#ChoosetoChallenge: Redefining What It Means for Women at the Top

An interview with Andrea Poptsis, VP Operations and Finance at Highline Beta for International Women’s DayMarch 8th is International Women’s Day and individuals and organizations around the world are celebrating women’s achievements by raising a hand in solidarity to speak up about gender bias and inequality. Here at Clarity Recruitment, we’re committed to amplifying the cause and highlighting female leaders in finance and accounting who have gone above and beyond in Canada’s high growth companies and in venture capital.

Head of Client Services at Clarity Recruitment, Andrew Seeley, spoke with Andrea Poptsis, VP Operations and Finance at Highline Beta, a corporate innovation and venture capital firm, to discuss her roadmap to success, the lack of diversity in the venture capital world and how she incorporates this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #ChooseToChallenge into her daily life and career. 

Andrew Seeley: You have a very decorated and successful finance career. What advice do you have for young women looking to start a career in finance who want to get to the top?

Andrea Poptsis: My career has been varied. I’ve worked across industries in corporate strategy, corporate development and finance operations, from very early-stage companies to large companies, including work in the multi-sport gaming world and with the Invictus Games. The thread that runs through all of these is finding growth opportunities. I love the challenge that goes along with the chaos of starting new things and growing businesses. I’m not a traditional finance person. I have an MBA so obviously I’ve studied finance and accounting but I’m not an accountant. The lens I bring to my finance roles is really one that’s multifunctional, which in the early days wasn’t what people thought CFOs typically were. 

You need to find balance, between career, family, community and your own aspirations.

When I graduated from Ivey Business School, being at the top meant a C-suite job. You went to work at a multinational and worked your way up. I’m not sure that’s necessarily what being at the top means to a young woman just starting out her career in finance. Could it mean starting your own company? Could it mean being an entrepreneur? Could it mean being an advisor or working fractionally? And what “being at the top” looks like could change – ten years, twenty years out – as the other realities of her life become more complicated, particularly juggling other non-work commitments. You need to find balance, between career, family, community and your own aspirations. As a new grad today, you get to tap into more targeted support programs, such as mentorship programs, that will be critical in helping women get to the top, whatever the top looks like for them.

Seeley: Lately there’s been a lot of news on how the VC industry isn’t that diverse which results in a lack of diversity in the founders they fund. How is Highline Beta trying to change that? 

Poptsis: We have always had a strong focus on female funders and founders at Highline Beta. Having more women participate in those early-stage opportunities really does help break down barriers. We know that investing in companies with more diverse founders leads to better financial outcomes for our fund and for those businesses. In my career, I’ve seen firsthand that when early-stage funding rounds are coming together, there aren’t a lot of women that get invited to the table to write checks. Having more women participate in these funding rounds and lead early stage ventures will create a reinforcing circle of opportunity for women. 

We do a lot of work with corporate partners – large Fortune 1000 companies – that have really strong diversity and inclusion mandates. In some cases, we end up co-creating ventures with these companies and we see this diversity create ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.

Seeley: What advice would you give to other women aspiring to work in the VC industry?

Poptsis: Be creative about finding different routes in. As a female finance professional, think about inserting yourself somehow into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. There is more than one route in. Doing advisory work and working with start-ups that are looking to fundraise shows commitment and interest in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Beyond employment, there is value in networking and volunteering in the ecosystem by getting involved with organizations such as MaRS or Creative Destruction Lab.

Having more women participate in those early-stage opportunities really does help break down barriers.

It’s also important to get the experience of being part of a pitch team and / or committing your own capital by becoming an investor. There is value in writing a cheque, even a small one. The sense of ownership that you feel in terms of wanting to help that company be successful can help how you find out if venture capital is something you really want to do. It will be hard to secure a VC position since it’s a small industry but stick with it and be prepared to put the effort in to find an opportunity.

Seeley: This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is #ChooseToChallenge which has the goal of celebrating women’s achievements and creating an inclusive world. Can you think about a time that you decided to #ChoosetoChallenge in your career and it paid off?

Poptsis: I think the day I was born, a choosing-to-challenge mandate was christened along with me. It’s not in everyone’s nature but it’s in mine. I’ve built a career around having the courage to say things that need to be said. I try to be an authentic leader and I consider myself to be quite transparent, direct and sometimes that means saying things people don’t necessarily want to hear. 

It took some time to get comfortable with that style. I’ve been the person who, on a management team at the board meeting, when the board is about to go in-camera and management is about to leave and the Board Chair asks, ‘Does management have anything else to say?’ and I’ve put my hand up and said, ‘Yeah, I have something that needs to be said.’ It’s not easy, but I feel like I often do that on a day-to-day basis, even in less formal interactions. You should not dismiss those conflict points as it can lead to poorer outcomes and personal dissatisfaction. I think it may initially be hard for female leaders to confront conflict. Hopefully it gets easier as we advance in our careers. 

Seeley: Was there a time when you didn’t #ChoosetoChallenge and you now regret it? What did you learn from this experience? How has it impacted your career today?

Poptsis: When I moved back to Toronto from the UK in the early 2000s, there seemed to be little appreciation in the market for somebody who had done different things in their career —everyone wanted to hire the person who had done the same job at a competitor. I wanted to continue my work in VC and I talked to people in earnest about trying to continue on that path back in Toronto. There were many unreceptive conversations and I eventually gave up. I moved on to a different path because it just felt like I was pushing too hard. It could have been because I was a woman or maybe it was a market circumstance, but for a bunch of different reasons I moved in a different direction. I don’t necessarily regret it since I’ve had such an amazing career path. 

I’ve built a career around having the courage to say things that need to be said.

Now I find myself full-circle back in this early-stage start-up ecosystem, working at a company that’s trying to do its part to make investments in female-led companies, and connect with more female investors. So I got there, eventually, and it was a really interesting journey along the way. We are at a place now where I feel like there’s more value placed on having that diverse, agile approach to managing disciplines — it’s totally flipped from where it was at the beginning of my career. If you’ve been doing the same thing for 25 years, that’s now starting to be perceived as a bit of a disadvantage unless you can demonstrate how you’ve adapted along the way. We lament the whole gig economy but I think the notion of a portfolio career is so empowering, especially for women.Andrea Poptsis is VP Operations and Finance at Highline Beta. An expert at bringing order to chaos in fast-growing startups all the way to large complex multinationals, she has decades of experience in finance, operations, venture capital and corporate development. In recent years, she worked as a fractional COO / CFO for numerous startups, helping guide them through the up and down path to growth. She holds an MBA from INSEAD and an HBA from Ivey Business School.About the AuthorCheck out more of our popular articles on Career AdvicePopular Articles

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