Kristina Milke (’93 BCom)

Jenna Marynowski, BAA Communications Committee Volunteer - 15 October 2021

Kristina Milke, ’93 BCom has had a fascinating career spanning oil and gas, accounting, technology, and venture capital. This year, she was honoured by receiving both the University of Alberta Alumni Service Award and the YEG Startup Community Awards Mentor of the Year Award. Here she shares pivotal moments in her career journey and advice for entrepreneurs looking to start or scale their businesses. 

Kristina Milke

BAA: Tell us about your undergraduate experience at the Alberta School of Business. What are your favourite memories? Can you share how your career has developed post-graduation through to today?

I started University five years after high school because I could not figure out what I wanted to do. My parents were horrified when I told them I wanted to work and not go to university because I wanted to buy a car. My mother made a deal with me: if I stayed in some type of educational program part-time, she would accept my decision. I think she knew I would tire of the types of roles I would ultimately be hired for without any post-secondary — she was 100 per cent right. My mother did not get the opportunity to get a post-secondary education until later in life when she did 11 years of night school from the time I was 11 until I was 22. It was tough going while she worked full time, but she ultimately successfully obtained her CMA designation.

I was truly fortunate to have a good job at Enbridge (formerly Interprovincial Pipe Line) as a clerk in the rates department with great benefits, but most importantly, I had two bosses who both strongly suggested I go to university and get a degree. They even offered to hire me back as a summer student while I pursued that education.

University was a bit challenging at first as I was on average five years older than most of the students in the business faculty, but I quickly met a few other students who, like me, did not pursue post-secondary until several years after high school; several of them became lifelong friends. That is one of the best outcomes of my time at the University of Alberta; meeting like-minded people. We formed a small group and did many things together, including meeting these amazing students from Sweden who were on an exchange program with the faculty. We had so much fun with them, including attending the annual Rocky Mountain Business Seminar in Jasper one year, which was a major highlight for me. In my final year, my three friends and I decided we wanted to consider doing an exchange program which, of course, was strongly urged by our new Swedish friends, and we did it. The four of us went off to Uppsala, Sweden for six months and to this day, I still consider it one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. What a time we had as part of a group of international business students from around the globe who to this day remain close friends. We were a memorable group in the small town and many swedes joined into our fun. We took trips to Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Oslo, Tallinn and more. Subsequently, we’ve had five, 10, 20 and (soon) 30 year reunions in various countries since our time in Sweden.

BAA: Can you share how your career developed post-graduation? 

Once I graduated, I was fortunate to get a job articling at Ernst & Young. I did not have a specific career in mind except that I wanted to become a Chartered Accountant and I thought I would figure the rest out after that, which is exactly what happened. I worked in the oil and gas industry for just one year and quickly realized it was not a sector I was deeply attached to. From there I went into Aerospace where I stayed for six and a half years. I learned many things in that role and oversaw a team of finance professionals and worked very closely with the general managers that were there over that period. It was a publicly traded company performing maintenance and upgrades on Hercules aircraft both in Canada and for various foreign military organizations. When I left, I went to Intuit Canada where my career was really evolving and I was able to participate in very focused leadership training. Intuit was my first exposure into a true technology company, and I was fortunate to be able to learn from some amazing people both in Edmonton and in California. They ultimately decided to expand their Canadian operations into Toronto and asked many of us to move there, in which I opted not to participate. They gave those of us that declined one year before they replaced our roles in the GTA area and during that time I went and worked in their London, UK office for four months, which was a great experience. While there I decided I really wanted to move from traditional finance roles to operations. It was then that I found Investopedia, which was owned by Forbes at the time.

BAA: What was it like moving from finance positions to being the general manager and senior vice-president of a tech company when you joined Investopedia?

The original founders of Investopedia were still at the company but had six months left of their two-year post-acquisition contract when they decided to depart, so I was provided the opportunity to take the reins and it was a game-changer for me professionally. I now had the responsibility for the whole operation and reported into the Forbes family in New York City. After around 18 months, Tim Forbes called me to let me know that they wanted to sell Investopedia to a strategic buyer and wanted the transaction done within three months; it was going to be my job to pitch the company to the prospective buyers. Tim assured me when it was all over, I would call him and tell him it was the best thing I had experienced in my career and he was 100 per cent right. It was truly an amazing experience to be in midtown Manhattan pitching this company to prospective buyers like Morningstar, MSN and private equity groups. The company was ultimately acquired by a publicly-traded company out of Los Angeles.

BAA: How did your prior experiences assist you in entering the world of angel investing and venture capital?

While I was at Investopedia, one of the things I quickly discovered was it can be lonely being at the top of an organizational chart and so one of my friends took me to a “business” meeting where he assured me I would meet folks with similar interests. It was an angel group meeting which is something similar to a Dragons Den episode, except there are 20+ investors around the table and four companies pitching for investment. It was fascinating to me, and I quickly realized that I loved this space. The combination of early-stage companies in the technology sector felt like I had found my place. I joined the group, started investing in a few companies, and quickly learned what not to do as an angel investor, but I knew that my next career move would be something in this new world.

When I left Investopedia post-sale, I started doing some consulting for small companies and finally a few years later became one of the co-founders of Valhalla Private Capital along with the original founder of the angel group. I learned so many things during this time and met many people from around the globe who shared in the passion of helping technology start-ups.

Today, I am one of Sprout Fund’s managing partners, which invests in early-stage technology companies that demonstrate they have a global market opportunity, a great and diverse founding team, with some product market validation. I also spend time helping the start-up community through volunteering. I was fortunate to be invited to be one of the founding mentors to an amazing program called Venture Mentoring Service started out of the alumni office at the University of Alberta. This program was started in 2013 based on a model out of MIT in Boston and today is a thriving program renamed to Threshold Impact VMS because of the support provided by Ray Muzyka, who remains the founding chair and someone I would consider to be a personal mentor and friend of mine.

BAA: Can you tell us a bit about your board and community work, and what drives your involvement in these organizations?

In 2021 I was asked to take on the Chair of the Advisory Board for Threshold Impact VMS, and I am truly excited and aspire to continue to help deliver amazing experiences for all of the participants in the program. It is a joy to be part of something that has built an amazing community of learners. Everyone who attends and participates on any team consistently provides feedback that they experience new learnings at every meeting. Being around a “table” with a team of mentors from various backgrounds and founders who have domain expertise provides so many opportunities for professional and personal growth.

I have also served on the National Angel Capital Organization (NACO) Board of Directors and, more recently, on the Edmonton Screen Industries Organization (ESIO). I take on BOD roles with organizations that I strongly believe are doing amazing things in the industries they exist in. I always learn from the other members of the BOD as well as the organizations themselves.

BAA: You've worked with many entrepreneurs in your career what advice do you have for those interested in starting a business? Those scaling a business?

I have worked and interacted with hundreds of entrepreneurs. I have looked at thousands of pitch decks. The tenacity of the founders and their respective visions to change the world is infectious. It drives and motivates me to do what I can to educate and help them. I was recently awarded the Mentor of the Year Award from the Edmonton start-up community. It was such a meaningful thing to me to be unknowingly nominated and voted by the community. It remains one of my most impactful accomplishments to date.

Entrepreneurs impact every aspect of our lives. Every big company started as a small company and had some type of support along the way. There are many supports out there for the entrepreneur community to seek out that provide education, mentorship, and community. My advice would be not to be shy. Find the help and support you need, and sometimes it is as simple as asking someone you would like to learn from. You might be surprised that they will likely say yes if you ask.

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