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Molecular Biology

Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne ’00

Co-Founder and Co-Owner, Georgetown Cupcake;
Starring on TLC’s Television Series DC Cupcakes

I didn’t arrive at Princeton with a life plan to bake cupcakes. And if anyone had ever told me that I would end up baking cupcakes on a television series as a career, I would have told them that they were crazy! To outside observers, my path of molecular biology to health care policy to venture capital to baking cupcakes on television probably seems highly unconventional. 

As a freshman, I had a passion for science. Chemistry and physics were favorite subjects of mine in high school, and my intent was to pursue a degree in chemical engineering. As I loaded up on science courses during my freshman year, I also grew increasingly fascinated by the interconnectedness of science and life, by the fact that all living things can be broken down and understood at their most basic molecular level. This fascination led me to enroll in my first molecular biology course during the fall of my sophomore year.

I fell in love with the subject. At first, I was hesitant to change majors. When I enrolled freshman year, I had a very detailed four-year plan to major in chemical engineering and pursue a career in biochemical engineering. It was what my parents expected of me, and what I expected of myself. At Princeton, I liked engineering but I found that I was fascinated by molecular biology. I found that what I most loved about molecular biology was working at the lab bench—mixing reagents and figuring out how to structure experiments. There was a certain thrill of wondering if the experiment would work, and I loved the fact that sometimes experiments did not work out as planned. I liked the risk involved. Completely coincidentally, I ended up marrying my lab partner from that first mol bio course! (My husband was a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs major, so I like to think that I helped him get through his science course requirement!)

Open to opportunities

It was a difficult decision for me to change majors, but I did it, and learned to become more open to the opportunities around me. I made a decision that I was going to approach my time at Princeton with one philosophy—to learn as much as I could while I was there. I wasn’t going to focus on padding my schedule with “easy” classes to boost my grade point average, or to give me more free blocks of time to work on my papers. Instead, I was going to take the hardest courses that I could, and as many courses as I could fit into my schedule. I was only going to be at Princeton for four years, so I wanted to make the most of my academic experience.

While majoring in molecular biology, I also tried to take courses in other areas to complement my studies. There was one course in particular that I took in my senior year that had a great impact on me. It was a course in health care policy. I did not know much about U.S. health care policy at the time and this course exposed me to a whole new world. Up until that point, I had only thought about biology and medicine at the micro level—and now, I started to contemplate these subjects, and the issues that affected them, at the macro level. The professor of this course could tell that I had a passion for the subject so he suggested that I apply for a position at The Lewin Group, a health policy group in Washington, D.C.—founded by Larry Lewin ’59. At first, I did not know if this was the right move. After all, I had this plan of working in biochemical engineering. However, I reminded myself that it was okay to stray from my original plan, and to take a chance, and to pursue a career that I found interesting.

I moved to Washington, D.C. and joined The Lewin Group immediately after graduating from Princeton. There were many other Princeton alums there and I found the environment very intellectually stimulating. We were helping structure and evaluate health care policy at the national level—and I found this fascinating. I worked on issues from emergency room overcrowding to organ donation and transplantation to medical devices. I was learning something new every day.

In 2004 I received an e-mail from a member of the Class of 1995. He was on the life science investment team at Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm in Boston. They were looking for someone to join their team. He had looked me up in TigerNet and decided to reach out to ask if I was interested in interviewing for the position. I had never considered working in venture capital but the prospect intrigued me. I interviewed for the position and thought it was a great fit for my background and interest in biotech.

I joined Highland Capital Partners in the summer of 2004, and I knew immediately that I made the right decision. Every day I met with entrepreneurs of promising young biotech companies who had dreams of developing the next blockbuster drug or medical device. I helped make decisions regarding new investments, and I worked with the companies in our portfolio to help them tackle difficult issues and grow from start-up to initial public offering. Never before had I been so up-close-and-personal to the inner workings of companies and how they navigated their highs and lows. It was very eye-opening for me.

Though my career at Highland did not allow for much free time, I tried to devote any free time I did have to another passion of mine—baking. I had loved baking since I was a little girl, and it was something I did regularly in the evenings and on weekends. It was a special bond that my sister and I shared with our grandmother. To me, baking was just like doing science experiments in the kitchen—carefully measuring exact ratios of ingredients that would react together—except that you could eat your results!

Living the dream

Ever since we were little girls, and even through college and into our first jobs, my sister and I would always talk about and toy with the idea of starting a bakery together. It was our ultimate fantasy, and we would talk about it, but never ever considered it a real possibility. First, our parents would kill us. Second, what would people think of us? We were both expected to go to college and pursue impressive career paths ... and starting a bakery certainly did not fit those expectations. However, in 2007, we found ourselves talking about it more and more. We were both happy with our careers—me in venture capital and my sister working in fashion for Gucci—but we found ourselves more and more curious about the idea of starting something together. We had this entrepreneurial “spark” within us and didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives wondering “What if?” So we decided to go for it and quit our jobs. Everyone around us thought we were insane, but we didn’t care. It was a huge decision to quit my job at Highland, but I again reminded myself that I should do what I loved, not what people excepted of me. My sister and I were going to go after our dream.

We opened Georgetown Cupcake, in Washington, D.C., on Valentine’s Day 2008 and it’s been a whirlwind since. We certainly did not expect it to take off as quickly as it did, but in three short years, we grew from just the two of us to more than 200 employees, and from baking 500 cupcakes a day to more than 10,000 cupcakes a day. We opened a nationwide distribution facility and now ship our cupcakes all across the country. Our cupcakes are carried by national retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and have been featured and reviewed in numerous magazines, newspapers, and television shows including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Today Show—and we’ve also baked with Martha Stewart and Oprah on their television programs. Our bakery is now also the subject of the TLC television series, DC Cupcakes, which chronicles our lives running our crazy fast-paced bakery. Doing a reality show is an adventure unto itself!

So how did I get from molecular biology to my dream job? My decision to start Georgetown Cupcake was the moment when it all came together; I had taken the things that I loved and the things that I knew and made them my career. To be sure, my degree in molecular biology did not teach me how to bake. Nor did it teach me how to run a business. However, my education at Princeton was a key ingredient in this mix of my professional development; all those late nights in the mol bio lab enabled me to satisfy my urge to experiment and deepened my appreciation for, and understanding of, how things progress from simple to complex. That has helped me run and grow my business of making the best cupcakes in the world.

Princeton was, and is, an ideal environment to be curious, to learn, and to grow. There is a saying that one doesn’t find a career, but that a career finds you. Looking back, I believe that Georgetown Cupcake was always in my future, and that Princeton was a key step along that path that has taken me to where I am today.