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Season 6
Episode 5
Duration 28:40

Meanings and Pathways to CEO

Song Kim, co-founder and CEO of KovaDx, empowers patients with sickle cell disease and other rare blood disorders, while changing our perceptions of what it means to be a CEO and the many paths to entrepreneurship.


Teresa Chahine: Welcome to Impact & Innovation. I’m Teresa Chahine, and I’m inviting you inside my classroom at Yale School of Management as we grapple with questions on social entrepreneurship and impact.

Okay. Welcome back, everyone. We are here with my former student Song Kim, who is now the CEO of KovaDX, a biotech company. Song is a civil rights lawyer who used to work in politics in Korea and now works in the tech startup world. And we have so much to talk about today. So I want to thank you for coming to speak to my students—

Song Kim: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Teresa Chahine: ... and for making the extra time to speak to a broader audience through the podcast. I have so much to ask you, but before we start, just tell us about KovaDX.

Song Kim: Sure.

Teresa Chahine: And what it is that you do.

Song Kim: Absolutely. So we are using machine learning and optics to build a blood health monitoring tool for rare blood diseases. And we’re starting with sickle cell disease.

Teresa Chahine: I have a blood disease myself, thalassemia minor, so I feel like I could potentially use a blood monitoring tool in the future.

Song Kim: Yeah, absolutely. And that is our goal, to make our tool accessible and available for folks like you, folks who don’t have tools. So in the same way that, the way we’re envisioning it is, in the same way that a glucose monitor completely transformed care for those with diabetes is what we want to do for folks living with rare blood diseases.

Teresa Chahine: That’s so great. So now we need to talk about how this all happened because when you took my class, Social Entrepreneurship Lab, it was 2020, right?

Song Kim: Yes.

Teresa Chahine: It was like, you took half of it, then we went online for the pandemic, and then I never saw you—

Song Kim: It’s so devastating.

Teresa Chahine: I think this is the first time I’m seeing you in person after that. No, that’s not true. We went for a walk last summer.

Song Kim: Oh yeah, we did.

Teresa Chahine: And I roped you into talking to my students. And so you, what I knew about you at the time was that you were a civil rights lawyer. You were doing a lot of work on creating awareness about supply chains and workers’ rights.

Song Kim: Yes. Yes.

Teresa Chahine: And in my class, you worked on a mental health intervention, and then you graduated, and then before I knew it, you were working with this startup on a totally different topic. So tell us, maybe step back in terms of how you went from law to the School of Management and then how you ended up now the CEO of this startup.

Song Kim: Yeah, absolutely. And I love talking about it because I feel like I have such a twisty, windy path, but I don’t think I’m the only one. And I feel like it’s not—

Teresa Chahine: I agree.

Song Kim: ... talked about as much, or so I love sharing, so thank you so much for the question. So I started my career as a lawyer doing civil rights work in New York. I used to do forced labor litigation and doing immigrants’ rights work, workers’ rights work, doing forced labor, forced labor awareness raising and building programs to increase access to legal representation for marginalized immigrant communities in the New York metro area but also throughout the country. So there were a few things that happened during my time as a lawyer that... I’ll start off by saying I actually really loved the work that I got to do, working with clients, doing impactful litigation and policy work, and all of that was so meaningful to me.

But there were a few moments that I started to have questions about this model of using nonprofits to serve communities. So this one case that I litigated, it was called David v. Signal International. I was on a team of 12 attorneys that was suing this big corporation in the Gulf Coast. They build ships and fix oil rigs and things like that. They were trafficking 500 Indian workers. And after seven years or so of litigation, after a four-and-a-half-week trial, we won this big case on all fronts. And it was a historic case. It was precedent-setting. It was this big win for immigrant, for migrant labor and immigrants’ rights and workers’ rights. And it was a source of celebration because it was the first of its kind. It was such a big win that we actually drove this company that was doing horrible acts into bankruptcy—

Teresa Chahine: Oh, good.

Song Kim: ... and they no longer existed. And so it was a big win, and it was a signal to the world that you can’t do this. You can’t force people to work for you and then expect to go unscathed. So while we were celebrating a month later, they just cropped up again with the exact same logo, a different name, but exact same logo, exact same board, exact same executive team.

Teresa Chahine: Oh, my God.

Song Kim: And it was just like a slap in the face, not just for us lawyers who were just doing this as our job but for all of our clients who for years toiled, put their lives and their livelihoods and everything at risk for this case. And so it was at that moment that I think I felt like the law is really, really powerful, and I went to law school because I thought it was such a powerful tool to bring back to my communities. But while the law is powerful, actually corporations, capitalism, the flow of money, that’s going to be where so much of the lasting change happens, unfortunately. And I felt like I didn’t have enough of an understanding of that. So I had questions around that. The second big thing that happened is the 2016 election. So even before the election, nonprofits doing direct services, like we were overwhelmed. But as soon as the election happened, I won’t get into the details of it, but essentially our workload exploded.

