Women in Business Q&A: Sofya Pogreb, COO, TrueAccord

Sofya Pogreb is the COO of TrueAccord, the digital debt recovery solution that is transforming the debt collection industry through technology. Sofya comes to TrueAccord from PayPal where she was the Senior Director of Risk Management. Prior to PayPal, Sofya worked at McKinsey and holds a Masters in Computer Science from MIT.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've always been fortunate to be around people who were more talented than I was - and to have parents who taught me to make the best of this kind of situation. I grew up in Moscow and spent 10 years studying piano in a school full of prodigies who went on to become professional musicians. At the age of 14, I moved to New York City and, subsequently, studied Computer Science at MIT - the fact that I never touched a computer before coming to MIT should give you a sense of the types of challenges I faced there. After graduation, I joined McKinsey & Company - the caliber of its people and the intensity of its client focus continued to challenge me to be the best I can be. I believe that a great leader challenges his/her team every day - and works with each team member to rise up to the challenge.

How will your previous employment experience help you in your new position at TrueAccord?
I bring over a decade of experience in leading teams and working with clients (at McKinsey & Company and, most recently, as the head of Risk Management for PayPal's Americas region) and a strong analytical background (I graduated from MIT with a Bachelor's and Master's in Computer Science and have been in the business of data-driven decision making ever since. My previous work focused on the Consumer Lending and Payments verticals - reinventing collections is an exciting new challenge, but it also offers plenty of opportunities to leverage my functional strengths and industry knowledge.

What are the biggest highlights and challenges of your career?
I left consulting with a big challenge in front of me - it felt like too many doors were open - I was a Financial Services generalist who was uncertain of her specific career path. A great leader convinced me to build a spike in Risk Management, which led to what I would consider the highlight of my career - leading a team of roughly 40 professionals responsible for managing Risk for PayPal's Americas region. Leaving PayPal to join TrueAccord as COO was not an easy decision, but I am excited about the opportunity to revolutionize an industry that has seen surprisingly little innovation over the past few decades. I look forward to talking to you a couple of years from now, and quoting what we achieved at TrueAccord as a highlight of my career!

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in tech?
Go for it! Diversity is increasingly valued by technology organizations (I believe this is driven at least in part by the recent media coverage of diversity shortages in the tech sector) - this is a great time to pursue your passion. Incidentally, I don't believe women need to be "like men"- confident, loud, aggressive, free of family obligations - to succeed; we bring a different leadership style to the workplace, and that's a good thing.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have been ruthless in defining my priorities - right now, they are: my kids (I've got an 8-year-old and a 9-month old) and my work - in that order. Everything else is secondary. At some point, I do hope to find time for my other passion - ballroom dancing, but it might have to wait until my younger one is in college!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Honestly, it's all the baggage we carry with us. I believe the glass ceiling has cracked- maybe not fully yet, maybe not at the highest levels of corporate C-roles or in the boardroom, but certainly at the junior and mid-management levels in many industries; and yet we haven't started believing in ourselves. Not believing we can achieve our career aspirations is a bigger barrier than any real disadvantages women may still have in the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've always found it challenging to find mentors - I've never felt comfortable "recruiting" leaders (whom I didn't know well) to mentor me. I ended up doing what I advise most who aren't great at networking- getting mentorship from their managers/ bosses. These are the people who know me well and care about me (because, after all, my success is their success). I make sure to keep in touch as our career journeys take us in different directions. In fact, most of my former managers remain my mentors to this day. I am a big believer in mentorship - thoughtful conversations and caring advice have helped me through the toughest times in my career.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have to admit that I draw my inspiration from women in my everyday life, rather than high-profile leaders we read about in the news; Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are admirable, but I am much more drawn to women I've had a chance to really know. The women I find inspiring are those that successfully innovate in constructing the delicate balance of professional success and non-work-related passions - whether it's a family, a hobby, or a philanthropic undertaking. One example is my mother, who immigrated to the US from Russia in her 40s, single, with a teenage daughter and no viable profession. She managed to build a successful life for herself. Another is a former colleague who, finding herself single in her 40s, chose to adopt two children. Now an involved mom, in addition to being a successful high-profile executive, she inspired me to have a second child that I passionately wanted, without seeing marriage - or even a committed relationship - as a prerequisite. While there has been much progress made over the past few decades, I feel there is still an expectation that a female professional has either chosen to make sacrifices on the family front and forego having children, or that she has a picture-perfect family - models outside these two norms still carry a stigma. Women with high career aspirations face enough constraints - we need more choices available to us on the family front. As you can see, I'm deeply passionate about this topic.

What do you want TrueAccord to accomplish in the next year?
I want TrueAccord to give more US businesses a taste of what a customer-focused collections function could do for their business - especially in regards to improving brand image, their customer retention ability, and their collections success rate. To be honest, I have been shocked at the lack of customer experience focus in the industry - and the fact that creditors are not expecting more from their collection agencies. TrueAccord's technology-driven, customer-focused approach shows that successful collections and superior customer experience can go hand-in-hand.