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Sophia Popova

Vice President, Summit Partners
spopova@summitpartners.com

Sophia Popova is currently a Vice President at Summit Partners, a $27B global growth equity firm, and focuses on the technology sector. Her current board and investment experience includes Klaviyo, Markforged, and PrismHR. Sophia continues to be recognized for her investing acumen, recently being named to the Mergers & Acquisitions’ 2019 Rising Stars of Private Equity list.

Tell us a bit about your career to date
I started my career at Morgan Stanley as a means to learn the fundamentals of investment banking from the ground up. It was a great training ground. I did that for two years, and most of my peers were going into private equity or hedge funds. Instead I took a pretty big risk and joined a four-person startup. It changed my view on business and my career and introduced me to the tech sector. I went on to lead new product development and got to work with engineers to design and build our suite of software products. It was incredibly exciting to see a product you helped design come to fruition on your iPhone or Android. We scaled the business to about 30 people and then got acquired by Thinking Phones (Fuze). It was a very unique experience going through the acquisition process and this provided an interesting perspective on the investing side of the tech sector. I went to business school with the idea of exploring the investing side of tech, though I would have been very happy to be a product manager for life. (It’s a great role to help design and build new products.) I had the opportunity to intern and dabble in VC/investing gigs, and eventually the Summit opportunity came up, which was a chance to work on a very lean team and learn from senior investors at our firm. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

How should we figure out the type of investing role that’s right for us?
One of the professors at HBS used to describe career tradeoffs in terms of a triangle – sector expertise, fund stage, location – in which you could only choose two of the three sides of the triangle. I always thought that was very interesting. There’s always a tradeoff, so you have to think about what’s most important for you. I wanted to be at a fund stage where there was a balance between the softer skills and harder skills. I wanted there to be revenue to analyze, unit economics but at the same time I wanted to be able to connect with entrepreneurs on a personal level. That’s what attracted me to growth equity. I got lucky in that Summit in a way gave me all three points – I loved Boston, wanted to invest in tech, and liked the growth equity stage. 

How much did you consider your personal life before taking a senior role in investing?
My personal life was a huge consideration. I got married between my first and second years of business school. I had been living and working in NYC, so originally the plan was to go back. When I got the offer from Summit, my husband was very supportive of moving to Boston. He’s a lawyer, and was interested in transitioning his practice to work with private investment funds on fund structuring and formation. He was able to use the opportunity of our move to join a practice at a top firm in that field. It was very important to us that we both found strong career opportunities in the same city. We’ve made Boston our home and love it! 

Key skills in your job?
The most important thing for me is building trust with entrepreneurs. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to figure out what I actually bring to the table, whether that’s technical knowledge, industry knowledge, M&A capabilities in the space, etc. Second, I’ve observed that the most effective mid-level deal professionals at investment firms push the ball forward as much as possible on a given deal before relying on more senior support. This helps ensure we get the most productivity out of our team.

Favorite part of your role?
I get to spend time with category leading entrepreneurs building awesome companies every day. I have a ton of free reign over what macroeconomic trends I chase. Having that level of autonomy at this stage of my career is incredible. 

Most challenging part?
I’d say picking what sectors I want to invest in and building conviction is the hardest part of this role. You’ll constantly feel that you’re missing out on opportunities. You’ll watch other deals happening and will wonder if you should’ve done that deal. Learning discipline and focus takes a lot of time and patience. 

Where do you feel the industry is in terms of female support at the top?
Culturally I feel like things are becoming much more open. The focus on diversity of opinions has grown continuously since I started in the workforce in 2011. I think people are increasingly more focused on the way they’re perceived as a leader or manager, whereas twenty years ago it was more about getting deals done, and less about the human capital cost. Since joining Summit, I’ve been struck with how inclusive our culture is. It’s a pleasure to go to work every day at a place where new opinions are not only accepted but encouraged.

Advice for younger women in their careers?
Meet someone new every day. When I was in banking I had tons of coffee chats with VCs, investors, and CEOs in New York. I didn’t have that much free time, but on weekends or early mornings, I would book breakfasts to pick people’s brains on what cool trends were going on across different spaces. That gave me the confidence to cut loose because I saw there was a whole other world outside of PE and banking that seemed pretty exciting. Those VCs actually led me to the particular founder whose company I ended up joining. You just never know!

Hobbies outside of work?
My husband Brad and I have been trying to learn how to sail. We’re learning slowly! 

Favorite news source
Startup by Gimlet, Dan Primack, CBInsights

Thank you for joining us today, Sophia!
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