Yeah. It was kind of no man’s land for immigrants’ and migrants’ rights at the time. And so I spent all of the free time that I had, I didn’t have free time, but in all of my non-working hours, I was doing things like running legal clinics. We were building coalitions to stop ICE from waiting at courthouses to, courthouses like where immigrants were going for their family law cases. ICE agents would be waiting outside to detain people. Highly awful illegal things were happening. And so we had all of this extra work that we had to do because no one else was doing it. And I burned out. I burned out. I saw my colleagues burning out, and I feel like it could have been prevented. We can’t fault the election for that. Sure, the election is the catalyst for all of us burning out, but organizations and nonprofits, it felt to me, were for the most part not equipped to manage and care for their employees in a way to make the work sustainable. So from an organizational management perspective, but also from a financial standpoint. Nonprofits are constantly asking foundations for money or they’re getting government funding. And that’s so dependent on who’s in power, or for foundations you’re asking money from basically wealthy people who have no real connection to the work that you’re actually doing. And the money is usually tied to a program or a certain population or certain metrics, and it’s foundations telling nonprofits how to do the work. And I also felt like that didn’t sit right with me. There was tension there, and that didn’t feel sustainable. So I had all of these—

Teresa Chahine: And there’s also this flow of power from—

Song Kim: Absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: ... from the same source as these problems many times—

Song Kim: Absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: ... to pay for people to help work on them.

Song Kim: Absolutely. Absolutely. That conflict of interest. And I was like, there has to be a better way. And honestly, I didn’t mean to go to business school. Business school wasn’t the thing that I was looking to do, but it just so happened, divine intervention I think, that I was talking to a friend and she went to SOM and yeah, she began talking about the program, and I was like, that actually sounds like, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for. And I never thought an MBA would be the thing that answers my questions, but, yeah.

Teresa Chahine: Most people don’t know this about the Yale School of Management, but it’s not a business school.

Song Kim: Yeah.

Teresa Chahine: It does give an MBA, but when it first started, it actually gave an MPPA, a master’s in public and private... or MPPM, master’s in public and private management. So it was exactly for situations like this. How do we manage government and nonprofit and private sector organizations?

Song Kim: Which is so, so important.

Teresa Chahine: Yeah.

Song Kim: But I remember when I was working in my space, and I had a colleague who was going off to get her MBA—I’m going to be real, we all judged her. We’re like, “Why? What are you doing? You’re going to the other side,” but I get it. So yeah, that’s why I came to get my MBA, and while it was here, I really did take it as a sabbatical. I took it as a time to cool down, just learn from as many sources as possible from wonderful professors and classes like you and yours, but also my classmates who come from such different worlds. I lived in a bubble. I lived and worked in a bubble, and while social justice and being progressive is a big part of my identity, I didn’t realize just how much of a bubble I lived in.

And so I think some of the most meaningful relationships that I built at SOM were people who came from completely different backgrounds, people who are more conservative-leaning and who used to work in PE [private equity] or whatever have you. A totally different world from me. And SOM gave me the opportunity to have a safe space over drinks at closing bell where we could banter, but really get into the meat of some things that we disagreed about, but in a really safe space where we were not saying we don’t care about each other but we have different opinions and to really give each other the space to talk things out. Yeah. I found that to be so, so valuable.

Teresa Chahine: Yeah, it’s not every day that a private equity person and a social justice person collide like that.

Song Kim: Yeah.

Teresa Chahine: So then, yeah... So then, how did you... Why did these come into the picture?

Song Kim: Yeah. Yeah. Totally. Totally. So all of those questions that I had when I was working in nonprofits, I started to get just an inkling or a suspicion, a sneaking suspicion that entrepreneurship was actually the thing that answered a lot of my questions. And so I took Social Entrepreneurship Lab with you. I took a class with Kate Cooney. I took... I forget what it was called at the time, ENV, with . And I was interested in it, but I never expected to be an entrepreneur because it’s not a thing that I had done before. And quite frankly, when I thought about recruiting for jobs after SOM, I was applying for and interviewing for executive roles at nonprofits to bring the learnings that I’ve had about organizational management into—

Teresa Chahine: Back to your world.

Song Kim: Exactly. Exactly. But a big, life-changing, world-changing topsy-turvying event happened the year that I was graduating in 2020 when I was away at spring break and getting ready to start recruiting and beginning the process. The world shut down because of COVID, and all the interviews that I was going to, they gave me some iteration of, “We’re interviewing you now, but we actually don’t know if we’ll have the funding to pay for your role in six months. This very low salary that we posted on the website, actually, we can only give you half of that or a third of that.”

And after a few kind of iterations of that, I thought to myself, maybe this isn’t the time to just focus on recruiting. That’s a thing that we’re supposed to be doing, but this isn’t the time for that. And so I gave myself permission to just not do the things that was expected of me and really just dig in and work on some passion projects. So I started a podcast with a classmate from SOM. I started working on a children’s book with my sister and doing some curriculum work. Yeah, just really leaning into the things that I wouldn’t have had the space to do otherwise. During that time, my co-founder, Tim [Adamson], he reached out to me on LinkedIn and he said, “Song, I heard about you through the Yale entrepreneurial circles,” I think.

