Meet The Millennial CEO Taking Bold Steps To Cure Billion-Dollar Diseases
Leen Kawas defies just about every stereotypical description of a tech CEO. She’s female. She’s a minority and a first-generation American immigrant from Jordan. She’s fighting to combat incurable diseases that cost societies billions every year. And she leads a fast-growing company at age 30.
M3 Seattle-based company Kawas co-founded in 2011, just closed a round of $9 million in Series A funding. Her company is fighting to find a cure for neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which currently affect millions of Americans. The funding will help conduct initial clinical trials of the company’s drugs that could re-generate the brain cells and linkages that patients lose when they suffer from these debilitating diseases. If all goes well, it could change the game for the industry, she tells me, as nearly all competitors are working on slowing, not reversing, these diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth leading cause of death among Americans, disproportionately impacts women. Two-thirds of those suffering from the disease are female, while women constitute 60% of caregivers for people afflicted by the disease, according to The Shriver Report.
What M3 hopes to accomplish could be groundbreaking for the field. But her journey as an entrepreneur is just as fascinating.
Kawas dreamed of curing terminal diseases since childhood, after witnessing firsthand how much it negatively affects not only the patient, but families and communities around them. As a child, she watched her grandmother lose a battle with cancer. Then, her mother passed away before Kawas turned 21, pushing her to take on “leadership positions from a young age.” Dealing with adversity early also set her up for the challenges of being an unconventional entrepreneur. “It didn’t initially register that I’m a foreigner and a woman and how that would affect my career.”
But these very things became the driving force behind her business. While getting her PhD in molecular cancer pharmacology at Washington State University, Kawas noticed that the majority of biotech laboratories were staffed by women, but very few women held leadership or entrepreneurship positions in the industry. She was determined to break in from the top. So she did what most people wouldn’t. She set out to talk to “at least 740 people” within the first year of launching her company to explore the field and candidly ask about opportunities and challenges she was likely to face, to better equip herself. “Some people told me that it was distracting for me to be a young, attractive woman in this field and that I was an unusual model for a CEO in the life sciences.”
Kawas didn’t let that talk deter her, although she faced plenty of the discrimination she had been warned about, as her company progressed. “ I’ve been mistaken for the coat check girl more times than I can count, ” she says. Then quickly deadpans: “ But people who thought I was the coat girl at the beginning of the meeting were willing to invest a lot of money in my company by the end of it.” Indeed, if she felt offended every time she faced discrimination, she “would have missed opportunities for my company, but importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to change the way they look at women and minorities. So I learned to just laugh it off.”
While she got schooled quickly on the tactics to raise funding by observing “other fantastic female CEOs,” including: “learn to ask for money. Be clear about what you want to do. Don’t be shy about doing the ask,” Kawas faced a rude shock recently when pitching a group of male investors.
“Because my own background and company was almost identical to the one they had already invested in – the other company’s CEO was young too, but male – I got excited that these investors were ready to invest in us.” At the end of her pitch, the investors told Kawas and her advisors that they were impressed by the company…but just had one concern. That they weren’t “comfortable” with her as the CEO. What happened next “was amazing,” she recalls, as one of her advisors “blew up on them telling that having a problem with a female CEO was an ancient way of thinking.”
She adds: “The refreshing part was that even though I was antagonized for being a woman CEO, the much more experienced male advisor said to everyone: ‘even I couldn’t do the job Leen does as CEO.’” Kawas counts this as a rare occasion, noting that entrepreneurs of both genders will need to learn to hear ‘no’ for many reasons, to grow.
But she’s surprisingly candid about something most immigrant entrepreneurs try to play down: the difficulties of leading a company as an outsider. She faced culture shock when she moved to the U.S. from Jordan in 2007, realizing that her home helped her have a “wider perspective and more tolerance to difference” compared with what she saw here.
After launching M3 while getting her PhD, she tackled discrimination against her racial background. “There were pre-set ideas about what people expect from me. I have an accent and if I had an American partner sitting next to me in a meeting, they would deliberately turn to the American and address them instead of me.” Kawas says she’s had her accent mocked, especially the way she would pronounce Alzheimer’s. “‘Al-zha-heimer’s’ is how we say it in Arabic.”
Not an easy thing to overlook when promoting a company that hopes to combat that very disease.
But if there’s one trait that has been an asset to her growth, she says it’s her age. Kawas is the youngest person at her company and mostly works with older, white men. “ Young entrepreneurs don’t take other people’s experiences as a fact – we’re not held down by past failures, or successes. We have to learn from others’ experience, but are not compelled to do what other people do. We can create our own path.”
If Kawas continues to pave the way, M3 will be the first company to create an oral pill that would go beyond just managing these debilitating diseases. With estimates that the cost of battling Alzheimer’s in the United States alone totals over $300 billion annually, businesses and governments may have plenty of reasons to pay attention to this CEO.