MBA Alumni

Monifa Porter

MBA ’03
Senior Vice President and Head of SHIFT AI at Mach49
Monifa Porter
Monifa Porter
I want to put tools into people’s hands to build their own businesses and solve their own problems.
February 23, 2024

Perhaps Monifa Porter’s tech career was inevitable: As a kid, she attended computer camp, and the confetti her family threw at her brother’s high school football games was the chads her dad brought home from his job using computer punch-card machines.

A self-described nerd, Porter is senior vice president and head of SHIFT AI, a startup within Mach49 of Redwood City, CA, that produces AI-powered venture-building software that makes it easier and faster to build and launch startups. “What we’re doing right now with SHIFT AI is democratizing entrepreneurship globally,” Porter says. “We’re getting venture-building tools into everyone’s hands. That’s really important to me. I see it as a way to drive diversity and inclusion and to enable all kinds of people from all over the world to solve really important problems that a large corporation may find too small to solve.”

AI is the latest domain for Porter, a veteran entrepreneurial strategist and product development leader. In the past two decades, she’s worked as a senior product manager at PayPal, creating products to combat fraudulent transactions; led a team at Opower that designed and built a web-connected thermostat; and held management positions at fintech company Taulia and at A3Ventures, an innovation lab.

Yet Porter says she initially had little interest in technology. Curious about consciousness and our perceptions of reality, she studied psychology and neuroscience on a full scholarship at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Then she dug into critical race theory and women’s studies at Ohio State, exploring the intersections of race, gender, and society. Porter planned to earn a law degree and enter academia, but a detour to San Francisco altered her course yet again.

How would you describe your mission?

I lead SHIFT AI, a startup within Mach49, that provides venture builders with the tools and methods to validate new business concepts with customers and bring new ventures to market. SHIFT AI enables entrepreneurs to find those customer insights that are really the keys to the realm. I want to put tools into people’s hands to build their own businesses and solve their own problems.

I found that with corporate venture building, the problems corporations are willing to solve are big problems for big markets. But the problems the world faces are both big and small. So who’s solving the hyperlocal problems of a kid in a neighborhood where there’s no grocery store? When you put entrepreneurship into the hands of everyone, real-world problems at any scale can get solved. If you can empower people everywhere to solve the immediate problems that are right in front of them with new businesses and new ventures, then the smaller but important things that big corporations don’t care about can also be fixed.

What’s a project you’re excited about?

We just wrapped a project working with a client team who wanted to create a new venture focused on DEI in hiring. We agreed that we would work together to help them figure out the “what” and “how” if they were willing to pilot some of my new tools.

Typically, in a 12-week engagement, we go from an idea on the whiteboard to a customer-validated business plan and pitch with an understanding of what the product is going to be. But we don’t actually ship the product in that time frame. With this client, by the end of the engagement we were able to put a real functional product in front of people. We had four pilot customers sign up and more who were ready to sign.

“I hire the very best, and I do not exclude anybody from that pipeline.”

Our client’s product showed the real-world experience of a job candidate rather than just the bullets on their resume, because, you know, bullets on a resume highlight the brand of the places that you worked, or the brand or the university that you attended, but they don’t necessarily fill in all the blanks of all your skills. With SHIFT AI, we were able to build the product and get it in front of hiring organizations — and have those hiring organizations agree to be pilots, in less than 12 weeks.

It was wildly successful. Our software wasn’t just doing things faster; it also uncovered new customers for us. By using our synthetic user personas, we gained unexpected insights and identified prospective customer segments that we hadn’t previously considered. We validated them with human interviews, and everything we learned from the synthetics proved to be true.

What are some of the limitations and risks of relying on AI in this context?

Critically important is the interaction between AI and humans. The interaction model for the job that the AI does needs to be very clear and narrow, and that’s the sort of steering humans do. We need to make sure we have exactly the right sort of engagement model there. Because if you just push a button on AI, you’ll get an answer — but it may or may not be the right answer.

But when you use AI as a co-pilot, and you’re going back and forth, you can validate, you can explore, and you can discover new things. You have to be able to prompt the AI appropriately. We’re trying to make sure that the interaction model is crisp and clear and that we’re bringing in human intelligence in exactly the right moments in the workflow.

How often have you been the only woman — or the only Black woman — in a room of founders, executives, or VCs?

That’s like 98% of my career. It’s kind of part of who I am. I’m multilingual. I can talk to a lot of different people. I’ve always been able to relate to whoever I’m in a room with. That’s probably a coping skill I learned as a child when I was the only Black kid in my classroom.

What is wonderful now is that I’m an executive. I hired my team, and when I look at my team, it’s one of the most diverse groups I’ve ever worked with. We are a wide ranging group, across race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and geography — a Rainbow Coalition on my little team. And that’s not because I’m trying to fill a quota. It’s because when I hire, I hire the very best, and I do not exclude anyone from that pipeline. That’s not the way the rest of the world works all the time.

Why did you pivot from law and academia to technology, startups, and product management?

I have the attention span of a gnat. I do the things I’m interested in, and I’m willing to follow my nose. As I look back, I don’t have any regrets. I see the through line. It makes sense to me why I did one thing and then the next. [After college] I was young and gay and living in Ohio, so I moved to San Francisco with a bicycle and $60 in my pocket. I had it in my head that I was going to stay for nine months while I finished my law school application. That was the plan in 1997. It’s now 2023, and I’m still right here in the Bay Area.

Early in my career, I was working in customer care at CNET, and I was invited by some friends who were starting a company to come and run their customer care team. That’s when I realized I can move fast and break things with a small team and have a bigger impact. I decided to let my law school admission go because I wanted to stay with business and build new ventures and startups and work with small teams and build cool stuff.

I didn’t know what a product manager was. It was 2000. I was working with engineers, business leaders, and designers, and I was imagining the next thing we would build and writing it down in the context of, here’s how we achieve our business objective with a really great design. Here’s what the engineers should build next.& I didn’t know what that job was, but I loved it. I looked on Yahoo HotJobs and read through the job descriptions until I found one that looked like that: product manager.

You were drawn to Stanford GSB for what you call its “entrepreneurship spirit.” What has stuck with you?

How do you rise above the fray and find the solution that’s going to optimize and maximize for all parties? I got that fundamental way of thinking from business school. The modeling class I took turned out to be really awesome. I still think about that class.

In my first job out of business school as a product manager, I worked with a data scientist on algorithmic approaches to solving fraud problems at PayPal. We were looking at all the variables that could potentially indicate that a transaction was fraudulent. We would switch out the payment method given the degree of risk. That was the very first product I shipped at PayPal, and it was a giant regression model. And I was like, oh, I learned this in school. I know how to do this.

I also spent as much time as I could outside the business school. I took bass lessons. I took Spanish Literature and Creative Nonfiction and all kinds of stuff. I go back any time I can. I teach a couple of product management classes a year [at the GSB]. Answering students’ questions is probably some of the most interesting thinking that I do.

Photos by Shaun Roberts

Monifa Porter
Monifa Porter
MBA ’03
Senior Vice President and Head of SHIFT AI at Mach49
Oakland, California, USA
MBA, Stanford GSB
MA, Ohio State University
BA, Miami University
Professional Experience
SVP and Head of SHIFT AI, Mach49
Advisor to companies including Energicity, Mindful You, NOCAP Sports, and Headnote
Head of Product, A3Ventures
Current Profile