How a Hispanic American pivoted from pre-med into venture capital
A graduate of Harvard University and the Schwarzman Scholars program, Sophia Lugo has worked in biotech, management consulting, and global health and in 2021, joined the Blueprint Investor Track, which targets Black, LatinX, and indigenous communities.
How did you hear about venture capital?
I’m from the border region between the US and Mexico, El Paso, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. My parents live on either side. I have my master’s, did my undergrad, and have worked for a couple of years. I am barely finding out about this world. I’ve even done interviews and wasn’t really understanding where people were coming from. Who can I reach out to with the transparency and honesty that I had a connection to the field? When I saw Blueprint, I thought that this is going to finally get me networked with a community of people that can openly and transparently tell me about this world that is so important for people who are like me and disadvantaged.
I haven’t worked in venture capital before, I have worked at the Gates Foundation, which is a limited partner to some VC funds. I didn’t work in that space. But we made investments in low income geographies and expected returns in terms of social KPIs. I have also worked in an incubator for startups at BGI genomics in China in Shenzhen. So I did get to work more from an operational side in different genomics ventures at that time. We were incubating one for alopecia, which is hair loss, and for skin aging. We did get to launch that startup. It didn’t work out, but I had started getting operational experience and my boss had a background in VC. I never really felt like I had the language or the know-how to even ask him how that industry worked. Now I would, and I can test out that language with my mentor as I learn it.
It would have been impossible for me to have been interested in startups in VC coming into college because, with our Hispanic culture, there is such an aversion to failure. For most Hispanic families in the US particular, failure isn’t an option. But the main thing that Silicon Valley and these innovation economies have is an acceptance of failure. There’s enough money for people to fail. The Hispanic community doesn’t have enough money for people to fail.
I’ve started to meet some partners who have given me their story of how they failed, but then they got back up, and they’re doing amazing things and pushing up the community. It’s just exposing a path that if you fail, there might be someone to catch you and also connecting you with people who might catch you. Because I mean, the reality is for most of the community, if there’s nobody to catch you, I wouldn’t recommend doing a startup if you don’t have a safety net because then we’re back at zero.
You were pre-med before diving into venture capital. Tell us about your interest in health care.
I owe everything from how I see the world and even how I’ve been able to navigate getting to where I am today to my identity. I went to Harvard and the Schwarzman Scholarship in Tsinghua. I’m interested in health systems in particular. I’m American and Mexican. But I’ve never been to an American doctor until I got to Harvard because it’s cost prohibitive if you don’t have insurance, which I didn’t have growing up. I’d always go to Mexico. So I’d always understood the Mexican system. When I came into this health policy, a pre-med world in college, having never utilized the American healthcare system, I felt I already deeply and personally understood barriers to access.
I started doing observational rotations in the US, Mexico, Germany, and Peru and decided that I could not work within the US system as it was. I would be too frustrated. I wanted to be able to attack the problem from a macro perspective. I don’t think doctors actually have the autonomy to do so because of the bureaucratic and organizational ways that major hospitals operate. I didn’t want to be the technician facilitating that. I did the Schwarzman Scholars program to understand it from a public policy perspective. I studied the ontology of privacy as relates to bio-data in China versus the US, trying to understand why HIPAA has the language it does, why EHR systems work the way they do, why there isn’t transparency of data in the US, and how China differs from that. Through the Schwarzman Scholars Program and strategy consulting, I started seeing that the private sector is a great way to tackle this problem and challenge lawmakers to keep up. While no longer premed, I still have an intense interest in medicine, healthcare and health policy. I will continue to pursue those interests during my MBA.
The problem I’m most passionate about is the distrust that the Hispanic and other communities have with health care. Put the mere access issue aside. Just the trust issue that somebody, even discounting for the cost barrier, might not go to the doctor because a) they might think they might sneakily charge them b) as the system becomes more digital, it becomes more impersonal.
If you look at it from a market perspective, there’s a huge market and a high incidence of chronic disease in the Hispanic population. A lot of those are lifestyle changes — what technology can attack. You can redesign the patient system to be oriented towards the patient in his entirety, including his social and cultural background. It’s not being done right now. Currently, the system doesn’t even see that as an important market. It’s so geared towards money making diseases that some people who are of minority background might not go to the doctor even in a life or death case. How do we redesign the system to include the patient and the entirety of experiences and include the minority patient, including Hispanic patients, in that reconfiguration of the patient design workflow?
What have you learned in Blueprint?
I’ve honestly learned a lot from my mentor, Peter Rojas. The guests who have come to Blueprint have recommended that if you want to be a good VC, you should have some operational experience. I came into Blueprint thinking I’m going to go into VC. I wanted to do my MBA and come out and do that. But I think, as I talked to Peter more, I found that I do have a passion to solve a problem. I went into this VC fellowship to understand VC, and I’m coming out wanting to be an entrepreneur.