Ivana Ma is the third venture capitalist to appear on a reality television series, but the first to survive the initial cut. Her ultimate demise on the second season of The Apprentice wasn’t terribly dignified, but the former ABS Capital and Advent International pro proved her business savvy during 13 episodes, and nearly proved herself best qualified to run one of Donald Trump’s real estate projects for a year.
I sat down with her in a Cambridge, Mass., coffee shop to discuss her career, the show and that mysterious blue cloud. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q Why did you decide to become a venture capitalist?
A I didn’t know anything about venture at all going into school. In fact, I was actually a bio pre-med major like every other freshman in college, and I did that for three years. But I really spent a lot more time on extracurricular activities like this organization called UVA LEAD [leadership education development]. And maybe because of that program, I found myself at Barnes & Noble reading leadership management books in the business section, instead of reading about biology. So I thought it was a definite sign that I needed to do something different and changed my major, almost on a whim.
Q To economics?
A Actually, there’s a two-year undergraduate business program at UVA that you apply to almost like you’re applying to business school. So I applied and got in, which meant that I had to spend an extra year in college. So I was a finance major, and you know the standard track is management consulting or investment banking.
Q That’s what they tell me.
A Yeah, so I had an offer with Solomon Smith Barney in New York, and another one with Alex. Brown. And Alex. Brown, through its investment banking division, also recruited for ABS Capital. I was taking a venture capital class at the time and it seemed interesting and fun, but tough to get into. But I interviewed with ABS Capital through Alex. Brown and got it. Kind of the right place at the right time.
Q Why did you move over to Advent International?
A I had spent four years at ABS Capital, and I felt that I had hit a plateau. I spent my first three years in Baltimore, and then I came up to the Wayland, Mass., office with Bobby Goswami and Dean Goodermote. Part of it was a lifestyle thing, where I felt that I was a bit too young to be commuting from the city to [suburban] Wayland every day, so I began looking for another job in town-something at the senior associate level on a partner track, and the Advent opportunity came along.
Q Did you end up leaving Advent before or after The Apprentice came along?
A I quit Advent in order to do the show.
Q Which makes you the second person to quit Advent to do a reality television show. [Another Advent associate went on Temptation Island II.]
A Yeah. You basically can’t disclose what you’re doing unless someone signs an NDA, and Advent wouldn’t sign my NDA. There was a change in leadership in my group, where the partner who had hired me was stepping down and there was a new guy who had stepped in, so I was going back and forth with them for around 48 hours. And they basically said that they weren’t going to sign an NDA without knowing what it’s for.
Q You couldn’t even tell Advent what you were asking them not to disclose?
A Exactly, so I told them that I understood and apologized-because I felt really bad-and said that I’d just resign and make it easier for everyone, just to be out of their hair.
Q Did you ever think about keeping the VC job and ditching The Apprentice for career purposes?
A I think things were just going downhill at Advent at that time. I mean the group was being right-sized, there were changes going on and, honestly, everything that I was promised was not being met. Even if The Apprentice hadn’t come along, I would have been looking to do something new. Part of it was just where I was in my life: late 20s, feeling a bit stuck in a rut, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I mean, I wasn’t looking forward to going to work every day, whereas I could remember three years ago, when I was so excited about my job and loved looking for the next big thing. So, this was kind of the right time in my life to take a risk. I had been doing venture for five years, and there is only so much I could do at my level. My choices were either to go to business school, look for another partner-track position and hope for the best, or do something completely different. Also, the open call for The Apprentice was right across the street from my office, so it was almost like, how could I not?
Q Did you go on a lunch break?
A It was on a Saturday, so I was in the office that morning anyway, and I typed up my application in about five minutes. I thought I was getting there early because it began at 9 a.m. and I was there at 8:45 a.m., but there were already a thousand people in line. What was funny was that there was a guy who wasn’t in line, but who was selling hand-warmers and hot cocoa and stuff, totally taking advantage of the situation. And I thought, that’s a guy who should be on the show.
Q Did he sneak into line at the end?
A No, he ran out of everything, even though he had gone out and gotten more stuff, and then kind of said, I’m all out, thank you very much. See ya, suckers.’
Q Had the first season already aired at that point?
A Yeah, it had finished. And I watched it and was like everyone else, saying, Oh, that’s so easy, why didn’t they do this or why didn’t they do that?’ Little did I know, after being on the show, oh, that’s why they didn’t do this or that. Not as easy as it seems.
Q When you began The Apprentice, did you feel that your VC experience would help?
