Growing up, Suma Kulkarni had a singular, all-consuming obsession: tennis, writes Iris Dorbian. “I used to watch all the matches,” she recalls. “I even named my second dog after Boris Becker.”
Naturally, her first real job was working as a coach at a tennis camp in Potomac, Maryland, when she was 16. Fortunately for private equity, Kulkarni’s fixation never extended to playing professionally.
Since dropping her racket, Kulkarni has become a trailblazer for women in private equity. Hired 15 years ago as an associate at the Washington, DC-based buyout shop ACON Investments, she rose through the ranks to become a partner. Identifying as the “first female investment professional” at ACON, Kulkarni has prioritized diversity, helping to create a firm where 70 percent of US senior management are either women or individuals from diverse backgrounds. Compare and contrast this statistic to a decade ago, when the firm’s diversity ratio was at 50 percent.
“We don’t give up. We stick through issues and just work our way through a positive outcome.”
She has also focused on cultivating and building relationships within and outside the firm, forging deep ties with management, lenders and industry bankers or mentoring junior colleagues. Kulkarni has helped foster a warm, collegiate company culture.
“We don’t give up,” she explains, when discussing work challenges. “We stick through issues and just work our way through a positive outcome.”
It is this kind of approach to relationships that resulted in a slew of notable deals in which Kulkarni played a key role. Among them are ACON’s 2014 buyout of iconic cooler manufacturer Igloo Products from PE firm JH Whitney (and its 2021 sale to Swedish outdoor company Dometic for $677 million); and the 2020 acquisition of food packager Novipax. For the latter, ACON generated a 33 percent return on invested capital in two years by growing company EBITDA.
But her success is tempered with an ability to face the unexpected. The sudden loss of her father at a young age infused Kulkarni with an awareness of life’s fragility. Seeing her mom’s strength was an important lesson.
“She never felt sorry for herself or gave up,” says Kulkarni, who holds an undergraduate finance degree from the University of Maryland. “It’s what you do to get to the other side. That’s sort of my motto. Be kind to people, work through tough situations and that’s what you have to do. That’s how I live, raise my kids and approach my work.”
Now if only people would stop being surprised to hear the youthful-looking Kulkarni is 43 and has children aged 15 and 11. “People think I look like a high schooler.”