Before Piraye Beim began collecting and analyzing big data on women’s fertility, doctors had little concrete direction to give to the 7 million American women who have trouble getting pregnant. But her company Celmatix, which she founded in 2009 after earning a doctorate in molecular biology from New York’s Cornell University, uses a woman’s medical history to identify the treatment most likely to lead to conception. Since launching last year, it’s served 20,000 patients. NationSwell spoke to Beim about the challenges of starting a company as a female academic during a time when male college dropouts dominate Silicon Valley’s narrative.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
I’ve been given advice that there are different ways to be a leader and that recognizing what kind of leader I’m good at being would be helpful. Imagine a general who’s barking out commands and helping people get up on the hill. That’s really good in that situation, but maybe not a good leadership style or strategy for other situations.
What’s on your nightstand?
I’m reading “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl,” an autobiography by Carrie Brownstein, an actress on the TV show “Portlandia.” I knew her as one of the three members of the indie band Sleater-Kinney, and their music really got me through grad school. It’s this kind of girl power rock band that broke through a lot of the stereotypes in rock and roll. Their songs address things that are relevant to women and to world events. It’s been fun to read this story. It transports me from these songs that were so influential to me to where they came from.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I think girls are in right now. I watched the Democratic National Convention, and it’s just girl power. It’s a great time to be building a women’s health product and a women’s health company. One of the challenges of entrepreneurship is that, by definition, disruptive technologies mean that you see something before other people see it. When I founded Celmatix seven and a half years ago, to me, it was such a no-brainer that women’s health was being underserved, that if we could decode the genetic basis of reproductive conditions and reproductive function in women, we could unlock so much and impact lives so profoundly by enabling women to be proactive in managing their health.
But what’s been interesting about the arc of the company is it feels like not only is the industry catching up to the fact that women’s health really matters and that women are an important demographic from a market standpoint, but that the zeitgeist of the world feels like it’s catching up too. Sometimes you feel in your little piece of the fishbowl that there’s a phenomenon happening in women’s health, but what I realized is that it’s part of the overall women’s empowerment, whether it’s Malala [Yousafzai] being outspoken about educating women and becoming a household name and now Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination. It’s been very interesting to feel that these confluences are stitched into the overall fabric of the world at the moment, that women have so much potential and the world would benefit so much from unleashing that. For us, where we stay grounded in our piece of the puzzle is that women can’t ever fully unleash that potential if they aren’t fully able to manage their health.
What inspires you?
One analogy that I’ve made is I feel like a knight that goes into battle and he’ll put the handkerchief from his sweetheart into his armor, tucked away. Since I’ve founded Celmatix, I have not been to a single dinner party or networking event where someone did not, probably with tears in their eyes, share a story about their miscarriage or how they’re struggling or their failed IVF [in vitro fertilization] cycle. It’s one of those things that’s so pervasive. For most people who are going through fertility struggles or for women who are struggling with the decision to freeze their eggs, they don’t have anyone to talk to about it. There’s not an outlet or forum. I feel like a knight going into battle, and I feel like all of those people I’ve met, I just keep shoving those handkerchiefs into my armor until it’s bursting. In those moments where I don’t feel strong, I’m bolstered by knowing I can’t give up now.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
The moments that are poignant and really moments of strength for me are when we’ve had employees go through a life event like a death in the family or maternity leave. We’ve been able to build this product in a way that people felt supported along the way. That nuance is very important for me. When a mother comes back from maternity leave and says, “This time with my child was such a gift,” or when we give somebody flexibility to work part-time and that allows them to flourish.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I wish they had told me that I had it in me to do it. People have written about how women tend to be a bit more cautious in whether they’re qualified to do something. When you first get started and you’re coming from my position where I had no business background, coming into this as an academic scientific researcher, I assumed that I didn’t have the DNA and that I’d need to make up for my decisions along the way. To some extent, you do that. You hire experts and people with MBAs. But three years in, I realized, wait a minute, I am an entrepreneur. I totally have entrepreneur DNA. It took me a little while to get that self-confidence, but the company did a lot better once I owned it and said, I’ve got this. I can totally do this.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
Homepage photograph courtesy of Celmatix.