Sophie Forest is a Managing Partner at Brightspark Ventures (Photo: Martin Flaman)
INVESTOR PROFILE. Sophie Forest is used to thinking outside the box. She is now the managing partner of Brightspark Ventures, a technology venture fund. In addition to being the only woman in her community for a long time, she is now working to create a unique platform in the country aimed at democratizing venture capital investment. Portrait of a pioneer.
For Sophie Forest, the choice of finance was by no means obvious.
“In my family, no one is in business, no one is in technology, no one is in finance. i’m a bit of an outcast [donnée aberrante]”, she said. In the end, it was a combination of chance and a desire for challenges that led her to receive a bachelor’s degree in this field in 1988 from the University of Sherbrooke.
“I was indecisive,” she recalls. I wanted to enter the world of business. I liked math. Since I am competitive, I chose finance when I was told that it was the most difficult.
His first job after graduating from university in 1991 was as an analyst at the Société Générale de Financement (now Investissement Québec). A year later, Bernard Amel recruited her. He was running GTI Capital, an aerospace and technology private venture fund that was one of the first funds of its kind in Quebec, and was looking for an analyst.
“I had no idea what venture capital was,” says Sophie Forest. I didn’t hear about it at university because it didn’t really exist in Quebec.” His penchant for risk-taking made him accept the offer.
One among her
The financial sector is traditionally male. That was in the 1990s, of course, but it was even more so in the aerospace industry, where GTI Capital operated.
“There were no women around me,” she says. When I went to meetings, people thought I was an administrative assistant.
Therefore, the context forced her to fight twice to take her place. Especially since her family background didn’t quite prepare her for the culture of the investment community. Growing up with two sisters and having meek parents who didn’t raise their voices, she was exposed to a male culture that was much more comfortable with open conflict. Since his early days in venture capital, some of the negotiations have been quite tense.
“People were jumping up and down, they were screaming,” she illustrates. At first it was difficult for me to deal with it. I didn’t know how to react and froze in place. Soon enough I refused to be emotional. Thankfully things have changed in the industry today, but she built a shell on me.
Two mentors who met later also extended a helping hand to him.
Spark of renewal
From 1996 to 2003, Sophie Forest was an associate at CDP Capital Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of Caisse de depot et Placement du Québec. There she built a portfolio of private equity investments in technology.
It was there that she met two important people in her career. She considers two people today as mentors.
“The first is Pierre Farande. It was he who launched the techno initiative at the Caisse de depot. It was he who came for me. He took me under his wing and gave me confidence. He believed in me and made me responsible for a large portfolio.
The second person is Mark Skapinker, his current partner at Brightspark.
In 2003, two options are available to her. Join Brightspark or join another traditional investment firm that approached her at the same time. “The investment company was corporate and she had a lot of money,” recalls Sophie Forest. Mark was a techno pioneer in Toronto with ideas to grow.
“The firm told me, ‘Your candidacy is of interest to us, but we want to make sure that your children will not interfere with your early morning meetings,’” says Sophie Forest. Mark, he had a completely different speech.
“He said, ‘We’re going to be partners, we’re going to build something, but I want you to know that we’re going to be flexible with the kids.’ The choice was obvious.
The Adventure of Bright Spark
Now Brightspark managing partner Sophie Forest wears three hats at the firm.
First, it concerns investments. She finds and selects Canadian companies that are in the early stages of their development, but more importantly, that have the potential to become a real home run. “We are looking for disruptive technologies,” she explains. We want to solve big problems, solutions that are difficult to implement, in huge markets.
Among the successes that she is most proud of in this regard in her career, she names, in particular, Hopper, a company that bases its success on its platform that predicts the best time to buy plane tickets.
“Hopper has experienced tremendous growth. Under the leadership of the eminent entrepreneur Frédéric Lalonde, the firm was a great success. In 2007, we invested 500,000 US dollars in the company, and now this amount has turned into 50 million US dollars (M$).
With Radian6, the success was even more overwhelming. “We had the perfect course,” said Sophie Forest. Brightspark invested in a firm that helped companies track what was being said about their brand on social media in 2007. This is not true: Twitter, for example, had just launched and was generating almost no revenue. But things changed quickly, so quickly that four years later we sold our original $2 million investment for $400 million.”
Brightspark currently manages three venture capital funds, 24 special purpose funds and $400 million in assets.
Sophie Forest’s second hat is a manager: managing a company, people and vision.
The third, big piece is funding. Brightspark gets this from two sources: funds it invests with institutional investors such as Investissement Québec, big banks or wealthy families, and accredited investors.
In the latter case, Sophie Forest aims to make Brightspark a better player. It has already begun.
One of the accomplishments that Sophie Forest admires is her work to democratize venture capital investment, or at least increase access to it. “A few years ago, we launched a model to allow accredited investors, whether individuals or small wealthy families, to directly invest in our transactions through an app, an online platform. We are the first to do this in venture capital in Canada.”
So far, 500 to 600 people have invested through the Brightspark platform. In total, from 3,000 to 4,000 investors are registered there, who have the opportunity to invest. “We have big plans for growth,” says Sophie Forest. We need to build the next Hopper and Radian6. In ten years, this is what I’ll be doing.” + “At 53, I am more motivated than ever to coach and develop our young team.”