The interview below is part of an ongoing effort by McGuireWoods to profile up-and-coming women leaders in private equity (PE). To read previous profiles, click here. To recommend a rising star for a future interview, email Amber Walsh at [email protected].
About Caroline Stevens
Caroline Stevens is an investor at MPK Equity Partners, a Dallas-based private investment firm partnering with entrepreneurs and executives to invest in and acquire growing, profitable, category-leading companies. Prior to joining MPK, Stevens worked at Insight Equity, a Dallas-based middle market PE firm that makes control investments in businesses across industry sectors. She began her career at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where she spent five years advising leading management teams on strategy and operational improvement.
She currently serves on the board of the Human Trafficking Institute, an organization working to stop human trafficking at its source around the globe, and formerly served on the advisory board of the Canfield Business Honors Program at The University of Texas at Austin. Stevens received her BBA in finance from The University of Texas at Austin, graduating from the Canfield Business Honors Program.
Stevens lives in Dallas with her husband, Logan. When not working, she enjoys traveling to new countries, playing tennis, serving her community and spending time with family.
Q: What path brought you to PE?
Caroline Stevens: While at The University of Texas, I was exposed to investing through classes — specifically, a class in which we invested a portion of the university endowment fund, alongside the MBA students. I also interned at a PE firm between my sophomore and junior years. The work was interesting, and I really enjoyed it. But I wasn’t ready to commit to that path. I was hungry to get more exposure to a variety of industries and functions. It was this desire that led me to start my career in management consulting, but I always thought I could go back into PE.
I stayed at BCG for five years, largely because I was learning and growing so much. BCG is an incredible company and gave me every opportunity to make the career decisions best for me. I am incredibly grateful to have started my career there and to have worked with such wonderful people.
Before leaving to pursue a career in PE, I heavily contemplated pursuing a career in early-stage startups. I spent a year at a BCG digital incubator in Los Angeles called Digital Ventures. I participated in the early-stage growth and build of a startup. What I learned at the time was that personal sacrifices are usually a prerequisite to eventual corporate success in the startup space. When starting a company, you need to be the top spokesperson for your product and must have internal conviction. You must believe that your product or service should exist against all odds, and you will likely need to demonstrate that conviction by accepting less compensation in the early stages.
I did some soul searching and did not find anything that gave me that level of internal conviction, so I went back to the drawing board. I identified five pillars I wanted to construct this next stage of my career. The first was that I wanted to maintain diversity of subject matter. I enjoy working across industry and function. The second was based in a desire to “own” something. Whether as an owner or an operator, I wanted to participate in the outcome of the work I do in a manner that was not possible as a consultant.
I also decided I wanted to build more margin around my professional life. I wanted to create space for community involvement and personal relationships in a way I felt impossible for me while traveling as much as was demanded at BCG. That balance was my third pillar.
The fourth pillar was I wanted to continue learning and growing. I knew I wanted to be around smart people. The stimulation and engagement at BCG were wonderful, and I knew I excelled in and enjoyed such an environment.
The fifth and final pillar was I wanted to be in Dallas. I loved my time in Los Angeles, but I felt that I was invested in so many ways in relationships in my home state and city, Dallas, and therefore that Dallas was the place for me.
PE was something that could incorporate all five of my pillars. I transitioned to a traditional PE firm called Insight Equity, which is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I loved it, learned a lot and validated my interested in private investing as a career. I now work for MPK, which is an independent sponsor investing capital from friends and family of the firm and from more institutional partners. We invest and syndicate equity deal by deal. We have a different limited partner set for every deal we do, and we don’t have any obligations or time frames we need to meet. In these ways, we are not traditional PE, yet do invest private capital in the form of majority recapitalizations. Put simply, we invest in good, growing businesses that are most often founder-led, and we have fun doing it.
Q: Why is it important for more women to pursue careers in PE?
CS: I think it’s important for women to pursue whatever interests them in whatever their skill set might merit. With that said, I think it’s important for women to not discount a career in investing just because it has historically been a more male-dominated industry. It’s easy for women to do that subconsciously. I don’t know many women older than me who have been doing this kind of work for longer than me. Therefore, my mentors are men. They are wonderful, but there are some questions I feel only women can personally address.
In the same vein, I don’t think women should stop pursuing a career path just because they haven’t seen it done much before. I know I’m not the first woman in PE, but there are fewer working in Dallas than some other cities. For me, it’s been important to ask myself questions like, “Is this what I want to be doing? Is it working right now?” Then I just keep going. If this work ever no longer interests me, I’ll move on. I believe we can have a diverse set of careers in a lifetime. I think the idea of a single, linear career is antiquated. For now, I’m pursuing a career in investing, but if in 10 years I decide I want to go start a company, there’s no reason I couldn’t do so.
I would simply encourage women to consider a career in PE and not discount it as a possibility. If you don’t like PE, you don’t need to do it. But it’s an incredibly intellectually stimulating profession in which you can have high return on your time investment and be compensated.
Q: What is a common myth about PE?
CS: I think people often try to put PE in a box. Some think PE is an analytical industry, not a relational business. Or it’s an industry where you need to have a high cognitive intelligence rather than emotional intelligence. Or PE is just focused on making money.
Like almost anything, you can’t put PE in a box. What I have found to be true in my private investing experiences is we are incredibly focused on doing the right thing for businesses. We exponentially grow businesses to achieve what they couldn’t have without our strategic partnership. We are often very founder-focused. People call us to partner with them because they have reached their limitations and don’t think they’re the right ones to take a company into its next stage of growth.
I find PE is a highly relational business. When somebody comes to you trying to sell their business, there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in this experience. You need to be able to listen, understand their fears and their desires, and come up with a creative solution to help them. I don’t think you should apply the same deal structure on every single business you encounter. As someone who is relational, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that has an important place in this industry.
Q: What is a lesson you have learned concerning what’s required for success in PE?
CS: I think you need to have a lot of persistence, resilience and grit. That’s not just specific to PE but having success in any competitive industry. You need to be able to accept that you’re going to get a lot of noes and just a few yeses. By this, I mean you may look at 100 deals and only get one. You will often lose on the deals you want. You will often get outbid. It’s just like interviewing at 25 places before you get a job. You can’t allow yourself to get exhausted by this experience.
I tell women interested in pursuing a career in investing or consulting to apply and interview at the firms they are most intimidated by in addition to the ones they might feel they are qualified for. I do this so they face this fear head on. They might receive the offer and surprise themselves, but no matter what the outcome of the interview, they will grow in confidence in their abilities by having faced that fear. This mentality carries into every part of a career in investing and can only benefit you in the form of persistence, resilience and grit.
To contact Caroline Stevens, email [email protected].