Dr. Claresa Levetan

Dr. Claresa Levetan is an endocrinologist and the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Perle Bioscience, a pharmaceutical research and development company, at the forefront of diabetes research.

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Can you share with me your career path from the beginning? How did you get to where you are today?

If I connect the dots backwards, my mother had a best friend who had diabetes. I saw this woman who was once vibrant and healthy lose her limbs, go on dialysis, and become blind. When she passed away it had a big impact on me. Then my father got diabetes. This disease stuck in my mind.

I also love art and I’ve been doing sculptures and collages since I was young. I approach science with a right brain perspective of taking odd things and putting them together like a picture. I went into Endocrinology, which for some people is a tough specialty with a lot of complexities. But for me, it just made sense. And diabetes is much more of an art than a science. Unlike other areas within Endocrinology like hyperthyroidism, which is treated with a thyroid hormone pill, or menopause, which is treated with an estrogen replacement, diabetes doesn’t have a perfect fit. In diabetes, you have a loss of cells that make insulin and another hormone embelin, but you also lose the islet cells that make hormones.

Frederick Banting who discovered insulin enabled us to treat people with diabetes and consequently, patients lived who were previously destined to die. But they also became hypoglycemic [a condition characterized by abnormally low blood sugar levels] and gained weight. So we have this treatment called insulin, which saves people’s lives, but it’s not working as well as having functional islets.

How would you explain your research at Perle Bioscience to a layperson?

The body is a perfect machine and works intuitively. If something goes wrong, the body is going to try to fix it. If you injure the pancreas, as in diabetes, there are stem cells that can be turned on to help repair it. At Perle, we tried to figure out what those genes are so that ultimately we can give people a therapy by which they can generate their own new islets and insulin producing cells again. We’re working with the body to self-regulate, rather than simply injecting insulin.

I’m mostly focused on patients with type 1 diabetes, people who predominantly get diabetes in childhood, because those are the patients that have dramatically shortened lifespans as a result of the disease. In those patients there are two problems: 1) there’s an autoimmune attack on the insulin producing cells and 2) there’s an inability to regenerate the cells. This population has the greatest need and there’s currently no other option than to be on insulin.

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What has the greatest obstacle been?

Fundraising. When I used to work in academia as the Chief of Endocrinology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, I had two large NIH [National Institutes of Health] grants. Our path at Perle is very different because we’re raising money on our own, which gives us much more flexibility to do the research we want to do, and at our own pace – much faster than it would be in an academic lab. The downside is we need to raise the money. We’re not your typical Harvard lab. We’re trying to get our own funding and trying to run as fast as possible.

This is a potentially transformative therapy. There are a lot of egos. Other researchers are working in silos. We have a different vision – our vision is bigger. We’re trying to take a different approach by completely redefining diabetes.

What is it like being a woman in the industry?

I’ll tell you one story. When we were raising money for Cure DM [Dr. Levetan’s first company preceding Perle Bioscience], we must have met with ten venture capital funds in San Francisco and the last morning our male investment banker had to fly home. The only VC we weren’t invited back to was the one in which our investment banker wasn’t at. I think it’s still a man’s world. You’re more successful raising money as a man than as a woman.

What are you most proud of?

My answer to that question has changed over the course of different points in my career.

A few decades ago, I chaired a conference where Senator Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Diabetes Caucus, and Newt Gingrich, who was the Speaker of the House, were involved. I helped the American College of Endocrinology and the American Diabetes Association set target goals for post meal sugars, which had never been done before. I helped standardize the names of A1C tests [a common blood test used to diagnose diabetes and then to gauge how well you’re managing your diabetes.] We hired Gallup to poll two doctors in every state and asked what name they used for this test and we got over 60 names from 100 doctors. We standardized the name to A1C and at the time that felt huge.

When I lived in Washington, I met with several members of Congress who had children with type 1 diabetes. I was instrumental in creating a Congressional Diabetes Caucus. Now those are the two largest caucuses in the House and in the Senate.

When Bill Clinton was president, I helped write the legislation for Medicare to reimburse patients for meters, strips and insulin pumps. I’m looking forward to the day when there are no more meters and strips. I’m looking forward to the day when diabetes is a disease of the past.

One of the most fun days of my life was this past year when I recorded a diabetes song in Nashville with Adam Lasher, Carlos Santana’s nephew who was a finalist on American Idol, and Amanda Jo, both of whom have type 1 diabetes. I used to sing these diabetes songs to my kids in the car and when I got to record it I had a total blast.

What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?

The first time I wrote a paper as a Fellow in Endocrinology I got rejected. I was shocked. I had to keep submitting it over and over. When the paper was finally accepted it felt almost as good as giving birth to a child.

