CEO Spotlight

CEO Spotlight: Leen Kawas on Being a Mother and Pursuing Your Career

Dr. Leen Kawas

Dr. Leen Kawas’ accomplishments have been impressive by any standards. Within six years, from launching a biotech company, raised over $400 million in capital, and developed therapeutical candidates for Alzheimer’s,Parkinson’s and other neurological indications. She was named Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards.

More recently, Kawas has co-founded the global equity investment firm Propel Bio Partners LP, where she serves as managing partner. Propel will invest in life sciences companies that aim to advance human health with disruptive therapies and technologies.

Even more impressively, Kawas is simultaneously raising two young children. She believes her success is proof that women don’t have to choose between having a family and having a career. In fact, she says, being fulfilled in her career has made her a better mother, and being a mother has enhanced skills like communication, leadership, and beyond.

We spoke with Dr. Kawas about balancing motherhood and career, banishing guilt, and how these two endeavors can strengthen one another.

Who is Leen Kawas?

Raised by inspiring, trailblazing women, Kawas developed her drive to innovate in the medical field when she lost her grandmother and mother to cancer and degenerative disease. She earned her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Jordan, then immigrated to the United States and graduated from the Washington State University with a doctorate in molecular pharmacology.

She co-founded Athira Pharma and was named its president and CEO in 2014. She built the company from the ground up, leading it from the early stages of drug development, through its public offering, and into the final stages of developing potentially life-changing therapies for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Kawas’ work at Athira blazed trails for women, making her one of just a few female founders/CEOs in the Washington State to take their companies public through an IPO. She has since co-founded Propel Bio Partners LLC where she will continue her mission to advance human health, improve quality of life, and change standards of care. She currently lives in Washington with her husband and two children.

Rejecting “Working Mom” Guilt

Balancing a successful career with motherhood is challenging. Working mothers commonly struggle with feeling conflicted and guilty. This guilt comes from two directions: feeling like they can’t give enough to their careers while simultaneously feeling that they can’t give enough to their children.

Kawas feels strongly that it doesn’t have to be that way. “As women, we don’t have to choose between having a family and having a career,” she says. She believes that women should reject the feeling that they have to make a choice and rid themselves of guilt.

Of course, banishing “working mom” guilt is easier said than done. Fortunately, Kawas also shared her top tips for balancing these two roles.

Accept Support

First, Kawas has found it essential to accept support. Working mothers should give themselves grace and ask for help when it’s needed. Whether that means reaching out to a partner, family members, friends, or co-workers, it’s essential to have a support system and ask for what you need.

Kawas’ greatest source of support has been her husband. She recalls that while she was pregnant, her husband told her, “We’re only different while you’re pregnant. Afterward, we are both parents, responsible for raising our children.” If you have a partner at home, strive to achieve a fair balance in childcare, household tasks, and the “emotional labor” of parenthood.

Whatever your source of support, find people willing to help with childcare, cooking, cleaning, or other tasks that require time and effort. Seek employers who will allow you to negotiate for flexibility in the workplace. Finally, be willing to say “no” when people attempt to put too much on your plate.

Remember that you don’t have to be superhuman to succeed in your career or to be an excellent mother. Advocate for yourself, ask for what you need, and trust in your support system. It doesn’t make you weak or incapable; it makes you smart and strong. When you protect your well-being and time, you’ll be better in both roles: motherhood and your career.

How Motherhood Strengthens Workplace Skills

Kawas has also found balance and banished guilt by recognizing that the two roles of a working mother aren’t necessarily contradictory. In fact, she has found that these roles complement and strengthen one another.

Rather than her role as a mother diminishing her abilities in the workplace, Kawas has discovered that being a mother has enhanced numerous important workplace skills. Raising her children has made her more patient and empathetic. It has improved her leadership and communication skills.

“Being a mother is empowering for leaders,” Kawas says. “Being a mother who is also a leader teaches empathy and patience toward your co-workers. You’re able to better understand the background of your co-workers as well. So, I think motherhood has made me a better leader in multiple ways.”

Research supports Kawas’ beliefs, affirming that parenthood neurologically primes us to develop skills that are essential for the workplace. Studies show that motherhood fosters emotional intelligence, which supports successful collaboration. Women with children are more efficient, better at pivoting between tasks, and more productive in the workplace. They’re also better at assertively setting boundaries.

So, motherhood doesn’t limit your capabilities in the workplace. It strengthens skills that are not only relevant, but essential, for a successful career.

How a Career Benefits Motherhood

Similarly, Kawas believes that having a fulfilling career makes her a better mother. Working outside the home can help mothers feel validated and reaffirmed as a person, improve their mental health, and avoid a feeling known as “mommy burnout.”

Time away from your children is difficult and can stir up feelings of guilt, but it can also be beneficial for both you and your children. For some women, work is rejuvenating, giving them the energy and resources to bring their best selves home to their children. It also sets a positive example of what women can accomplish.

In fact, a Harvard research study demonstrated that the daughters of working mothers grow up to be higher achieving. Meanwhile, the sons of working mothers are more likely to share in household chores and caring for family members. The same study showed no significant association between a mother’s employment status and the likelihood that her children will grow up to be happy adults. Put simply, children of working mothers are just as happy as children of stay-at-home mothers in adulthood.

As Leen Kawas says, “Women should do whatever they want. If they want to have a career, if they want to have children, or if they want to have both, it’s their choice. Whatever you want to do, you should pursue it.”


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Anna Papadopoulos
Anna Papadopoulos is a senior money, wealth, and asset management reporter at CEOWORLD magazine, covering consumer issues, investing and financial communities + author of the CEOWORLD magazine newsletter, writing about money with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. You can follow CEOWORLD magazine on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or connect on LinkedIn for musings on money, wealth, asset management, millionaires, and billionaires. Email her at info@ceoworld.biz.