Oana Olteanu’s childhood playground was a TR-85 battle tank. While growing up in Romania, her father was a tank mechanic, teaching her how the smallest fix could make a hulking machine come to life. To this day, she loves the feeling of driving a tank. “It makes you feel unstoppable.”
That relentless spirit and willingness to get her hands dirty are why Venture Capital Journal chose Oana for its 2023 Rising Star award. She helps portfolio founders spot opportunities and stays up late on recruiting calls bringing in talent that changes the trajectory of their company.
“Oana is a powerhouse—an absolute force of nature. She has been essential to getting us up and running, putting in a tremendous amount of energy helping us find our first hires, connecting us with customers, and providing intel on the market,” says Matt Welsh, founder of SignalFire portfolio company Fixie. “Everyone who has worked with Oana has similar things to say. We’re thrilled to be working with her.”
But Oana never intended to be a VC. In fact, she still cringes when people call her one.
When Oana hears someone say they’re a venture capitalist, the first thing that comes to her mind is a loud blowhard in a Patagonia vest who talks a big game about providing value but never really shows up. Oana was determined to be different. So she structured her career around a single ethic that SignalFire shares: help founders.
Earlier in her career, a seed founder she’d backed was lagging in their go-to-market motion and was in danger of failing to raise a Series A. Oana compiled a list of 50 potential customers, collected feedback on the product from them, and then found 15 other companies in the sector that were consistently hitting their revenue targets and might have strategies to share. She presented these contacts to the founder alongside an offer to make introductions, noting that founder-to-founder talks always beat out founder-to-investor talks. Rather than ghosting a portfolio company because they were in a rough spot, Oana stepped up to help them help themselves. The founder was able to build a network of peer advisors and capitalize on the new customer leads. Soon they were receiving preemptive interest for their series A.
“It was the founder who moved the chess pieces and got the go-to-market strategy to work, not me. I only advised,” Oana insists.
“Oana goes to bat for her founders more than anyone else I know. She’s put her own blood, sweat, and tears into our company, from sourcing leads for an important position to evangelizing our product at conferences—even connecting us to expert advisors who have built companies facing similar problems we have. Oana is always willing to go the extra mile to help us out and it really makes a difference, especially for us early-stage and first-time founders,” says Galen Marchetti, the CEO of Kurtosis.
Her path to this point was as unorthodox as the results that followed. It’s a journey that started in high school when she helped create a space station.
After falling in love with Star Wars at a young age, Oana was browsing NASA’s site in her computer science class when she saw that they were hosting a design contest to reimagine the International Space Station. She entered and put forward an idea unlike anything the judges had seen before. Inspired by the bees her family kept at home, she suggested they make the space station like a honeycomb. It was modular, yet able to maintain the doughnut shape needed to keep the station spinning to generate artificial gravity.
She won the competition. Oana’s first time on a plane was when she was flown to visit a NASA site as part of her prize. Impressed by their intelligent systems work, she knew she wanted to be in software.
After moving herself to Germany to study computer science and machine learning, she ended up in Silicon Valley while working for SAP. That’s where she was first exposed to the VC profession in SAP’s corporate venture arm. After a successful stint at Scale Ventures, Oana came to SignalFire, where she’s now a partner leading the fund’s developer tool and AI infrastructure investment practice.
Providing measurable value is a simple philosophy and one that’s earned Oana a reputation as one of the most supportive venture capitalists in the industry. When The Twenty Minute VC podcast’s host, Harry Stebbings, asked who the best young partners were in venture, Oana was overwhelmingly recommended—becoming the most suggested by a factor of four. You can hear Oana on the 20VC podcast here.
What makes Oana different isn’t just her rapid rise, but her willingness to roll up her sleeves and build beside the founders she funds. Rather than having a background in consulting or finance, Oana’s an engineer. Calling her a VC undersells her deep technical skills.
“Her expertise and understanding of emerging tech are obvious and she is one of the few investors I’m able to give deep technical details/updates to without further explanation,” says the CEO of a stealth company Oana works with.
“I treat the founders’ time as more valuable than my own because it’s the founders who have the impossible job of building these companies against all odds, so if I can do anything that makes a difference for them, I will do it,” Oana explains. “My job is the easy one.“
It’s this perspective that founders deserve more from their VCs that attracted her to SignalFire. The early-stage fund was the first VC built like a tech company, spending six years in stealth making its Beacon AI system for sourcing investments and helping founders hire before SignalFire launched. SignalFire’s other value-adds include its advisor network, data science team, and in-house experts on growth and PR. It was a natural fit for Oana’s founder-focused mindset.
It all comes back to Oana’s drive to see everyone get their fair shake in the tech ecosystem. Beyond the work she does with founders, she’s also helping more women get jobs in tech or start their own companies with the ShesReady2Dev community she started.
“Women’s career paths are steeper than men’s, no doubt about it. Talks about influence and growth in the startup world are received with skepticism by many women since too many have faced resistance to their advancement. After working at an all-male startup, I had a firsthand experience with that problem. That’s why I want to even out the playing field in the startup world, so women feel more comfortable entering and succeeding in this space,” Oana writes.
Oana remains steadfast that VCs should never treat capital as their only real value-add and should instead actually work alongside their portfolio companies. The help should always be optional, but founders shouldn’t have to beg for it or hear crickets if everything isn’t up and to the right. You’re more likely to see Oana digging through her portfolio companies’ engineering role candidates than talking herself up on stage. That’s why being named Venture Capital Journal’s Rising Star is both a little ironic…and also deeply fitting.
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