How I Do It: On Being a Mother and Pursuing My Career

Many people have asked me how I was able to have two children, while at the same time and in just six years of launching my biotech company, I raised capital to the tune of over $400 million. By this time, our company had developed therapeutical candidates for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as other neurological indications. As a result, GeekWire Awards named me Startup CEO of the Year in 2019.

More recently, I co-founded Propel Bio Partners LP, a global equity investment firm, and I now serve as a general managing partner there. Our company proudly invests in life sciences companies that have missions to use disruptive therapies and technologies to further human health.

With my husband, I am raising two young children at the same time. I strongly believe my success is proof that, as women, we don’t have to choose between being a good mother and having a career. In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that the fact that I have a career, I love, improves my ability to be a good mother. At the same time, being a mother has made me better at communicating and leading in the workforce.

I’m not saying all of this to say, hey, look at me and all I’ve done. I know many of the younger women professionals are genuinely interested in how I balance motherhood and my career. Several young women have asked me to write a blog or a series of blogs to explain why I think having children would potentially boost someone’s career, the key is - do they want to be parents with a career, full-time parents, or full-time professionals.

How did I kick “working mom guilt” to the curb? And how not sacrificing one or the other makes me better at both? That’s what I’ll share with you. It is not easy, but for sure it is not impossible. This first blog will focus on the positives as I want more women to feel comfortable making the choices they want and not feel any professional or societal pressures.

Who Am I?

First, a little about me. I’m Leen Kawas. I’ve been called by some an “inspiring, trailblazing woman”. I don’t know if I’d go that far. But I’ll take it. I recognize that I have a lot to be grateful for. It has not been easy, but my journey is meaningful, unique, and full of opportunities to grow.

This drive I have to innovate in the medical field arose when cancer and degenerative disease took my mother and grandmother from our family much too soon. I earned my bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Jordan. After that, I immigrated to the United States, where I received my doctorate in molecular pharmacology from Washington State University.

In 2014, I launched Athira Pharma and became its president and CEO. Here, I built the company from nothing to an innovative and thriving business. Through my leadership and an amazing team of dedicated scientists and innovators, we conquered the early stages of drug development for some potentially disruptive therapies for neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia I led the company all the way up to public offering, and then took that research to its late stages of development. We have not just developed an innovative therapeutic platform, but the way we did it was unique. We have used innovative measures in the clinical trials, proposed a new endpoint to the FDA, and most importantly have done it in a cost and time-efficient way, honestly, we have done it in potentially record time!

I’ll admit, my work at Athira blazed trails for women. I was surprised that this puts me among a short-list of Washington State founders/CEOs to lead a company through to its initial public offering. I remember when I first read the Geek Wire article I cried, not because I was proud, I cried because I have a daughter and I couldn’t believe that at this time and age I was the first woman to take a company public in Washington for almost 20 years. The first thought I had was I hope my daughter would be the first person to accomplish something rather than the first woman.

I had an amazing journey with Athira, I accomplished what people thought is impossible, but if you know me you will know that I don’t take no for an answer, and I look for how something can get done rather than why it can’t. The end with Athira was tough and during that period I was pregnant with my second child who is now 10 months. That was a period that I was tested as a person but again being a mother of one child and a second on the way, gave me strength and reminded me that as women if we can get through labor, we can get through anything! If you experienced labor, you know what I am talking about. Women have superpowers we bring life to this world. My husband and I gave our son an Arabic name that translates into a blessing because children are a blessing that gives you strength, patience, perseverance, new skills, sometimes tough times but most importantly joy!

Since I Ieft, I co-founded an investment firm, Propel Bio Partners LLC. Here, I will continue my mission to advance human health, improve quality of life, and transform the standard of care. Part of my personal commitment is not only to bring innovative therapies to patients but also to revolutionize how treatments are being tested in clinical trials, specifically for neurological indications. I will also be writing about this if you are interested to follow.

Right now, my husband, two children, and I live in Washington most of the time. I spend a portion of my time in Los Angeles as well

I Reject “Working Mom” Guilt

Let’s face it: it takes work to balance motherhood and a career. You will never hear me say it’s easy. But I believe one of the biggest obstacles we face as women aren’t the work or the kids. It’s the guilt.

It comes at us from both sides. One, am I committed enough to my career? Two, am I giving my children enough quality time? And sometimes it is from external sources. I remember other women telling me, we feel bad for your baby, they are probably eating premade food and drinking formula. With my first child, I would wake up at 4 am pump and make freshly made purees. I used to pump everywhere; I think I pumped in almost all of the major airports around the country. I did not want my child to have baby formula. I felt so proud to tell people “No my daughter is 100% breastfed”. I was stressed, did not enjoy that period, I was sore all the time, and she was probably hungry sometimes. I was a formula-fed baby and I turned out OK, I knew scientifically if I supplemented with formula, we would both be OK. There is pressure on women “mothers” that if we did something it has to be perfect.

