Entrepreneur, Pharmacist Leen Kawas Explains How Investment Firms Should Be Creating Fair and Inclusive Industries

Leen Kawas
5 min readNov 30, 2023

Financial services may not be the most male-dominated industry, but it can still pose major challenges for women hoping to become executives at the largest companies in the world. Diverse hiring practices have allowed more women and people of color to join the ranks at these financial institutions, but a certain glass ceiling exists. Recent studies highlight that 72% of corporate leadership at 16 Fortune 500 companies are white males. This doesn’t come as a surprise, but the numbers can be disappointing for any woman or minority hoping to surpass the restraints put on them. The same study reveals that only 6.4% of CEOs are women, and 20.5% are senior managers.

In investment management, a subsector within financial services, women and people of color are equally excluded from leadership roles. Almost 78% of investment fund managers are male, and about 66% are white, leaving very little space for more diverse candidates to establish themselves in this sector. So, what can be done to change the leaders of investment firms and improve the impact they have on society?

Since investment is critical for bringing ideas to the market and creating positive change for consumers, this field has a unique ability to elevate the livelihood and representation of many groups. If these investment firms committed to hiring with more variety and taking underrepresented communities into account with their projects, the world would see massive improvements.

However, some individuals may not understand they need to make a change yet because of the implicit bias they have. This flaw exists in all humans, but it shouldn’t keep us from creating a better society with products and services that can serve all groups of our population. Leen Kawas is a firm believer in leading by example. Her work as Managing Partner at Propel Bio Partners allows her to demonstrate that young Arab Jordanian women can excel in this field and that investment firms can operate with humanity in mind.

Leen Kawas actually never envisioned becoming an investor. She came to the United States from Jordan with a pharmaceutical degree and about $100 in her pocket. She was young and unsure about what she wanted to do, but she was determined to find the lessons in all her struggles.

After immigrating, Leen was able to sustain herself by striking an agreement to cook for a couple who would house her. She never took their kindness for granted and worked hard to continue her education in the United States. Besides learning about molecular pharmacology and toxicology, Leen learned about business. She then moved on to founding and leading her first company, Athira Pharma, to raise over $400 million, develop multiple late-stage assets, and complete an IPO.

While Leen achieved significant accomplishments early on as an entrepreneur, she encountered difficulties, too. At Athira Pharma, Leen had to grapple with an issue that was sensationalized in the media and eventually forced her to step down from her position. This was an unexpected and deeply upsetting event since Leen wasn’t defended by her colleagues. However, this taught her the importance of being proactive when validating her skillset in the workplace. This gave her the opportunity to lead Propel Bio Partners, a healthcare investment firm utilizing diversity and innovation to enhance patient outcomes.

“After everything that happened, I grew as a person. I only knew that I had to continue to move forward to accomplish my mission. I always wanted to help advance innovation, and I wasn’t going to let any obstacle get in my way,” says Leen Kawas.

Leen was able to join Propel Bio Partners after her largest investor steered her away from creating another company and instead worked with him at his new firm. Initially, Leen was undecided whether a move away from running a company to becoming an investor would be the best way she could use her expertise, but her business partner validated the wisdom her perspective would bring. Within only a year, Propel Bio Partners has built a diverse portfolio of both public and private companies.

“When you are aware and intentional about removing any bias from your decision making, you end up with dynamic and diverse management teams within your portfolio that I believe can bring above market returns,” says Leen Kawas.

Leen believes the firm has rapidly grown since Propel Bio Partners has extensive relations within the industry and an experienced team. In addition to Leen’s first-hand experience with founding and scaling a biotech company, the rest of the team have vast experience in drug development, investment, finance, corporate strategy, and scale.

Valuing diversity and hiring differently are other factors that have driven success, according to Leen. Instead of viewing candidates based on the years of experience they can offer, Propel Bio Partners sees the value of a person’s mindset. Leen notes that mindset can ensure an employee consistently views problems from all angles, making more innovative decisions despite their developing hard skills.

Leen is working to speak openly about bias in the investment world and change the assumptions around leadership. Propel Bio Partners vocalizes bias in the decision-making process, and Leen finds this essential for dissecting the entire team’s difficulties with stepping outside their personal biases. Furthermore, Leen aims to be a figure that demystifies the challenges of obtaining capital as a female entrepreneur. She has detailed four strategies for breaking down barriers for women in biotech.

“I feel privileged to be where I am in life and have the ability to be part of bringing change through one of the most important industries for humanity,” says Leen Kawas, “Achieving success has not been easy and there are many reasons for that, but I encourage all women to follow their dreams despite what the world tells them they can or can’t do. If you want to be part of something bigger, you have to prevent yourself from being impacted by others and the biases they carry. You have to change people’s assumptions on what a leader, innovator, or CEO looks like, and that’s difficult, but it’s very worthwhile. Especially as it has the potential to accelerate innovations and deliver significant returns to all stakeholders.”

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Originally published at https://www.techtimes.com on November 30, 2023.