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Dr. Leen Kawas on How Motherhood Helps Make Women Strong Business Leaders

When you think about it, business, like family, is all about relationships. The very tenets that keep a family functional and flourishing - shared core values, solid structure, respect for one another's thoughts and feelings, and sound leadership - are also qualities you'll find in most successfully run companies. This correlation between parental leadership and corporate leadership makes sense to women, and perhaps even more so to mothers like biotech innovator and entrepreneur Leen Kawas.

In 2015, then 30, with a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology from Washington State University under her belt, Leen Kawas was already pursuing her corporate dream with a passion. As co-founder and CEO of Athira Pharma, she spearheaded the fundraising efforts for the company launch, raising $7 million in capital. As of February 2021, Kawas was still one of only 22 women founders and CEOs to take their company to an initial public offering (IPO).

Kawas' list of awards and achievements are also impressive: She's been named in Endpoints News' 20 (+1) under 40 and tapped for the Life Science Washington Institute's Life Science Entrepreneurial Achievement Award. Under her aegis, Athira was named one of Seattle's Top 10 Startups in 2016 by GeekWire, and in 2019, the company took honors as a finalist in GeekWire's Health Innovation of the Year Awards. Kawas co-chaired the International Alzheimer's Association Business Consortium and now, in addition to participating in the Springboard Network, she serves on the Life Science Washington Board, the Scientific Review Board for the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, and the Alzheimer's Association's Washington Chapter Board.

Like many women who've risen to the top of their field, Kawas believes motherhood made her a more effective leader. 'I think having children just makes you a better person,' Kawas says. 'As a mother, you develop different communication skills.'

Kawas notes that having kids of her own was a real eye-opener professionally and personally. The experience taught her she might need a different, more flexible approach to managing a team. 'You become more patient and more empathetic in general ... You're more understanding, especially when it comes to dealing with employees who've got children,' she says.

'Being a mother who is also a leader teaches patience and also empathy toward your other co-workers,' she adds. 'You're able to understand the background of the people you're working with as well. I think [being a mom] made me a better leader in multiple ways - and women should understand that.'

How Being a Good Mom Equates To Being a Strong Team Leader

As with children, when Kawas is building a team, taking stock of the long-term growth potential of each individual is key to success. '[I'm not only looking at] what they're capable of today but also what I believe they will be capable of in the future. One of the questions I [consistently] ask is, 'What areas of your job do you enjoy most and want to grow in?''

Understanding where your team members' chief interests lie, where they excel, and what they most hope to achieve, is much the same as understanding your children's strengths and fostering the avenues of study that truly spark their interest. Kawas says this kind of savvy relationship building yields strong commitment to the mission and network within a business context - and happy, well-adjusted kids at home.

Kawas is not alone in her beliefs. From budding mompreneurs to the highest-level female C-suite executives, there's a legion of women in today's workforce who tout the benefits motherhood has had on their careers. 'Motherhood transforms many women into better leaders,' writes Joann S. Lublin, a former Wall Street Journal editor/career columnist and author of Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life . 'Tapping skills honed as time-starved parents, they set priorities well, multitasked, and delegated effectively.'

'Motherhood has taught me how to ruthlessly prioritize so that I'm maximizing the impact of my time for both my family and my business,' said Kristen Sonday, COO and co-founder of the pro bono forward enterprise Paladin, in a recent interview with Business Insider. 'Now, I don't feel bad saying 'no' to projects and events that don't move my company forward, and my time is much more focused, whether I'm at home or the office. Plus, it's made me more aware of, and empathetic toward, our employees and clients who have kids.'

Leen Kawas Believes the Nurturing Role Includes Championing Other Women

One of Leen Kawas' most passionate interests is mentoring up-and-coming women in the fields of science and business. While female executives may still be the exception rather than the rule in the top echelons of the corporate stratosphere, Kawas thinks as a woman, being the unexpected variable can lead to positive outcomes if you play your cards right.

'As a female CEO, there's going to be a different perception about you - but that's something you can use to your advantage,' Kawas explains. 'In many cases, as a woman, you're going to stand out. If you use that spotlight as an opportunity to make your voice heard, you know you'll leave your mark.'

When Kawas first started out, she remembers going into a room full of men and having to remind herself that gender didn't really matter. 'You have to know your talents and your skills, and you should leverage everything you have - including your agenda - to your advantage,' she explains.

Mentorship from strong women leaders is crucial to ensuring the next generation of female scientists and entrepreneurs get a seat at the table. 'I learned there is a difference between just providing advice to women and endorsing them and going out of your way to promote them - giving them an opportunity to grow, ultimately into a leadership position. I think the ability for women to garner endorsements is critical in accelerating their career growth.'

Learning What Works for One Working Woman, Doesn't Necessarily Work For All

Kawas' drive to see more women in leadership roles is matched by her hope that others will embrace the role model of the highly competent, emotionally satisfied working mother. However, in addition to upping her listening skills and empathy quotient, Kawas says becoming a working mother expanded her understanding and acceptance of the choices other women were making about whether or not they wanted both kids and a career.

'I have to say, from my own experience, becoming a mother makes you a better leader because you're able to understand the choices some women make,' she admits. 'Some decide they don't want to have children - and I totally respect that - but others decide they want a family and a career.'

Kawas acknowledges the career/life either/or enigma many women come up against in the corporate world can become an all-consuming worry. Still, she believes having a robust career and a fulfilling family don't have to be mutually exclusive.

'Motherhood is not easy. Being a parent while also having a professional life is not easy,' she says. 'But women shouldn't have to choose. Ideally, we should be in an environment where women can follow whatever path they want. If they want to have a career, if they want to have children, or if they want to have both, it shouldn't have to be a choice. If it's what they want, they should pursue it. That's my personal view.'

Indeed, rather than making women weaker or less present, Kawas sees being a working mother as something absolutely empowering for female leaders. 'It's something I actually promote for younger girls,' she says. 'You can choose between being a parent or having a career, but you don't have to choose one or the other because ultimately, being a mother will make you better at your profession.'


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