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Patricia Cloherty, trailblazing venture capitalist, dies at 80

Patricia M. Cloherty, a logger’s daughter who was among the first women to thrive in the high-risk, high-reward field of venture capitalism and was a key financial supporter of fledgling companies in post-Communist Russia, died Sept. 23 at her home in Miami. She was 80.

The death was confirmed by her sister, Judith Cloherty Mendel.

Ms. Cloherty was 27, had two master’s degrees from Columbia University (neither in finance), and had spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching Brazilian farm children to neuter pigs when, at a United Nations-related event in 1969, she met Alan Patricof, an investor who was opening a venture capital firm.

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Impressed by her intelligence, he offered her a research analyst job despite her lack of experience in the field.

“He said, ‘Would I like to learn the business from the ground up?’ ” Ms. Cloherty recalled in a 2011 interview for a National Venture Capital Association oral history project. “I had no idea what the business was.”

Patricof believed she would excel at answering venture capitalism’s fundamental question: Which business ideas are worth betting on?

“She said she had no background in finance,” he recalled. “I told her she could learn that.”

He was right. Within two years, Ms. Cloherty was a partner at Patricof & Co. Ventures, which took early positions in Apple, Office Depot, and the company later known as AOL. The firm grew into a multibillion-dollar international business, and she eventually became its co-chair and president.

Ms. Cloherty was particularly drawn to investing in biotechnology firms and others in the high-tech sector, including Agouron Pharmaceuticals, a producer of protease inhibitors used for treating HIV; Tessera Technologies, which made protective packaging for computer chips; and PPL Therapeutics, the Scottish firm that gave the world Dolly the cloned sheep.

In a 2013 interview with a Columbia University Teachers College publication, she said that although she was not in “the save-the-world biz,” she made a point of backing people trying to do good things. “I’ve been a girl scout my entire life, from which I learned that you try to leave the campsite better than you found it,” she said.

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Ms. Cloherty left the Patricof firm, later renamed Apax Partners, for about a decade, first to become deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration in Washington from 1977-78 and then to operate an investment firm with Daniel Tessler, whom she married in 1977.

The Russia chapter of Ms. Cloherty’s career began in 1995, when President Clinton appointed her to the board of the US Russia Investment Fund, whose mission was to invest American capital in Russia’s movement toward a market-based economy. She became the fund’s chair in 1998. Two years later, she moved to Russia for what was to be a six-month stay. It lasted 12 years.

Ms. Cloherty became CEO of the investment fund’s general partner, Delta Private Equity Partners, overseeing the financing of more than 50 Russian companies — including the country’s first mortgage bank, first credit card-issuing bank, and first bottled water company — and then selling most of them for what she described as substantial returns.

Patricof attributed her success in large part to what he called her “Pied Piper quality.”

“She had a unique ability to lead people,” he said.

Donna Shalala, the former secretary of health and human services, congresswoman, and University of Miami president who had known Ms. Cloherty since the 1970s, said her friend “was the most curious person I ever met.”

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Patricia Mary Cloherty was born July 2, 1942, in San Francisco, the second of four children of John and Doris (Dawson) Cloherty. Her father had immigrated to the United States from Galway, Ireland, as a 13-year-old orphan. Her mother was from Victoria, British Columbia.

Her parents worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad during World War II and ran a dry cleaning shop in the city after the war.

In the Venture Capital Association interview, Ms. Cloherty recalled how she first learned about making a bet.

Her maternal grandmother, she said, while caring for young Pat and her siblings, would, with “her bottle of gin,” take them to the local horse tracks to wager on races.

“Mind you, we were only 3, 4, and 5 years old, so we hit the track early,” Ms. Cloherty explained. “That’s my upbringing.”

When she was about 5, she said, the family moved to Pollock Pines, Calif., a hamlet a half-hour south of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada. Her father had jobs there as a logger and in construction; her mother was a real estate agent and a librarian. The couple also ran a soda fountain.

In Ms. Cloherty’s telling, the family was poor, and life in the mountains could be rugged. But there was plenty to keep one occupied, she said. An avid reader, she was also a good athlete and a tinkerer who used instructions clipped from Shredded Wheat packages to make a waterproof matchstick holder, a reflector oven, and a tent from a military-surplus parachute.

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As a 12-year-old, she recalled, she was on a ski outing with two friends, carrying homemade camping gear, when an avalanche stranded the girls for two days. She was left with lingering effects of frostbite for more than 50 years.

She attended San Francisco College for Women (now part of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco) on a scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature and classical Greek in 1963.

The Peace Corps was forming around the time she was to graduate, and Ms. Cloherty decided to join.

But she reconsidered after meeting Maria von Trapp, the matriarch of the Trapp Family Singers made famous in “The Sound of Music.” Von Trapp, who was visiting San Francisco, urged her not to go.

“She said, ‘You cannot do that,’” Ms. Cloherty recalled. “‘You will become a pawn of American foreign policy, and you will ruin your life.’”

After working briefly at the von Trapp’s farm in Stowe, Vt., as the baroness’s assistant, Ms. Cloherty joined the corps anyway. She was placed in a remote part of Brazil, where she trained farm families in animal husbandry.

A Ford Foundation fellowship financed her Columbia master’s degrees in education and international affairs.

In addition to her sister, she leaves a brother, Michael. Her marriage to Tessler ended in divorce.

After retiring in 2012, she continued to advise colleagues informally until a few months ago. Her pastimes included hiking, often with friends like Shalala, near her home in New York’s Hudson Valley and in places such as the Himalayas and Mexico.

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“The mountains put the artifice of everyday modern life into perspective,” Ms. Cloherty told The New York Times Magazine in 1988. “Climbing reinvigorates me.”

Asked in the Teachers College interview about her philosophy of business, she offered one maxim that she said applied equally to life in general.

“If you see something that appeals to you, never hesitate because of the risk,” she said. “Never put moneymaking before accomplishment of the goal.”