“Being A Mom Makes You A Better Leader” 5 Leadership Lessons From Celmatix CPO Angie Lee

“Parenthood forces you to make better use of your time. It teaches you empathy and patience. It shows you the importance of dealing with unreasonable demands in a reasonable way. Dealing with young children is an endless, exhausting, and priceless masterclass on how your own communication style impacts the behavior and growth of the people around you. Plus, when your five-year-old cuts her own hair and threatens to move out of your apartment, nothing at work seems all that bonkers anymore.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Angie Lee, the chief product officer of Celmatix

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I am a very proud first generation Korean-American. My parents immigrated from South Korea in the ’70s. My father studied petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming, then moved the family to Texas so he could begin his 30+ year career in the oil industry.

When I graduated from UT Austin and moved to New York, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. My father was a successful oil executive by then, so I turned to him for secrets to becoming the smartest, most successful, most respected person in my chosen field. Instead, he told me stories about his early career in the 80s, including being fired by a racist foreman on the first day of his first job, and having to walk door-to-door looking for work to support our family. He told me he nearly dropped out of school because becoming a used car salesman seemed easier than getting another degree in a second language. Even as he built a career, he was always the only Asian in every meeting, and at every stage, he had to believe in his ability to succeed, make use of what he had, and work harder than those around him to get the same rewards.

Those stories left a mark-and taught me that there could be power in being the only. Rather than keeping his head down and blending in, my father embraced the fact that he stood out and was stronger and more successful for it. Now when I’m the only something around — the only woman, or the only mother, or the only Asian — I own my difference.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Motherhood, in particular, was a real adjustment. When I learned that I’d be the first mom with young children to join General Assembly, I was nervous, but came to understand that being the only mother of young children made me the rare leader who could show young women how to approach motherhood and professional ambition with a sense of possibility.

Looking back, I cringe at the fact that I thought being a mom might hold me back. After a decade of full-time parenthood, my mother breezed through her masters in computer science with a 4.0 and spent the following decades building a successful career, all while being incredibly supportive and present. When I asked her how she did it, she said something so deceptively simple yet profound: “What choice did I have, Angie? I wanted to do both.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Building people’s families is seriously important work, but even today I have to laugh when I find myself at medical conferences doing things I never imagined myself doing after spending years building a marketing career in media, publishing, and tech. I’ve taken pictures of a costume contest where the winner was a woman with dozens of giant plush sperm sewn onto her clothing. I’ve been handed a sperm-shaped keychain that plays a child’s laugh when you squeeze it. I appreciate the challenge of designing interesting giveaways at conferences, but these surpass any that I had ever imagined before staring at Celmatix.

So how exactly does your company help women?

For a long time, women have had to make life-defining decisions about their fertility based on age and national averages. Celmatix is changing that by using big data and genomics to build personalized tools that empower women to proactively manage their reproductive health.

Our Fertilome genetic test helps women understand how their genes may be impacting their reproductive health by revealing risk factors for common reproductive conditions including early menopause, endometriosis, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This information can help women manage their overall health, as well as make important family planning decisions when trying to conceive or seeking fertility treatment.

We’ve also built the Polaris data analytics platform, which helps doctors and clinics optimize patient management and counseling so that women can better understand their treatment options. To date, physicians have used Polaris to provide nearly 75,000 women with insights to make more informed fertility treatment decisions. We’re extremely proud to help them navigate this very complicated, emotional process.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One of the things that surprised me when I joined Celmatix was how little investment and true innovation was happening in women’s health. Celmatix was one of the first to bring the digital product development and design principles from tech to women’s health. I was always surprised when I would meet folks from the “industry” who would treat the design process as “making it pretty,” simply in service of selling more products. Our approach is about so much more.

Unless scientific discoveries can be translated into actionable information, products will fail and the people those products could help will be left in the dark. That’s why we are laser-focused on building products that prioritize clarity and actionability over complexity.

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?

So many, but I am particularly grateful to my first boss ever, Heidi Gray. She was kind and supportive, but never hesitated to correct me or give me constructive feedback. She had a reputation for being tough and having very high expectations, which made me value her mentorship even more.

Years later, my appreciation for her only deepens. Taking the time to give me constructive feedback — to invest in my development — was a true sign of respect and love. As a busy manager, unless you believe someone can actually meet the high standards you have for them, you simply won’t spend the energy. This is why I treat direct advice from people I respect as a true gift. It’s a signal that they believe I can do better.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I know that the work we’re doing at Celmatix brings true goodness to the world every single day. For me, that goodness is about more than the women we’re already helping. It’s about my daughter, Ruby. I want her to live in a world where it’s obvious, totally incontrovertible, that when women have control over their own futures they can do amazing things.

Ruby’s six now, and we still have a lot of work to do. That’s why I take my role as a leader very seriously. We have the technology, science, and skill we need to help give the next generation of women even more opportunity to have the families and careers that they want. We just have to keep doing the work.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CPO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1) Being a mom makes you a better leader

Parenthood forces you to make better use of your time. It teaches you empathy and patience. It shows you the importance of dealing with unreasonable demands in a reasonable way. Dealing with young children is an endless, exhausting, and priceless masterclass on how your own communication style impacts the behavior and growth of the people around you. Plus, when your five-year-old cuts her own hair and threatens to move out of your apartment, nothing at work seems all that bonkers anymore.

2) Joining an executive team is like getting married.

A leadership team can’t survive on the strength of any individual alone, and the sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be. Plus, you’re bound to spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your actual spouse, so you’d better like and respect them. I not only work well with the leadership team at Celmatix, I really enjoy spending time with them. We each have a deep respect for the unique expertise each person brings and create space for their voices to be heard. That isn’t to say that we always agree, but we can disagree respectfully, and then joke about it later over beers.

3) The responsibility is far bigger than you think

If I don’t succeed at my job, it’s not only the products that suffer, but my colleagues, too.. It’s true that great power comes with great responsibility, but what nobody tells you is that you are responsible whether you’re feeling super-powerful or not. You have to perform, no matter what, and must have the confidence to know what you can control and what you need help with. Most importantly, you need the humility to rely on others when you can’t do it all alone.

4) You have to be self-aware.

Once you become a leader, all eyes are on you. If you spend more time talking to one member of the team than you do to others, people will notice, and they’ll start questioning why. You need to see yourself the way others do in order to understand what your body language, your tone, your shoes, your lunch habits are telling the people relying on you. Your own level of perceived control over your work will be seen as a symbol of how successful the company is as a whole. It takes a lot of effort to make sure you’re sending the right signals.

5) It’s really, really fun.

The startup highs can be very high, and the lows can be very, very low. The dynamism that leading a company brings to your life is addictive, even when things kind of suck for a while. In order to weather the ups and downs, you need a team that is bound together by more than their paychecks, and your decisions about hiring are going to set the stage for potential years of growth. If you bring people together who actually enjoy one another, you’ll love work. I laugh with my colleagues every single day, and that was by design.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

Fine, okay — call me cliché, but who doesn’t want to get brunch with Michelle Obama? She’s defining feminine power and poise for an entire generation. She checks every box: brilliant, accomplished, principled, beautiful, stylish, publicly powerful and still family-oriented — and yet somehow she doesn’t inspire the kind of envy that other women who seem to “have it all” can so easily elicit in others. It’s really remarkable. Plus, I’d like to ask her what she did to raise such poised and accomplished daughters. I bet she’d have really good advice.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on January 9, 2018.