You do have the skills to do this. Early on I had so much imposter syndrome, thinking that I wasn’t capable or didn’t have the right mix of experience to found a company. Now I understand that people of all types of backgrounds found companies and can be successful. What is important is to know what you’re good at and what you need help with, and to make sure to build a team around you that complements your skills and natural abilities.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suelin Chen, CEO and Co-Founder of Cake (joincake.com), the leading online platform for navigating mortality and end-of-life planning. Prior to starting Cake, Suelin served as Director of The Lab @ Harvard University, advised healthcare companies on their commercial strategy at IMS Health Capital, and earned her BS and Ph.D. from MIT, where she engineered new medical technologies to support doctors and patients in making better treatment decisions. She was recently named to the Fortune 40 under 40 list and the Care 100 list for being one of the most influential people in care.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
People are often curious how I ended up wanting to dedicate my life to making the end of life better for everyone! I’ve always wanted to help people, and I thought I would do that through working in healthcare. I started on the engineering side, spending my time at MIT creating new technologies to guide doctors and patients to make better treatment decisions. I then got interested in the business side of healthcare and worked for many years advising healthcare companies on their commercial and M&A strategy.
During these years I saw many promising new therapies that would enable people to live longer, and I loved working with these companies, but it also led me to the question: what happens when people die? Everyone passes away, and then what? I realized that even though we spend a lot of time, resources, and attention on extending life, we don’t spend a lot of time, resources, and attention on what happens when people die. The result is that this end-of-life experience is still pretty bad for most people and their families — and it doesn’t have to be. We wanted to create a space for people to learn, plan, and cultivate a different relationship with end-of-life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Very early on we started hearing from customers about their end-of-life preferences, and I was surprised and delighted by the diversity of ideas and how willing they are to share them. One of my favorites is a veteran named Charlie, who shared that he wanted to be buried with a 6 pack of Bud Lite (his favorite beer). These details are a form of self-expression and a way to communicate who you are in life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Very early on, I hired a student intern who told me he was a “social media expert” and that he could grow our social followers very quickly. I monitored the numbers, which were growing, but I did not realize that many of these were bots. We now have an amazing social media manager and have since purged these bot followers.
I learned that there are no shortcuts — you build an audience by providing value and people who resonate with that value will follow you. I also learned that if you are hiring for an area that you don’t understand well, it is important to do the work to understand it so that you can manage that person effectively and ensure quality.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am really grateful to my 8th grade English teacher Mr. Conti for drilling into us to “know thyself.” I do not think I fully understood it at the time, but I increasingly realize that your business is a reflection of who you are. You had better figure out your blind spots, issues, and your superpowers so that you can be as effective a leader as possible.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Access to capital is one of the biggest barriers to women founding more companies. There is no shortage of ideas, motivation, and talent — the shortage is in opportunity, resources, and support.
The other big problem is in how we view families and childcare in this country. Whether you decide to have children or not, we are all negatively impacted by the fact that we do not support families in the way that other countries do. Unfortunately, this burden is disproportionately borne by women. This issue not only sucks talent out of the market, but it places even more obstacles in the way of women who could found amazing companies.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
It’s a hard problem for sure. One thing I would do is to make sure investors of all genders are aware of their own biases and familiarize themselves with the work of researchers like Dana Kanze. I would consider regulation that would accelerate including women in powerful positions, like requiring diversity on boards. I would also encourage the media to continue telling the stories of women who have been successful because it is hard to be what you can’t see, and to ensure that the media is aware of their biases when covering women business leaders.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
You can’t solve problems that you can’t see. Every single person experiences the world in their own way and thus has a unique opportunity to see problems and find solutions in their own way. By not supporting and funding women and other underrepresented founders, we are missing out on countless solutions that could be making the world a better place. It is truly a tragedy for our world and is a part of why this work is so important. It should not be driven by the feeling of charity and wanting to be nicer to women. It should be driven by the pain of missing out on products, services, and wealth that would be created by these women.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
The narratives that we often read about successful founders are often revised to make their journeys seem linear. Most of the founders I know have had winding paths; this should be normalized.
Another myth is that you can’t be a mom and a founder at the same time. The skills that you need to parent actually overlap a lot with being a founder — you are operating under ever-changing conditions and a high level of uncertainty. You have to focus on what is in your control and be flexible regarding what is not in your control and be able to prioritize and triage constantly.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Definitely not and it is not as glamorous as the media makes it out to be! There are so many other jobs that are also entrepreneurial and innovative that do not involve founding a company.
I think the traits that are most helpful for being a successful founder are:
- Relentless persistence — you have to have grit and the desire to walk through walls.
- Comfort with uncertainty — you will be constantly operating in a sea of unknowns and this should energize and excite you (even if it also scares you).
- Humility — although you have to have confidence in yourself, you also have to realize that you don’t know it all, and can learn so much from other people.
I will add that these traits are not necessarily inherent and can be learned!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You do have the skills to do this. Early on I had so much imposter syndrome, thinking that I wasn’t capable or didn’t have the right mix of experience to found a company. Now I understand that people of all types of backgrounds found companies and can be successful. What is important is to know what you’re good at and what you need help with, and to make sure to build a team around you that complements your skills and natural abilities.
- Ask for help early and often. I had been socialized to not “bother” people. It was only when I was teaching at Harvard that I realized that that the students who reached out to me for help were not a bother to me at all; I perceived them as caring about the class and I was happy to help. As an entrepreneur, you can’t do it alone. You will have to ask for favors and ask for help, and you will have to have the courage to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Most of the time, people are happy to support you.
- Prioritize self-care. Startups are a marathon, not a sprint, and you have to pace yourself. It is tempting to work around the clock and neglect things like physical and mental well-being, but this always backfires. Prioritizing sleep, exercise, meditation, and human connection have been so important for me to make good decisions and be the best leader (and person!) I can be.
- Always carve out time to think. It is so easy to go into “individual contributor mode” and keep working to cross off tasks on the to-do list. As a founder, you have to zoom out at times and just take time to think. What’s challenging about this is it requires a certain amount of spaciousness. A few ways I try to do this are to build walks into my day, and I try to cluster my meetings mostly in the afternoons in order to leave enough time and space in the mornings for deep thinking.
- Do it your own way. You will get so much advice (often conflicting!), and even the good advice will have to match your own authentic self. I like to absorb all the feedback and advice I get, think about it, then “try it on” to make sure that the way I am implementing that advice feels true to who I am. Early on I would sometimes stumble by attempting to simply replicate what someone I admired had done; I later realized that things come off differently when I do it. And that’s ok! In fact, that’s what makes each entrepreneur great: each unique individual has unique approaches to problems.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The mission of our company is to make the world a better place by helping people live their best lives until the end. We want to help people honor their lives and the lives of their loved ones in all the wild, creative, and self-expressive ways they can think of. We also want to help people connect with their true values and motivations in life, and to live an intentional life. One way to do that is to not shy away from the fact that we are mortal, but to lean into this fact to cultivate gratitude and motivate ourselves to spend our finite time on this earth in ways that are most meaningful to us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would want to inspire people to spend more time looking inward at themselves, to make friends with themselves, and to understand themselves better.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oprah. I admire her so much and marvel at her skills in human connection. She knows how to address challenging topics with empathy and make millions of people feel like she is a trusted friend, and I know her influence can make such a positive difference in people’s lives.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.