Jenny Sutton: A Venture Investor and Philanthropist Enabling Evolution and Impact

In the commercial world, a leading litigation lawyer requires a strong hold over communication, judgment, intellect and most importantly the steadfast courage to argue a position. For many years not so long ago such work was male-dominated but in recent years through the work of women lawyers that has changed, and more women are opting for a career in law and holding leadership roles. Jenny Sutton (now the Managing Director and Founder of Greenlight Ventures NZ) was one of those who paved the path for others.

Over time Jenny showed these qualities of courage and determination yet again, moving from practicing law at a high level internationally to establishing herself as a global venture investor and venture philanthropist and founding Greenlight Ventures NZ.

Jenny Sutton, Managing Director and Founder, Greenlight Ventures NZ

Tracing her Journey

Jenny’s professional journey started as a lawyer in New Zealand. She graduated with an LLB (Hons) from the University of Canterbury and accepted a role in the Wellington office of one of New Zealand’s top law firms, now known as Minter Ellison Rudd Watts. During her studies, Jenny’s honours’ papers focused on areas such as new birth technologies and copyright protection of computer software, which was cutting-edge research in the mid-1980s.

“It’s fair to say I fell into law – but finding solutions, new ways, and righting wrongs have always been a pivotal part of my make-up, so the law was the right path to start my career. It was very clear to me that litigation and being an advocate was the way I could achieve what I wished to achieve – and so I became a high-level commercial and public law litigator,” recalls, Jenny.

During the 1990s, commercial litigation in New Zealand was a male-dominated domain. Nevertheless, most of Jenny’s work as a lead counsel was cross-border and high-end, covering many industries from telecoms, to oil, to banking and insurance through to statutory and governmental bodies and international shipping. She headed various practice groups for the firm including intellectual property and was the first woman partner in litigation at the firm’s Wellington office and was for some time the youngest partner in age.

In her early 30s, Jenny became a senior partner and after a few years, she left to join the independent bar and set up her own practice. By that time she has taken chair and governance roles in many law and industry associations such as being chair of the NZ branch of the maritime law association and had roles with the Inter-Pacific Bar Association. Her international commercial litigation workload was ever-increasing and many of the cases were substantial, multi-jurisdictional, and cutting-edge.

“During all of this time I had the great pleasure of leading many pivotal and diverse cases – and in the process enjoyed bringing through a raft of talented lawyers and working with many clients and boards who were leaders in their industries,” says Jenny.

The move to venture investing and the founding of Greenlight Ventures NZ

Over time, she had an increasing desire to have more purpose and creativity in what she did and where and how she contributed. Law as a career was a wonderful and rewarding foundation, but Jenny had a desire to invest her energy in productive areas in a positive way to enable change where change was needed.  

Jenny researched in New Zealand and overseas, realized that this could be achieved through venture investing and became active in the area around 2015. This led to the establishment of Greenlight Ventures NZ. Greenlight captures commercial tech and impact venture investing and venture philanthropy. At its heart, Greenlight Ventures NZ enables evolution and change through seed investment. It has a very strong focus on democratizing access in several settings, for example, finance.

Greenlight Ventures NZ has evolved to hold an extensive portfolio of seed investments with global impact and has directly backed over 50 early-stage ventures by providing investment and guidance, mentoring, and connections where they assist. The ventures capture many sectors – from cleantech to medtech to fintech to sustainability to space. They span the globe having headquarters from NZ and Australia to the UK, Africa, and the US.

“Backing founders is a vital part of the equation and I am a believer that people need to think with ambition for their venture (not themselves), aim high, think big, and broaden their horizons,” affirms Jenny.

Encouraging the Young New Zealanders

“I have a very strong compass on what ventures will be backed and ethics forms a part of that – that is a natural and necessary part of the process and a lot of that draws on my prior experience in various sectors globally,” says Jenny. She is very supportive of impact measurement by reference to the SDGs becoming accepted and more mainstream when considering ventures. “For several years I have backed the impact awards for young New Zealanders – and it has been excellent to see the growth and recognition of impact ventures over the years”, she adds.

The Way Ahead

According to Jenny, the future seems bright, full of opportunities, potential and ideas. Technology provides a vital platform and means to enable change for good in many areas and industries. It has democratized access in many sectors. She aims to continue to back ventures with exceptional founders solving very real issues and will continue to be involved in global initiatives and conversations especially where the public and private sectors can actively collaborate. 

“My work will continue to be global – so although New Zealand has been my base for the past two years and is my home I am looking forward to the world opening up after the Covid lockdowns,” concludes Jenny.