Sofia Popov of GUTXY: “Founders are problem-solvers”

Founders are problem-solvers. To work on issues that matter to women, they have to be part of the decision-making process. Founders create company culture, decide what’s important and what mission is worth pursuing. If only men are taking that challenge, it will be likely that only problems of interest to them will be solved. We need […]

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Founders are problem-solvers. To work on issues that matter to women, they have to be part of the decision-making process. Founders create company culture, decide what’s important and what mission is worth pursuing. If only men are taking that challenge, it will be likely that only problems of interest to them will be solved.

We need more women taking leadership roles and creating working cultures that represent what the world really looks like. Work doesn’t need to be at the expense of everything else, and most women understand that.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sofia Popov.

Sofia Popov is the founder and CEO of GUTXY, a microbiome and gut wellness company based in Copenhagen. Sofia is passionate about communicating microbiome science and making it more accessible, allowing everyone to make health-conscious and sustainable lifestyle choices with their gut microbes in mind.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Entrepreneurship was something that appealed to me from an early age, that sort of autonomy. I always wanted to make things and create something from scratch. I was born in Belgrade, but my family fled the country when I was two months old because of the war. My childhood was spent in South Africa, before settling down in the UK. By experiencing different environments and nature in this way, my love for science grew.

During my teens, I had very problematic skin and was often prescribed antibiotics. The doctor would literally tell me: we’ll try this for 3 months, and then we’ll try another if it doesn’t work. That didn’t seem super effective! It was a couple years later that I came across the concept of the microbiome, and my whole concept of health — and life — changed.

I decided to focus my studies on the microbiome and since there was nowhere locally to get microbiome tests, I started GUTXY to do just that. I believe we need to be bold with our health, and that’s what GUTXY is all about.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I was painfully shy of public speaking growing up. Anytime I had to present anything in class, I would lament the moment weeks before. When I started GUTXY, pitching was naturally a part of the process. It was still something I feared. I remember one startup competition, when we had to go into a room to pitch to the judges. We split the pitch into 3, since we were new to this and weren’t comfortable on our own. I was up first, since I was supposedly the strongest and… I choked. I completely forgot everything I needed to say. Just as I had when I was 14 years old.

In this case, I somehow gathered my words later, and recovered, but we didn’t win.

This was an important lesson for me: in not over-preparing. I had tried to memorize the words, and I didn’t let things flow. As soon as I messed up one sentence, I couldn’t carry on, since my performance was so dependent on remembering everything. I didn’t actually think about what my main message was, I was instead trying to act.

Luckily, I learned my lesson. I went on to win numerous pitching competitions, all by using a different approach. Now, I prepare, then let go. When I have a rough idea of what I need to say, I can just let it flow.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Not sure if it’s the funniest, but it’s definitely the most amusing in retrospect. It highlights the self-doubt so many women can feel — myself included.

Early on, I was uncertain about my own strength and capacity to run the company on my own. This led to me letting a bunch of people join the company who weren’t necessarily in it for the right reasons and, in some cases, even competent for the job. People would often use the roles for their CVs, or as they searched for something else.

It took me a while to realise I was capable of more than I thought. As with all relationships, it’s better to wait for the right one. No need to fear going solo. We sometimes need those tough experiences to realise how strong we are.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would have to say my parents. They sacrificed a lot, moving from a war-torn country, to give me a better start.

My mother always worked, and it was very important for me to see a strong, professional woman.

Today, they’ve been running their own engineering consultancy in London for several years. They always started stuff, and this really instilled in me the idea that I could make my own things too.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I adore all the wisdom Thich Nhat Hanh has to share. There are many of his books to choose from, but I’d say The Art of Power is a wonderful one to return to.

Ambition is inevitable for any Founder or CEO (aspiring or otherwise.) We work hard to achieve and get what we want. The Art of Power resonated with me because it showed that power is often not what we’re taught it is. True power is so much more than monetary gain or societal acclaim. Success is an inner game. Unfortunately, for many it ends up a trap: we achieve, then keep chasing, wanting more and more, which often means what we have is never enough.

There is a way to power that supports both us, and others, without causing suffering or damage. Power is synonymous with peace. This book can hopefully help you assess your priorities and realign to your true intentions.

What’s worse than chasing something and achieving it, only to realize it’s not what you wanted?

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

There are so many to choose from, but I’d say this one has particularly guided me through the years: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Mahatma Gandhi

It inspires me to live an authentic life, and speak up, even in uncomfortable moments. With more experience, I’ve realised that success becomes more about what I choose to say no to. It’s important to stand for something, and be very intentional about where I put my time and efforts. If they don’t fit into the bigger picture, it’s better I direct my energy elsewhere.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe in leading by example. I use my voice in the room. Anytime I see or hear injustice, or something that undermines, I make sure to say so.

Too often, it’s easy to overlook demeaning, inaccurate comments that perpetuate stereotypes. Instead, call out inequality when you see it. Tasteless jokes at the expense of dignity need to be called out for what they are: serving the status quo.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I founded my company in 2016, in Denmark, a country regarded as one of the best for gender equality and opportunities for women.