I get knocked down but I try to realize that it’s just part of the past. I’ve been able to keep going knowing that everything isn’t going to be perfect.

Who inspires you?

Frederick Banting, the scientist who was the first person to use insulin on humans. He was also a painter.

Hanging on my wall in my office are pictures of famous failures like Oprah Winfrey who was told she wasn’t fit for TV, and Michael Jordan who was cut three times from his high school basketball team.

Patients who smile even though they are going through a tough time.

I’m inspired by life. I have this opportunity to really help.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want everyone with diabetes to be off of insulin. I’m an eternal optimist and I believe that in 2016 we have the tools to reverse diabetes. And I’m planning to make sure that happens.

 

Sarah Nadav

Sarah Nadav is a tech entrepreneur based in Tel-Aviv. In an article that went viral, she shamed venture capitalists who discriminate against women. Now, she is on a mission to create more transparency in the field while also launching her most recent startup, Civilize.

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Take me through your career path from the beginning.

I studied behavioral economics and my focus was on the environment – how to get people to recycle, for example. I founded a grassroots organization that brought plastic bottle recycling to Jerusalem. I did my Masters degree in Nonprofit Management. When I changed my career direction to the tech space, I realized I had learned a lot that translated to the for-profit field, such as managing a Board of Directors.

I had a teaching position at Hebrew University and I considered myself a data scientist. I became interested in debt collection and how it worked. I thought the problem was clear: debt is turned into a financial product. Usually if something loses value, like an item of clothing, the price goes down for the consumer each time the product is resold. First it is priced at retail, then goes on sale and then it gets sold to discount retailers, like T.J. Maxx, and the price is even lower. But with debt it is the reverse, the price to buy debt goes down each time it is resold, but the cost for the person in debt goes up because the collection process is very expensive. This makes it harder for people to ever pay back the debt that they owe. I realized this issue needed a market solution – not a nonprofit solution.

My first startup was not a success, but I am now working on my second startup, Civilize. Civilize is a communication platform that bypasses collection agencies. That’s valuable to banks and creditors since they want a direct line of communication with people in debt. This has global implications because we don’t give any financial advice. As the name states, we’re trying to make the collection of debt a more civilized process.

I’m now part of Barclays Techstars Fintech Accelerator, which is a prestigious program designed to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

How did you get funding? What was the process?

Because I came from the nonprofit sector, fundraising was something I was very comfortable with. I did have a lot of problems though because the industry is incredibly sexist. Getting funding was a huge challenge because people loved my work, but couldn’t see me in the position of CEO since I was a woman. I created my startup before Lean In was written and before there was widespread awareness about the issues women in tech are facing. I felt very alone. It was much harder for me to raise money than it would have been for a man with the same company. I’m trying again and I think the timing is better now.

Your article for Medium went viral. What instigated you to write this and publicly air your frustration with sexism in the field?

I wrote this on a whim. I was just venting. I had already been accepted to the Barclays Accelerator. In addition to founding a startup, I was fighting sexism. I identify with women who really broke through the glass ceiling like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These women were willing to speak out and push buttons. I wanted to be vocal about the struggles and limitations that I felt as a woman in tech.

How did you feel about the article going viral?

I was not prepared. It was incredibly shocking and overwhelming. I got an incredible global response – there were women from India, Nigeria, Silicon Valley, New York, and Europe who reached out to me. I never anticipated that. I thought the only thing that would happen as a result of the article was that this guy [a deal flow Manager for a major VC firm] would see I took screenshots of our conversation and he would get mad at me.

Did he?

Yes, but there’s nothing he can do about it.

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Besides for him, did you experience any backlash?

I don’t feel any backlash in terms of consequences for my actions. The people that I angered are the worst perpetrators of the problem. I don’t have the time or patience for people who don’t want to fund women. I want them to not want to talk to me because I’d like to weed them out.

It’s impossible for white men in positions of power to face themselves when it comes to issues of sexism and racism. Because then they’d have to question whether their success is only due to the game being rigged in their favor. These successful men are not in positions of power because they’re the smartest or most qualified; it’s because they’re privileged and others got shut out. They can’t handle that.

The only negative response I got was from white guys who wanted to tell me that these problems don’t exist because they’ve only experienced complete equality.

So you’ve become known for championing equal rights for women. Where do you go from here?

I am deep into this Barclays Accelerator and working on my new startup. On the one hand, I want to be active in spearheading women’s rights. On the other hand, I think the best way to do that is to succeed in my work.

I’m done with the women helping women in tech movement. I think we need to change the conversation. I used to be part of these mentorship programs where I helped women pitch better and present themselves with more confidence, etc. But I want to be more involved in helping men because they are the problem. I don’t know how to do that but the movement has to switch from women supporting other women to women shifting the mindset of men. I don’t want any more victim-blaming. Women don’t need to get better and prove themselves. Men need to prove themselves.