Looking back, I think things were tough, I probably could have done things, so I am less stressed and potentially my daughter to be less hungry, but again we are both healthy now and I love her challenging huge personality in her little body. As women, we don’t have to choose. I also love my work and that I get to work with amazing entrepreneurs and the team at Propel Bio partners in an industry where we can have a meaningful impact on human health. That is why I feel strongly that it’s not either-or I believe that women should reject this mother’s guilt. Of course, it is easier said than done, so Here’s what I’ve done in my life. To not be misunderstood if a woman does not want to be a mother that is absolutely OK! There are so many ways that a person can live a happy and fulfilling life. Me, I always wanted to be a mother, and since I was 7, I wanted to cure cancer. Both parts of my life make me happy and a better person for the other part.

I Accept Support

First, I have found it essential to accept support.

As a working mother, I’m not afraid to ask for help. This was not obvious to me at the start, I thought if I ask for help, I am failing as a mother, but guess what once I started asking for support and became more communicative with my husband, everything got so much better. We talked about the things he likes to do vs what I like to do, and we negotiated our parenting tasks. We are so much stronger as a team and as parents. We have our days where someone is not following the contract, but you know we are not perfect, we talk renegotiate and figure out a new arrangement. Communication is critical for successful parenthood. One thing that I always remember is what my husband told me, “We’re only different while you’re pregnant. Afterward, we are both parents, responsible for raising our children.” For those who have a partner at home, I would encourage you to work toward a fair balance in childcare, chores, and a parent’s “emotional labor”

The poor “Great” partner, in my case it was my husband is not the only place you can ask for support, and reach out to family members, friends even co-workers. I found it’s vital to actively build a support system. Remember, support systems go both ways. I don’t only take from a support system; I give. We’re always stronger together.

Remember, it’s not all on you, nor should it be. Determine your priorities and focus on the top ones, you have to let go of the less important tasks and become more comfortable with some “chaos” in your life, yes toys and children’s books everywhere!

I’m not superhuman and don’t have to be to succeed as a career woman and mom. In summary, I always:

  • Advocate for myself

This doesn’t make me weak or incapable; it makes me smart and strong — if I do say so myself. When I protect my emotional health and time, I’m better in both roles: motherhood and my career.

Motherhood Strengthens My Workplace Skills

I’ve also found balance and banished guilt by recognizing that my major roles aren’t at odds. In fact, they complement and strengthen one another.

My role as a mother doesn’t take away from my career. Instead, it enhances my work skills. I’m more patient and empathetic with co-workers because I have kids. I’m also a better leader, communicator and negotiator, have you tried negotiating with a four-year-old!

Bottom line: We should know our value as working mothers. Spending time as a mother generates better leaders.

It’s not just me saying this. Research supports my statements and confirms that parenthood primes us neurologically to develop stronger work skills.

In fact, studies show that motherhood strengthens emotional intelligence. That, in turn, supports successful collaboration. Women understand how to optimize their time and pivot between tasks with less productivity loss. Perhaps, most importantly, mothers are better at setting healthy boundaries in the workplace.

One thing I love about being a parent is I see my children learning new things and sometimes doing things differently, which always surprises me, how come I didn’t think about this before. It reminds us as leaders that a fresh outlook can bring new ideas and ways of doing things. For leaders, this is an important point as it helps us incorporate new ideas and ways of thinking into our workplace.

So, motherhood doesn’t steal my time or energy from the workplace. Motherhood is on-the-job practice for being a better, more empathetic leader, communicator, and doer.

My Career Benefits My Children

Similarly, I believe that having a career I love enhances my role as a mother and what I have to “give” my children. In my outside job, I feel productive, energized, and happier as a person. Which makes me a better parent and more present when I am with my family. I know I’m doing the right thing for myself and my children. It helps me bring my best self at home to my family, and I also know I’m setting a positive example for my children about what women can get done when we find balance.

Being a career woman works wonders for my mental health, and alternating between career and mom, avoids “mommy burnout”.

Once again, Harvard research backs me up here. Daughters of working mothers become higher achievers. At the same time, our sons are more likely to share household and family responsibilities. That same study also ranked happiness and found no difference in adulthood.

So why should I feel guilty?

As women, I believe we should do whatever we want. I am not advocating for women to have children, all that I am saying is if you want to become a mother enjoy it if you want to have a career pursue it and if you want both, yes you can have it all. After all, men do it — why would it be different for women.

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