8 min read

A Kaleidoscope of People: Maja Vujic

Welcome back to another edition of 'A Kaleidoscope of People', a series of posts that will focus on the incredible individuals behind Kaleidoscope. For this piece, Bogdan sat down for breakfast and coffee with Maja, in Cambridge. We hope you enjoy!

Preamble: professional background

Prior to Kaleidoscope, Maja was leading talent and growth at early-stage venture capital firm, Entrepreneur First (EF). She was a key hire to spearhead the firm’s expansion into the Canadian market and build an ecosystem of aspiring, North American-based, deep tech entrepreneurs.

Maja spent years working with early-stage startups, from both the VC perspective at EF, and an incubator lens at Creative Destruction Lab. During this time, she observed many biotechs struggle with the exact problems Kaleidoscope is solving, so she jumped at the opportunity to help create powerful software for scientists.

Before switching her focus to working with early-stage startups, Maja was a top 5 Canadian tennis player that went on to be the Captain of D1 varsity women’s tennis team at Minnesota, where she studied economics and math.

Kicking it off with what might be an obvious question. You come from an economics and math background and then worked a few roles spanning corporate partnerships, talent, and start-up support. Now you’re an early (and integral) team member at Kaleidoscope, building software for science. How has navigating those changes been? Any challenges or surprises now that you’re doing the work you’re doing?

They've all been so different from each other! I think there's been somewhat of a common thread throughout, of being around start-ups at a number of my roles. At both CDL and EF, I was surrounded by so many early-stage companies. So for a while, I was curious what it would be like to actually join one. When you work for an incubator, part of your job is to hype up the idea of start-ups and paint it in its most attractive light. Of course, you talk about the challenges too, but it’s too idealistic in many ways. I started getting really interested in what it would actually be like once you’re in it.

And then it’s one thing to transition from a more ‘standard’ job to a start-up, but a completely different thing to join a start-up that is building in the software-meets-biotech world, as a generalist without that background. There was a lot to read and learn. I remember feeling nervous about the learning curve initially, but I think working with some of the great scientists on our team, like you or Mandana, has really helped me learn so much about the science side of things, which has translated to me being able to do so much more in my day-to-day.

I also think it's really important to be a self-starter and to remain disciplined through the ambiguity, because it’s really easy to get lost in the vastness of early-stage product work and company-building. So for me, it’s about finding ways to always go back to the company goals and your goals, to make sure that whatever you're doing is the most valuable thing you can be doing for the company. This is important to evaluate constantly - almost daily - I think, because a lot of our goals will change, or the product will evolve immensely over the course of a week. In my previous roles, everything was much more defined — I knew what to expect in six months or a year or even two years. At Kaleidoscope, there's so much more change on a daily basis, which is really fun. I think we're faced with challenges I would have never faced in my previous roles.

That framing makes sense and resonates with me as well. The challenge of thinking on your feet and being ruthless with what you spend time on is so special and in many ways so unique to the start-up world. What thoughts or perspectives would you share with people who are maybe similar to you from several years ago and looking to go down the path you did?

So I don't know if I purposely did this each time, but I feel like I learned a lot by surrounding myself with the right senior people or mentors. I think I've been extremely lucky because I've worked with incredibly ambitious and driven people time and time again. And then it doesn't really matter what you're focused on, because you're always moving forward and pushing yourself and around people who are pushing you. Maybe that’s it: I think I would tell anyone to find that group of people that are going to push you, no matter what you’re doing in life.

Also, don't be afraid of change! I think back to when I started at US Bank, fresh out of school — it was pretty good money for me back then. And I remember my dad, in a typical immigrant way, telling me to stay in the US, make a ton of money, work my way up, and so on. But at some point, I realized that job, despite the security and clearer trajectory upwards, wasn’t for me. When I left and came to Toronto, I didn’t really have a clear path of what I would do next. But I'm so glad I made the change, because otherwise my life would look very different than it is today.

I’m the same way: I definitely love fast-evolving work and I need to surround myself with people who inspire me. That’s what makes the hard work rewarding and get you through tough times. I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but earlier you mentioned discipline and adaptability. For people who don’t know you, can you share a bit about your sports background and any common threads between that and the challenges you faced professionally?

Yeah, tennis really defined a lot of who I am. Not just playing at the level I did, as a Division 1 NCAA athlete, but also the fact that it's an individual sport, where you have to be able to really depend on yourself when it gets tough. When you're on the court, it's just you and nobody else, so discipline is definitely a big thing, in training and in competing.