I want to be involved and active in ways that hold men accountable. I want more transparency. If a fund is exclusively putting money toward young white men, I want that fund to be called the Young White Men Fund.

I also think there are a lot of women who have a lot of money and don’t cut checks. Even women who grew up with the feminist movement are not funding women-led startups.

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What is your relationship like with other women in the industry?

I am part of a sisterhood of women where we are all in this together. Getting startup funding is not an either/or. It’s not as if either someone will fund my company or her’s. Women are constantly helping each other, boosting each other, making important introductions, writing about each other in the press, and warning each other about men who are sexist.

What has been your greatest career mistake?

There are so many of them! It’s true that with a startup you fail often, fast and hard.

My first cofounder was my biggest mistake. He was incredibly talented, but he wasn’t fully committed. Ultimately, it was up to me to fundraise. He was the hoodie-wearing tech guy that people want to fund. If he had been the one hustling and asking for money, we would have gotten the funding we needed.

I’ve learned from that mistake. Now, with my second startup I’m investing in teambuilding and creating a company culture of deep commitment.

What are you most proud of?

I am very proud that I got invited to the World Economic Forum.

Knowing what I know now, I’m proud that when I first started pitching my startup that I did succeed in getting investment. At the time, women only got 2.7% of all VC investment. 97.3% of all investment went to male CEOs.

I’m also really proud that I never gave up.

When citing that statistic, shouldn’t we take into consideration the percentage of startups that are founded by men?

No. Women found 40% of all businesses. So many smart and competent women can’t get funded. And there’s a cycle – if women get shut out of getting funding to begin with, they can’t become successful and they can’t become investors. Women investors are three times more likely to fund women-led startups than men. Women can pitch the same company with the exact same presentation materials and get funded 40% less than a man presenting the identical thing.

Despite these odds, I did succeed in getting funding.

What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?

I have two sons who are 9 and 11. When I was pregnant with my youngest I had a two year old. At that time, my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That experience got us into debt, which led to my interest in the debt market. It pushed me to have a career when I had never been ambitious. I suddenly had to support our family and I decided it was time to get ambitious. I wanted to provide the best life possible for our kids. It transformed everything in my life.

Who inspires you?

Brené Brown, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Dorothy Parker.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want my legacy to be having a really disruptive impact on financial markets. I want to be a woman who has pushed the envelope in the finance world.

 

Susan McPherson

Susan McPherson is a trailblazer in the field of corporate social responsibility, culminating in the founding of her consulting firm McPherson Strategies. She is also an angel investor in women-led technology startups. She spoke candidly about her career path, her work with refugees and the importance of empathy.

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Take me through your career path from the beginning.

Wow. I’ve had nine lives at this point in time, but there was always one trajectory through all of the different careers that I had and that was volunteerism and giving back. Even when I was working in corporate jobs, I was always fundraising on the side and serving on non-profit boards.

My first job out of graduate school was working on the editorial side of USA Today. Then I moved to the marketing side of the company because I liked to write but I soon realized that I didn’t have the passion to be a reporter. After that, I joined PRNewswire in 1989 and was with them until 1997. I left PRNewswire for five years and was working in the technology space doing business development and partnership creation.

In 2002 I went back to PRNewswire and was there until 2010. My last role at PRNewswire was creating products and services for people doing corporate social responsibility and social impact. So that role propelled me into the social good space and I knew who the major players were, what the big conferences were and who the leading thinkers were. That is when I started to gain my passion for this work and I saw the way that business could be a force for social good.

In 2006 I joined the Board of Bpeace, which helps women entrepreneurs in regions of conflict grow and strengthen their small businesses. As a Board member I visited Afghanistan and got to know this world I had never known.

When I went to Fenton, my job was to create a corporate practice. Historically, Fenton had always been a consultancy that served NGOs and advocacy groups. Over 3 ½ years I built Fenton’s corporate practice and brought in clients like Unilever, Kate Spade, Toyota Foundation and Avon. It was very exciting. When I was there I founded #CSRChat on Twitter which is now continuing six years later.

In October 2013 I decided to go out on my own and start McPherson StrategiesI did not have the intent to start a consultancy. However, a couple of organizations said they would hire me and it was enough to pay the mortgage. It’s been 2 ½ years since I started McPherson Strategies. Today we have clients that include J.C. Penney, Tiffany & Co. Foundation, a social enterprise called The Lucky Iron Fish, the Brooklyn LAB Charter Schooland Tonya Lewis Lee, the wife of Spike Lee who is pushing for better healthcare for marginalized populations. I serve on the Board for USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and PVBLIC Foundation, which is about amplifying campaigns for social good.

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Visiting a Refugee Center in Uganda

How long have you been investing in women-led tech start-ups?

