This 35-year-old female CEO is about to crack the glass ceiling, shattering a dismal IPO track record

Clinical pharmacist and Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas speaking at the 2018 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Leen Kawas is truly a unicorn.

The 35-year-old co-founder and CEO of Seattle biotechnology company Athira Pharma would be the first woman to guide a company to an initial public offering in Washington state in more than two decades.

Let that sink in for a moment.

For more than 20 years, a Washington woman has not rung the bell on The New York Stock Exchange or watched her company’s ticker symbol float across the Nasdaq.

But that could change with Kawas. Athira, which is developing therapeutics for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other diseases, last week filed to raise up to $100 million on Nasdaq.

If the public offering is successful, Kawas would charge into largely uncharted territory.

GeekWire analyzed more than 20 years of IPO filings in Washington state, piecing together data from SEC filings, past reporting and other sources to determine the gender of CEOs of newly-public companies.

We looked at 77 companies in Washington state that completed IPOs between 1999 and 2020, starting with relics of the dot-com era like Avenue A and HomeGrocer.com and ending with more recent public offerings from Accolade and ZoomInfo.

None had a woman as CEO at the time of the public offering, so we kept digging.

And we had to go back to the second term of President Bill Clinton to find our answer.

The last record of a woman guiding a Washington state company to IPO was Lesa Sroufe, who as the recently named CEO of Ragen MacKenzie Group took the Seattle investment firm public in June of 1998. At the time, a Bloomberg News report noted that Sroufe “will be one of very few women to attain the top post at a public brokerage firm.”

The firm sold 15 months later to Wells Fargo for $243 million, so its time on Wall Street was short lived.

Prior to 1998, most of the Washington companies that went public — names like Microsoft, RealNetworks, Concur, Amazon, Starbucks and Costco — were led by men.

In that vein, Kawas is a true trendsetter. And her personal journey to entrepreneurship is an impressive one — inspired to pursue medicine after her grandmother died of cancer and forced into leadership roles after the death of her mother.

She earned a PhD in molecular pharmacology from Washington State University, using her research to form the basis of what became Athira. Even more impressive, she’s an immigrant entrepreneur who moved to the U.S. from Jordan in 2007.

“I’ve been mistaken for the coat check girl more times than I can count, ” Kawas told Forbes in 2016 profile. “But people who thought I was the coat girl at the beginning of the meeting were willing to invest a lot of money in my company by the end of it.”

In fact, Kawas has already raised north of $100 million in venture capital, including an $85 million round in June from Perceptive Advisors, RTW Investments, Viking Global Investors, Venrock Healthcare Capital Partners and others. Kawas, who holds a 9.4% stake in Athira, is described in the SEC filing as being “essential in creating our innovative translational development strategy.” Citing SEC quiet period regulations around the IPO, Kawas was not available to comment for this story.

Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas accepts the award for Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

While Kawas would be the first woman to take a company public in Washington state since 1998, there’s evidence nationally that a tide may be turning — albeit slowly — when it comes to female-led companies.

During the first half of last year, 13 women CEOs led U.S. companies to IPOs, representing 15% of the total. That was the highest proportion since 2014, and well ahead of 2018, according to analysis by CNBC.

And while venture capital to women-founded companies is still abysmal — representing 2.8% of the overall in 2019 — it is inching up.

Even still, there are very few women founders who raise venture capital, and even fewer who make it to the stage of going public. As we reported last year, there were just 16 women CEOs on the GeekWire 200 list of up-and-coming privately-held technology companies in the Pacific Northwest.

Dawn Lepore knows the challenges women face in breaking into the upper echelons of the business world. The former board member at eBay and ex-CIO at Charles Schwab was appointed CEO of Drugstore.com in 2004, five years after the Bellevue online pharmacy completed its IPO.

Now an angel investor and mentor to startup founders, Lepore said she was surprised that so few women in Washington state had taken the IPO plunge. She cited a number of factors, including the lack of venture capital, the relative youth of Seattle’s tech industry in comparison to other hotbeds and the lack of networking communities to support women or minority founders.

One of the most important facets in Lepore’s career was having two mentors — Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman — who instilled confidence in her abilities to be a CEO.

“You need to have a bunch of other advisers that you can call on because there are a lot of new experiences when you take a company public,” said Lepore, who sits on the boards of RealNetworks and Accolade.

Despite the dribble of venture capital and dearth of women-led IPOs, Lepore expressed optimism that things will change, especially as more men and women support diversity efforts.

“What gives me great hope is all of the amazing young women who are founding companies,” said Lepore, adding that the talent and determination she sees in female founders is palpable.

“It’s like everything else, there usually aren’t simple solutions,” said Lepore. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend a lot of time and effort to figure out how to make it better and where the levers are in the process that we can help.”

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