, give, give” and you have to “be willing to do that for a long time.”

David Cohen asked John, “At what point do you need to see some payback from that giving?” You should really listen to hear his whole, fascinating answer, but the short version is: You keep giving. 

John recently moved into a new role as President of SVB Capital, with $4.5 billion under management, and he’ll be supporting entrepreneurs and startups at their earliest stages. John and David talk about what this new role means for him and for entrepreneurs. And they get into how John’s mentor at SVB helped him grow into an executive, and how John is paying it forward by mentoring women and other POC. He describes himself as “first generation Mexican American from immigrant parents”—and his life experience has contributed strongly to making him the Give First person that he is.

Companies and resources mentioned in this podcast:

Edited highlights from the conversation:

Can you give too much? 

David: One of the things I’ve heard you tell your team is: Guys, it’s give, give, give, expect it to be two or three years of give, give, give before you ever get anything back. It’s not quid pro quo. It’s be willing to do that for a long time. 

How do you know that that’s paying off, or when you decide that maybe you’ve given too much? Adam Grant in his book talks about, there’s some people that’ll just take, take, take on the other side of that. So at what point do you need to see some payback from that giving?

John: You know, it’s a really interesting question. I’m very inspired by Adam Grant. I’ve had a chance to meet him and spend time with him thanks to David Hornik and his Lobby Conference. And I’ve actually asked him that question. I’ve actually pondered this idea of a world of takers, matchers, and givers. Can givers long term win? Certainly Adam Grant’s work proves that givers do win in the long haul. 

I’ve thought a lot about this, and from where I sit, I don’t know how you eventually ask for something. I think if you are in a giving mindset and it’s an authentic voice within you to give, I’m not sure you ever really need to ask.

Certainly the way we measure, if you want to get technical, is we do look for what we call client advocacy. I know this is something you care about deeply, David. We think that the best loudspeaker for our brand are the clients we serve. And so the way we long term measure our effectiveness is around client advocacy. And so again, I’ve often asked the question, is there a point where you’ve given too much? And I actually think the answer’s no, I don’t think that you ever need to ask that question.

Advocating for Women and POC

John: You know, people always ask me, Why do you have such a commitment? As a first generation Mexican American from immigrant parents, for me, it’s simple. 

Women form 50% of our society. And if they’re not getting advantages, or being disadvantaged, then certainly people of color have a lot worse chance. And so for me, it’s just a very rational way to look at the world. We’re not using the talents of half of our society.

Especially in our industry, David, where VCs generate less than 3% of the capital being raised by women. And then when you look at the entrepreneurs statistics, they’re just slightly better at under 10%. And so at my time of the bank and in my new role, I’m really excited to try to bring products that really support giving capital to women in both the GP side and on the entrepreneur side. I’ll be spending a great amount of my energy focused on: How do we go to the LP community and get them to commit funds to women GPs and women entrepreneurs? I think it’s a perfect time, and I really believe that from where Silicon Valley Bank sits, we sit at a unique place in the ecosystem where we get a chance to potentially debt the universe a bit. I’m really looking forward to that opportunity.

David: I see the same opportunity, we’ll talk more offline about that, but I see the coupling of that with these managing director roles that we have here at Techstars where you get 10 investments a year and you can build a portfolio of 50 companies in five years. It’s hard to do anywhere else, and it’s an apprenticeship model, you learn from doing. There might be something fun to collaborate on there as well.

John: Absolutely.

Rapid fire round

David: First question. What give, give, give relationship, that you’ve had with a CEO, are you most proud of today?

John: There are several, of course, but for me it’s when a CEO is in a turnaround situation and you’ve been there in the worst of times, and you’re able to come out the other end, and you had to do some pretty difficult discussions with that CEO. But more importantly, you also had to restructure things and convince people on your side to do the same. When I think about the CEO relationships that are most meaningful, it’s the ones where we went through some really dark times together.

David: How about your favorite city in the world, someplace you think everybody should visit?

John: Well, I’ve had several. Paris, Paris always comes to mind, one, two, three. But I’m really falling in love with the North American cities. I think North America is underrated. And so I keep real track. So I’m gonna cheat and tell you that I look at Toronto, New York City, and Mexico City as three shining examples of cities that are really taking on more prominence in the world ahead of us.

David: John, is there a charity that you might be involved with that you would urge people to take a look at, and why?

John: Yeah. You know, I just joined the board of Meals on Wheels San Francisco. I’ve been part of Meals on Wheels for many, many years. But I love causes where we can solve the problem, where we can see the solution, the light at the end of the tunnel. And ending hunger for elderly people in San Francisco is something that we collectively can all solve. And so I’m very passionate, very committed to helping Meals on Wheels San Francisco achieve its goals.

David: Well as you know, you never know what you’re going to get back from Giving First. So we here at Techstars, we’ll make a donation to that one for you in your name, and also make one to the Techstars Foundation, which is focused on diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship. Just a little thank you for being on the show.

John: Thank you. David.

David: Last question, rapid fire. The last question and I’ll let you go. Is there somebody, dead or alive, in history, it doesn’t matter who, that you would love to have dinner with and why?

John: The person who has inspired me over the years is Abraham Lincoln. Obviously I’ve read his books and the books about him. And I think about that point in the war, when it comes to civil rights and the choices he had to make to keep a tattered government together to fight, to do the right thing. He has always inspired me. When I’m put at my toughest challenges, will I rise to the occasion and do the right thing? And I am constantly inspired by his leadership and what he did to keep this country together at a time that it frankly wanted to break apart.

David: Great. John, on behalf of everybody at Techstars and everybody listening, thank you so much for all you do for startups and the startup community and all that SVB does. It’s noticed and appreciated, and thanks for being on the show with us today.


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