The Road from Burning Man to Investor and Talent Coach
For musicians attending Burning Man, the sunrise set is considered one of the most coveted time slots. It’s a time when the world slows down for just a moment as the first rays of morning light blanket over Black Rock City.
In 2004, the electronic music duo Kepi and Kat found themselves in a corner sound camp during the golden hour performing their hit track, Limelight.
“You feel like you’re on Mars,” said Kat Steinmetz, one half of the music duo known for rocking a colorful assortment of costumes, wigs, and furry platform boots during performances. “And as I was singing, people started coming, and some were just crying. It was a magical moment I’ll never forget.”
But Steinmetz wasn’t just another musician performing at the annual festival held in the desert of northwestern Nevada. By 2005, she was the head of human resources for the Burning Man Project, where she was responsible for hiring, onboarding, and developing hundreds of full-time and seasonal employees for the organization.
In total, Steinmetz spent 10 years building the HR department from the ground up by creating the entire people function and team, plus lifting the organization into a globally known non-profit entity. She also led annual budgets for two departments and created leadership programs for senior staff and executives.
Among the professional milestones were also some crazy moments, like dealing with several law enforcement entities —including the head of mental health services and emergency services — while in costume carrying a walkie-talkie. One year, she also brought her seven-month-old son (and father as a nanny) to work with her for three weeks.
“The things that I faced there, I’ll never have again in my career. And that’s probably good,” laughed Steinmetz.
Steinmetz was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, but her hippie parents were hell-bent on moving to the west coast, so she was raised in the Seattle, Washington area. After many weekends practicing gymnastics and moving around to different cities, she ended up at the University of Minnesota, where she met her music duo partner, Kepi.
The couple moved to San Francisco, where Steinmetz was a technical recruiter for a software consulting startup during the original dot.com. The experience was enough to get her in as a consultant at the Burning Man Project.
She describes her first two months at the organization as “intense” and “chaotic,” but decided to ride out the adventure. “Burning Man is not a job. It is a lifestyle and community,” she said before quickly clarifying. “And it was pretty nuts back then.”
After working for Burning Man, Steinmetz landed at more traditional startups. First at Stitch Fix as the head of learning and leadership development and later at Box as global head of talent success.
While at Box, she started to dabble in angel investing and took a class through How Women Invest, a non-profit dedicated to shifting the venture capital landscape by supporting women-led companies. The course opened her eyes to the power of investing, and she realized she could do good in the world while also building her own financial health as a working mom.
“Burning Man was an amazing place to build my career because I was accepted for all the parts of myself.”Kat Steinmetz, Initialized principal
Last October, Steinmetz joined Initialized Capital with a personal mission to help other women, especially founders with underrepresented backgrounds, have the same opportunities to succeed in tech. As principal, she will be holding a dual role as an investor as well as a talent and culture coach, where she’ll be advising portfolio founders on how to build successful talent strategies, teams, and employment brands.
The most satisfying part of the job for her is seeing how much value she can bring to founders based on her unique network and vast career experience. “When you’re in your own bubble, it’s easy to forget just how much knowledge you have, but actually what you know and who you know is so important, especially to early-stage founders,” she said.
Most of the early-stage founders who come to Initialized don’t already have an HR leader and need help with recruiting and developing the right talent. Steinmetz is uniquely skilled to help. Since joining Initialized, she has already introduced dozens of founders to candidates, consultants, recruiting firms, and thought-partners — and she’s just getting started. This year, she’ll be working with our President Jen Wolf and head of community Vivian Chaves to develop a talent and culture strategy to further support our portfolio.
Still, she attributes much of her career success to her time at Black Rock City. Due to her colorful and non-traditional career path, the advice she likes to give to early-stage founders is to hire employees who are not afraid to bring their full authentic self to work. This goes a long way toward creating an innovative culture that fosters belonging, inspiration, and emotionally intelligent leaders.
“Burning Man was an amazing place to build my career because I was accepted for all the parts of myself,” she said. “I could be a great HR leader, an artist, a musician, a mom and fly my freak-flag high — I could be all of those things and infuse it in my work.”