A I definitely felt like my venture experience would help, because you are exposed to lots of different types of companies, and really learn what makes a business succeed or what makes a business fail. And I thought that would be great to carry into The Apprentice, but most of the tasks were sales, marketing or promotions in entertainment and retail. So that’s completely different from venture, which is more about high-growth industries.
Q But is that different from what you would have done if you won, which supposedly is some sort of real estate development job with Trump?
A In you win, you basically get paid a lot to do a PR job, so I can think of worse things to do.
Q How realistic is the show given the confines of a few days crammed into one hour?
A I was a little disappointed. The way it usually worked was that 48 hours were dedicated to tasks, and then the third day you would have a boardroom, which was typically two to four hours. And what surprised me was that in the actual show-which is 45 minutes once you remove all the commercials-they show most of the boardroom and only dedicate around 20 minutes to the tasks, even though that was what we spent the majority of our time on. So a lot of the things that I was really proud of were in the tasks.
Q And those didn’t get in?
A Right. We would ask [producers] why they didn’t show this brainstorming process, and they’d say that it didn’t make good TV because it wasn’t exciting or entertaining enough.
Q Every now and then, another contestant would snipe at you a bit in the interviews, particularly about your VC experience. Did that surprise you?
A There were a couple of comments made about me that I was surprised about, not necessarily about my career, but about me in general. I think there was one where Bradford had come back for an episode and said that if he wanted to hire someone to look at a spreadsheet, I’d hire Ivana, or something like that. The thing is, no one really knew what I did, except for Pamela, Kevin and Kelly. Everyone else had to ask me what venture capital was. A lot of times people would say, Oh, you’re so analytical,’ and I’m just thinking, That’s part of my job.’
Q How did you feel about how you appeared on the show?
A In the beginning, I was pretty disappointed in how I was being portrayed, particularly at the beginning. After the first couple of episodes, though, I’m like, it’s just TV.
Q Did you have any inkling of what a big deal your final episode would become? (Ma dropped her skirt on a public street to try to win a candy sales contest. Trump later chided her: “I will not have a stripper work for me. Ivana, you’re fired.”)
A What’s funny is that the episode before my last one, I was watching with my parents, and [the episode showed] me making a sexual comment, and my mother and father turned to me kind of shocked. So my fiance and I knew what was coming up, obviously, but we didn’t know how they were going to portray it or promote it. We were definitely upset though, when we saw the promotion at the end of that second-to-last [for Ivana] episode, where they put a blue cloud over where I took off my skirt, in order to make it more provocative. So I definitely was nervous about it, and if they were going to make it look like I wasn’t wearing anything underneath, and we even called NBC and [told them] that if they showed that blue cloud in the episode we will take action.
Q So what are you doing now? Have you gotten any solid job offers since The Apprentice ended?
A I’ve been approached about a huge spectrum of things, and I’ve probably been helped by my VC background, since that required me to be focused on 10 different things at the same time. So I signed up for the Speaker’s Bureau the day after I was fired, and the Bahamian Tourism Bureau hired me, so I’m doing a commercial for them. I’m also working on a fashion line with the fashion designer we worked with on the show. On the entertainment side, I’m going to be in an independent film with a really funny script, so it’s stuff I’m really excited about.
Q You seem more interested in the entrepreneurial side of things than in investing.
A I’ve been speaking to a consulting firm in D.C., but I haven’t spoken with any VC firms. What I’d really like to do is follow [former Battery Ventures partner] Todd Dagres’ lead and do something in entertainment production, if I had the money. So let him know.
Q Any chance you’ll return to the VC market, say if a true partner-track position was available?
A It’s really a shot in the dark, but, yeah, I’d be very interested. Or even what I was looking at before The Apprentice, which is a sort of marketing position.
Q Lots of firms seem interested in hiring those folks.
A I’d love that.
Education: B.S. from McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.
Work: ABS Capital Partners; Advent International; The Apprentice.
Did you know? Ma’s fiance, Brian, is an HBS MBA candidate and used to work at Highland Capital Partners.
Best career move? “Passing on the investment banking offer with Solomon Smith Barney.”
Worst career move? “Maybe things would have been better if I had joined a different firm than Advent, but then I wouldn’t have done The Apprentice, so I think everything happens for a reason.”
Was your first car really a Porsche? “Yes, but what they edited out was that my father is really into fixing up old cars, so he fixed a Porsche up for my 16th birthday. It’s not like he bought one brand new. And I demolished it a year later.”
Current car? “Don’t have one.”
Favorite meal? “BBQ shrimp and cheese grits.”
(Still more Ma: www.ivanama.com)