I vividly remember this one early memory in my professional tennis life. I was 13 and it was the first time I ever made nationals, which was a big deal because I had started tennis late in my life relative to others. My dad, my coach, and I went to Miami for a big tournament, and we got there a couple of weeks leading up to the tournament to do some fitness training. One day, my coach asked me to do 20 double skips (with a skipping rope). At that point, I don't think I'd ever done even a single double skip in my life. So I would do two or three and mess up, but I needed to get 20. I’d get to 12 and mess up. 14 and mess up. Eventually, I got to 19 and I messed up and I was like “Okay, 19 is basically 20, right?”. And my coach said to me “No, it's not.” At that moment, it started absolutely pouring rain, and I remember looking at him and saying “Ok, now 19 must count.” And he just said “No, I don’t care if there’s thunder and lightning outside, until you get to 20 this is not over.” Eventually, I did get 20 — I was soaking wet and wanted to cry. But that was my first moment of realizing that shortcuts are not an option. You have to be driven enough to push on until you overcome disappointments and failures, or you’ll never make it.

There were a lot of examples of that in my tennis career, of times I had to push through really challenging things or really trying circumstances. Another theme that comes to mind is even just how I had to cope with various suboptimal conditions because of my family situation. Both my parents were immigrants to Canada, and tennis is an expensive sport. We didn’t realize this when I started, but I remember how hard we worked to make it work. I remember my dad would negotiate with my coaches because the fees were too steep, so I’d have to stay longer or come earlier and give lessons to people to make up for the money we didn’t have, while also going to school and stuff. Or when we’d go to competitions — we would drive up in this really old minivan, while all the other families had luxury vehicles. Actually, no one else would commute for two hours for competitions, they would just get a hotel room and stay in the area. But we couldn’t afford that so my dad would lay down all the back seats and put blankets there and we’d leave my house at 4:00 am and I’d try to sleep in the back before the start of my 8:00 am match.

All of this added a level of grit, I think, where I really wanted to prove that I could do it, no matter the circumstances. Those ideas of being super disciplined and learning to make the most of what you have definitely came from my tennis and translated into a lot of the work I do in life today.

You’ve shared some of these stories with me before, but I still get goosebumps hearing you talk about them. Ok, going in a completely different direction now. Something I love about Kaleidoscope is how we’re making remote-first work as a team. I love that we have so many different cities represented by our team. You live in DC. If your best friend was coming to visit you for a day, and you wanted to make DC shine to try and convince them to move there, what would you do with them?

Ok, food and being active or adventurous are a big part of my identity. The first thing that comes to mind is Rock Creek Park, this beautiful park that I love running along. So maybe we’d start with a walk (or a jog, if they’re up for it). And then we’d go to Georgetown, which is all brick and cobblestone roads and beautiful old buildings. Even the Georgetown campus is gorgeous — lots of little shops and restaurants in the area.

I haven’t been to all the museums yet, but DC has great museums. The National Museum of African American History is pretty special, so I’d highly recommend to my friend we go there for the afternoon. And then we’d probably do a delicious meal near my house. I live in Columbia Heights, which I love as a neighborhood. It’s so diverse and has so many great restaurants. We’d probably go to my favorite ramen place called Menya, which is pretty close to my house.

Next time I’m in DC, let’s do this exact itinerary please! A somewhat related question but more focused on you: imagine it’s a Sunday at 3:00 pm. Where is someone most likely to find you?

I feel like on the weekends, I love to do as much as possible. The week for me is focused on work, and for the weekends I love to get outside and get stuff done out of the house. So whether I'm on a run, maybe playing tennis, or visiting a market (I love markets), I’m usually doing something. Actually, even during the work week, I try to be outside when I can — I really like my patio setup!

Okay, last question. Imagine that you’re on one of these Sunday adventures, maybe you're on some part of a walk through a wooded area. A wizard steps in front of you, and says “I'm going to make you fluent in any animal language, but you'll forget all the other languages you speak. Pick wisely.” What would you choose?

That is the weirdest question I've ever received. I mean, I think I would try to figure out what animal language is most similar to a human language so that I can re-learn and communicate with my fellow humans. So maybe that would be a quick Google search or question to ChatGPT? Oh, actually, maybe cats because then I could train all the cats to hunt all the rats in DC. That's what I would do.

Thank you for reading! If you want to chat more about anything we wrote, or you’re interested in finding a way to work together, let us know!