However, going to pitching events, joining accelerators, I noticed a similar pattern to Founder profiles: men.

This even truer for entrepreneurship within STEM fields. According to the Nordic Innovations guide to Female Entrepreneurship in the Nordics: there are “few female entrepreneurs within STEM fields, both in the Nordic countries and globally.”

Even studying my master’s degree in Copenhagen, I noticed how few female professors taught me — I had 2 over 2 years!

In the long run, this has many consequences. Tech start-ups, founded by men, end up more likely to be funded (and therefore succeed.)

The reasons for this are manifold, and unfortunately there is no clear-cut answer.

To narrow it down, I’d say it comes down to:

  • Belief. The thought has never crossed many womens’ minds. They believe they’re not “good enough.” There’s this sort of idea in society that people who start companies or are CEOs have some special power. In fact, they’re the same as everyone else. They merely decided to try.
  • Privilege and Societal Norms. Unfortunately, across the entire entrepreneurial journey, women have a disadvantage: from raising money to getting a good team. Leadership is often associated with a certain kind of person, and power is more likely handed down to people that look like us. For many, authority and business success isn’t associated with women. We need more women in higher positions, to help other women get there too.
  • Working Culture. Women want to start families and have their careers. Current work cultures don’t often support that. It’s often easier for men to hand off familial responsibilities to their spouse — the same cannot be said for women.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I share my experience with other women, encouraging them to pursue entrepreneurship if it resonates with them. All too often, women can shy away from taking the risk. By seeing other women taking the challenge, and speaking openly about it, they can see that the reality of it isn’t as daunting or unobtainable as it may seem.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Founders are problem-solvers. To work on issues that matter to women, they have to be part of the decision-making process. Founders create company culture, decide what’s important and what mission is worth pursuing. If only men are taking that challenge, it will be likely that only problems of interest to them will be solved.

We need more women taking leadership roles and creating working cultures that represent what the world really looks like. Work doesn’t need to be at the expense of everything else, and most women understand that.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Foster Growth Mindsets. This applies in both teaching younger generations and applying it to ourselves. Women can often overlook their unique talents and undermine their capabilities. Imposter syndrome is real. We have to cultivate our own inner confidence, to truly believe that we can figure anything out.
  2. Share Real Stories. We all need role models. It’s easy to believe we can do it, when we see someone like us do it. Immersing ourselves in real stories, of people who have achieved what we wish to, is the inspiration we need. And it doesn’t have to be people on the Fortune 500, or who are so-called celebrities. There are plenty of unknown, unsung heroes who live illuminating, successful, lives: by doing exactly what they want to, every day.
  3. Understand How Society is Set Up. We must never underestimate the power luck plays in life. Certain people are afforded more privilege, and a significant head start. Being aware of this can act as more of a blessing than a curse. Knowing the reality of life, in practical terms, can foster more resilience and persistence in us. At the end of the day, it’s all about showing up, doing something you want to do. We mustn’t gloss over the cold, hard facts. Only a small percentage of women start companies, even less succeed. Many factors contribute to this, but you don’t have to be a statistic. Regardless of race, color or creed, the bottom line is you’re the one that has to make yourself proud, by trying.
  4. Take Small, Survivable Risks Often. If we’re wrapped up tightly in what we know, how will we grow? You gain confidence every time you do something small that scares you. ⁣⁣(And that’s of course excluding anything that is a safety threat or has a huge downside.) ⁣⁣Change happens regardless of our actions. ⁣⁣We have our say in what our future looks like by slowly, sustainably, steering away from our safety net, towards what we envision. ⁣And that’s something that happens not with a single action, but MANY, over time.
  5. Be Intentional and Adaptable. Instead of investing time and energy on external pursuits, it’s so much more worthwhile (and fruitful) to turn inwards. ⁣⁣It’s easy to chase something that you’ve told yourself will bring you joy — be it a person, job or possession. ⁣⁣And then wait for it. ⁣⁣Even make your happiness depend on it. ⁣⁣Don’t dilute your daily experience by relying on the change that “some day” could bring. ⁣⁣There’s so much more to be gained from investing your energy in understanding yourself, your aspirations and moving towards what currently excites you — knowing that, it’s also bound to change. ⁣⁣

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d love to see people eat with their health in mind: meaning, more plants. Health is wealth. When we feel our best, we bring our best energy out into the world and have the space to give and love more.

And let’s not forget: eating in a way that sustains our bodies and supports longevity will also protect our planet.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Seth Godin inspired me to think about business differently. It’s all about being a meaningful specific, not a wandering generality. Shouting the loudest doesn’t mean you’re offering anything worthwhile. Thanks to him, I always think about how I can make something a small group of people will care about, because then it’s truly meant for them. It would be a pleasure to meet you Seth!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Join our private Facebook group: Microbiome Friendly Foods.

Visit our website:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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