Have You Met… Sophie Burkholder
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up here in Pittsburgh. My parents have a house just east of the city in Forest Hills, but I went to school in Oakland and Shadyside.
Q: How did you hear about Innovation Works?
A: I heard about Innovation Works through my previous role as a tech and startup ecosystem reporter Technical.ly. As I covered entrepreneurship stories, I saw just how much of a role IW has in fostering connections, business growth and community engagement.
Q: What drew you to work here?
A: I loved having the opportunity to tell the stories of Pittsburgh’s founders, but I often felt a pull of wanting to do more in growing them from the inside. I have some education in entrepreneurship, so that made me excited about the opportunity to contribute more actively to helping founders reach their goals by working with IW’s investment team.
Q: Let’s say I’m an entrepreneur in Southwestern Pennsylvania, what can I ask for your help on?
A: I can help make connections to the rest of our investment team, walk you through our general approach to investing, and help point you in the right direction for several of the other resources IW has.
Q: Reflecting on your experience in journalism and entrepreneurship, what is the number one piece of advice you would give a startup?
A: I’ve been most impressed as both a journalist and now an investment associate by founders who really understand their product-market fit. So my number one advice to startups would be to learn who your potential customer base is, and do thorough research on how exactly your product fills a need for those customers. The more research or evidence you have to support this, the better. A thorough understanding of the customer or end user is something I’ve come across in every startup that’s impressed me.
Q: What technology/industry are you most excited about and why?
A: I’m really excited about agricultural tech. There are several local startups working in this space, and I’m extremely impressed by all of them. I think leveraging artificial and intelligence as tools to solve problems in the farming industry will be paramount to ensuring the industry can successfully withstand population fluctuations and climate change.
Q: Step back to Sophie at age 18, what line of work had you envisioned for yourself? How closely aligned is your current work to that vision?
A: I think I wanted to be a doctor, like everyone else, but when I got to college I wasn’t sure. I studied bioengineering, but a lot of the engineers at my university went into consulting careers or pursued Ph.D. paths. I had so many interests across bioengineering, art history, writing and economics that I struggled to find a path that would combine them all, which is why I initially pursued journalism. But after getting a graduate certificate in engineering entrepreneurship, I started to see how I could use skills from all of those fields to help people in a community that’s really important to me. And maybe it’s a stretch, but I think that sentiment is likely what was behind my motivation for thinking the medical path was for me. Medicine is, after all, about helping others.
Q: What issues that face our region are you most passionate about?
A: I truly believe Pittsburgh has the potential to be a global leader in entrepreneurship, but the tech and startup ecosystem here continues to be dominated by a white male population. I think that because Pittsburgh is in its earlier stages of building an entrepreneurship scene, we have a unique opportunity to re-think the ways we help people become founders, or make career changes to tech. Being a journalist here helped me learn more about those problems and the people trying to solve them. Now, as part of the investment team at IW, I hope to more actively become a part of the solution as well.
Q: Who were your influences growing up?
A: My family, my teachers and my sports coaches. From the support system to the guidance they gave me at a young age, I was always encouraged to pursue challenging education programs and push myself to study a broad range of subjects. In fact, I never would’ve considered engineering school had it not been for my eighth grade math teacher suggesting it in the first place.
Q: Do you have a recent book, TV show, movie or Podcast that you enjoyed?
A: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Yes, it’s a movie about a shell with a plastic eye glued on its surface, but it also touches on themes of joy, loss, ambition, resilience and more. Plus, everything in Marcel’s world is absolutely adorable.
Q: Tell us about your volunteer work.
A: In Pittsburgh so far, I’ve primarily done work with the local food bank, but I’m hoping to increase that volunteering to other organizations as I continue to settle back here. In college, I was part of the youth mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters and did some work with groups in Philadelphia that had a mission of reducing violence against women.
Q: What does an average Saturday look like for you?
A: It depends on the weather and season, but these days I usually do the New York Times crossword in the morning and hang out with my boyfriend’s 15-year-old Rottweiler mix, Lucy. If it’s sunny, I’ll go geocaching, hiking, biking or other fun outdoor activities. And if it’s raining, I’ll go to a museum, catch a movie or another indoor activity like bowling at Arsenal Lanes or working on a puzzle. Then, I’ll cook or go out for dinner with friends and family.
Q: When asked for a ‘fun fact’ about yourself, what’s your go-to?
A: Basketball was my main sport growing up even though I am only 5 feet tall.