Succeeding as a Woman in Male-Dominated Worlds

Luba Kagan is the Investor Network Director at StartUp Health, a global platform for health & wellness technology enabled startups. She connects VCs, corporate investors, and angels with strategic investment opportunities. She is also an active coach for Healthcare Transformers in the StartUp Health community focusing on capitalization, fundraising, and strategies designed to drive equity value creation. As a successful woman in male-dominated fields, we’re excited to hear her perspective and advice.

BlackBoxPhD 3-Point Checklist: How to Overcome Bias in Your Field

  1. Surround yourself with a strong support base. Being around people who care about you and value you will prevent you from doubting yourself.
  2. Have a variety of mentors with a multitude of expertise and who fulfill different roles. There is no need to find someone who embodies everything you want to do and be.  Create your own path by learning from multiple mentors who each bring something unique to the table.
  3. Put yourself out there and explore to experience different societal norms. The more you try different areas, the more you’ll be able to feel comfortable and be able to work in areas where you may not have felt equipped before.

Hi Luba. Could you tell us a little about what you do?

My name is Luba Kagan and I’m involved in helping young entrepreneurs who are building and developing their companies, specifically in health and wellness and technology space.

How did you get to working on this?  What is your background?

I come from an interesting background. It’s not necessarily typical. I was an engineer at Columbia as an undergraduate. When I graduated, I went into finance and investing into public companies and asset management for six and a half years. Then, I went to business school for my MBA. I knew I had an entrepreneurial spirit so I took a lot of entrepreneurship classes. After business school, I went to work for Ronald Lauder, building a global water and resource company for him. My passion was always more health and wellness, but I had an opportunity to just create something unique and something that was very different.  It was an amazing experience to work at a company started by great engineers and great entrepreneurs. Once I felt comfortable that I could do this, I pivoted into the area I had always been interested in: healthy lifestyle from a science perspective.

At the time, I had a friend who was very sick – her immune system had shut down. She overcame this very unfortunate life experience which helped her develop the concept, and I helped her build the business. I contributed my knowledge and know-how. Now I’m looking at a number of different health and wellness related companies coming out of New York.

Before getting into the health and wellness entrepreneurial sector, you have an engineering background and then went into business. These are both fields dominated by men. What was your experience being a woman in engineering, business and venture capital worlds?

That’s a very interesting question. It’s been something that I have struggled with my whole life. I cannot tell you how many times I questioned my career, and myself, starting from high school. I never had a role model. Instead, I always followed my gut. I have been fortunate enough to have a strong family who really supported me and instilled a strong belief in myself, to guide myself. I just kept on going.

My grandmother was the first female in her medical school class, and my mother was an entrepreneur – so I come from a family of strong females. That gave me the confidence in myself to continue pursuing. I hope to empower other women with my experience, and to empower other women to not limit themselves. Women hear they are not good at math or shouldn’t be in venture capital.

I came from former Soviet Union where women were in engineering. 50% of women are in engineering, there’s no genetic difference, showing there’s a social aspect to gender segregation. You don’t know what you’re capable of until what you see is around you. When you don’t see females or people like you, you start to question whether that is possible.

Demographics of the United States science and engineering workforce

You questioned whether you belonged because you were a woman. Could you provide specific examples of when you felt uncomfortable and how you overcame this?

I finished Calculus BC after junior year, and I was the youngest and only female in my class. No one really questions your ability when you show results. The key is to not doubt yourself.

Despite adversity and discomfort, keep on pushing. As a female in a male-dominated world, I’ve had people question me and make diminishing remarks. The most important thing is just to believe in yourself.

How did you find mentors when there were few females doing what you wanted to do?

I’ve had amazing mentors along the way. Some of my former bosses who were female may not have been doing what I wanted to be doing, but have been instrumental in guiding me or in supporting me.  In knowing that I had done a great job for them, and that I wanted to do something else, they were more than confident in my abilities to do that. Having that reinforcement, allowed me to go for whatever I wanted.

You can get mentorship in many different ways from many different people. The mistake in my past was that I wanted all types of mentorship in one person, find the one person who has the kind of personal and professional life that I aspired to. The reality is, there’s many different variations and paths so what I’ve learned to do is take the best from every person and not necessarily judge them for all their assets, and accumulate many different mentors and each has a specific role. Create your own path in life.

Great. Just to wrap up, I want to go back to what you touched on earlier regarding growing up in the former Soviet Union and experiencing different gender norms – many women were engineers there. Do you think there’s a way for women interested in science and engineering who may not have the opportunity to experience different societal norms to be exposed to that?

Everything is relative. For me, I have done business in many different countries. I don’t limit myself on social norms that are considered the norm in the United States today. Perhaps looking at different countries would be helpful to women who grow up here. Even looking at females in this country, those who have been able to create their niche, that’s probably the best way to go.

Even if you’re just starting your career and you’re making your first stride forward, you can help inspire those who are in middle or high school today, who are forming their opinion of what they should want to do.

Our perception of failure is upside down. There’s nothing wrong with failing. Failing is just an experience which only further helps define your next step. So why not go and try!


About BlackBoxPhD

I’m Sean Young, PhD, behavioral psychologist, educator, and Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I’ve worked with some amazing collaborators and friends on how to apply psychology in life.

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