Five years ago I learned that only 5% of venture capital in this county goes to women-led startups, which is horrific. It means we will never gain equality – whether it’s hourly wages or seats in the boardroom – if we don’t have women successfully founding businesses.

I’m not putting kids through college so I decided in the same way I used to write checks to help various causes I can also help women reach their dreams. I can support women who are launching businesses and maybe I can get a return on the investments, but even if I don’t, most importantly, they are creating jobs, which is a social good.

What do you look for when investing?

Whether I believe in the founder. Yes, I should be looking at all of the finances and checking the revenue models. But when push comes to shove it’s really the individual and whether I believe in her and care for her.

Can you give me any examples of women you’ve supported and why?

When Jane Barrat prepared to launch GoldBean, a financial-technology platform for those that are unbanked or lack a strong knowledge of investing, her unique background in advertising and marketing immediately drew my interest.

When Katheryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos explained The Muse‘s model and market, I was completely blown away by their knowledge and enthusiasm.

When I tasted Hint Water and listened to Kara Goldin espouse the amount of sugar and additives in almost everything we put in our bodies, I couldn’t wait to step up to the plate.

When Lisa Witter and Robyn Scott announced their intent to launch Apolitical, given their respective track records and experiences, I was sold immediately.

What was your biggest career mistake?

Staying at PRNewswire too long. I was fearful of what was out there. It’s a problem many people face when they stay at a company for a while. You don’t know what you don’t know and you’re terrified of what you don’t know. I could have been further along if I left earlier.

What are you most proud of?

Refugee Camp in Kenya

Refugee Camp in Kenya

Building my own business and being recruited and selected to join the USA for UNHCR Board. In the middle of the refugee crisis I am doing my part to help out. For my birthday last fall, I raised over $30,000 directly to fight the global refugee crisis. During the year, I speak and advocate on a regular basis (at conferences, in classrooms, etc.) to educate people on the plight of refugees. The situation is so beyond human proportions but I have to believe that by advocating and raising money for these people, it’s going to help in the long run.

Who inspires you?

At the absolute top, First Lady Michelle Obama is a guiding light. I hate to think that she’s going to be out of the public eye. I hope she goes on to do something else so we continue to see her.

Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist who is 80 years old and still dives 100 days a year. She is an advocate for our planet.

Gloria Steinem and the other early leaders of feminism. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for their leadership.

Ruth Ann Harnisch, a philanthropist who I just adore and respect. She funds a lot of causes to ensure that there are equal voices in public dialogue.

Lisa Witter who just started a business that I funded called Apolitical.

Cindy Gallop who is an entrepreneur and a huge supporter of women.

Jacqueline Novogratz who founded Acumen.

And my late mom, Beryl Stern Spector.

How did your mom inspire you?

My mom went back to work when I was six. So I was one of the original latch key kids in the ’70s. I remember resenting it because all of my friends’ mothers were there when they came home from school but I would come home to an empty house. Once I became a teenager, I learned that she was doing amazing work. She was doing PR for PBS and she was traveling a lot. I started to realize that she was a rock star and a role model. She was known as one of the most compassionate and caring women you’d ever meet. And plenty of people said that besides her daughter.

What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?

Sadly, my mother’s death. She was killed in a hotel fire. When it happened and for a few years after it happened, I was in a state of shock. But today I can see that I’ve tried to continue her legacy through the work that I’ve done – whether consciously or subconsciously. I always think what would she do? Maybe because I’m in a similar field to the one she was in, but also because I admired her ability to connect with people. If she was doing PR using a typewriter and a telephone, I can only imagine what she could have accomplished with the Internet, a smartphone and social media.

She had such a capacity to build connections. That’s a quality I pride myself on. I always call myself a serial connector and there’s nothing that brings me more joy. Because I lost her when I was young, I feel that by living like her I am able to live with her. In a mystical way I still have her by my side.

ConferencingBased on where you sit in the field, what do you think is the greatest issue or obstacle facing women today?

The notion of getting funding is hugely important. The second obstacle is confidence. I’m sure the two can be interlinked. Women have to keep propping each other up because insecurity is common and it holds people back. Women need to stick together and support each other in the trenches, always.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I really tried throughout my life to not only give back but to be filled with empathy. I believe partly what is coming around for me today is because I’ve always been willing to help and meet with people. There is a school of thought that says if you do, you’ll never get your work done. But there’s another school of thought, specifically there’s a professor at Wharton named Adam Grant, who says the more you meet with people the more successful you will become. I believe in what he stipulates. The reason my business is doing so well and clients continue to come to us is that I have chosen this path. I am not trying to come across as a nun. I certainly have my days and swear with the rest of them. But there is something about truly caring about other people and following up when people ask for help.