Teresa Chahine: So he was a student here as well?

Song Kim: He was a PhD student at computer science department at Yale. And I think he must have heard about me through something related to your class, because I was in your class at the time and he said, “Song, I see that you don’t have a healthcare background, but I believe we are values-aligned. Would you be open to a conversation?” And at that time it was, he sent over his deck and it was about sickle cell. And I had barely heard of sickle cell before. So I was like, “This might be spam actually, I don’t know, but so I’m open-minded so I’m going to have a conversation.” So I met with Tim and my other co-founder, Yaw [Ansong Jr], over Zoom during COVID. And the more I chatted with them, the more I learned about sickle cell, the more I became obsessed with the problem. And I felt like I couldn’t imagine myself at that time doing anything else.

Teresa Chahine: And now here you are.

Song Kim: And here I am.

Teresa Chahine: And you were telling me earlier that you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Song Kim: Yeah. I feel like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be in this season of my life. And again, I don’t think it would’ve happened had it not been for COVID. And so yeah, my life has taken a lot of twists and turns, and I feel like not all of it was necessarily by choice, but just me responding to the things that are happening and just taking things as a gift and trying to find the bright line, the silver lining, and being open to adventure and risk. And now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Teresa Chahine: And I think it’s really interesting that when they reached out, these were two scientists looking for a management person who could help them with the business stuff. And they found you somehow, and they initially wanted you to be chief operating officer, right?

Song Kim: Right.

Teresa Chahine: Because they had come up with the idea and try to build the science so they were, had like CEO and CTO roles, right?

Song Kim: Yes.

Teresa Chahine: And then eventually you ended up transitioning to be CEO.

Song Kim: Yeah.

Teresa Chahine: Which I think makes a lot more sense in terms of, you’re the person that’s helping execute on the ideas and on the science. So tell us about how that transition, how you managed that change in the team and the dynamics and both internally and in outward-facing conversations.

Song Kim: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I really appreciate you asking about it because entrepreneurship, and especially as a first-time founder, there are so many challenges. And people always say, right, “The people things are actually the most challenging. Managing people and relationships is actually the most challenging.” And I think by now I can proudly say I know what some of my strengths are and relationships and people things are. I think one of my strengths, and I think that’s why I like being in a CEO role, and I love building relationships with our partners and all of these things. But oh man, “change management within the organization,” all of the things that we have learned in class are sort of out the window.

And I felt like, yeah, I had to learn really quickly what it means to be in a leadership role, what it means to manage change and manage relationships in times of stress, in times of change, maybe that is imposed on us externally, not even necessarily internally. So when I first joined the company, I came in as COO and my co-founder, Yaw, who is a doctor from Ghana who is now a PhD student in engineering, bioengineering, he was CEO, but there were a few issues with that. So Yao is a scientist by training, and he was a PhD student, so he didn’t have time to devote full-time to the company.

And because he didn’t have a business background, like building strategy and building relationships and managing all of that systematically was not necessarily the things that he was great at because his strengths are in the science. I wouldn’t know what to do in a lab in the same way that he maybe didn’t necessarily have the right skill sets for this role and so we not only internally, but externally, whenever we were in front of investors or whenever we were in front of our partners, I would be the ones running the meetings. I would be the ones that was their point of contact. And so there was always a bit of an assumption that I was the CEO, even though I wasn’t, and so it—

Teresa Chahine: So you were already playing that role, that outward-facing role.

Song Kim: Yeah. Right.

Teresa Chahine: The CEO is the outward-facing person, and COO is more inward-facing.

Song Kim: Right, and so that misalignment, I think, led to a lot of lost opportunities. And so we had to make the decision that we have to reorient and reorganize in a way that makes sense, even if it’s hard. And so, yeah, we sat down and discussed what each of us wanted, right, out of the company. Why we were doing what we were doing, doing a values exercise, and really trying to understand each other’s motivation so that we could negotiate and align ourselves in a way that was best for ourselves personally as well as for the company. So there were some really tough conversations, especially switching up roles was one thing. And this is something that they don’t, nobody really tells you or teaches you.

Teresa Chahine: There’s no handbook.

Song Kim: There’s no handbook, yeah. But something that we really struggled with was around equity distribution and redistribution and what it means for our contribution, and then what it means for our incentives to be aligned. And yeah, no one tells us how to navigate that. And so we had to have some really difficult and challenging internal conversations to make sure that our company was set up in a way where all incentives were aligned, and that external stakeholders, whether they be our investors or our clinical partners, could trust that we would do what we say we’re going to do.

Teresa Chahine: Yeah, and I think my mentees ask me about equity a lot. What should I do if I want to recruit a co-founder or a coder or something? And what’s the formula? And I’ve asked around a lot. There is no answer. You just have to have a conversation about who’s providing value and how both in the past and in the present and in the future and what it means to other stakeholders. And it’s just... there’s no right way to do it.

Song Kim: Yeah, that’s why I’ve been learning on the job.

Teresa Chahine: So what are some ways that you’ve had to change in order to step into this role? Because it sounds like you never saw yourself as a CEO of a startup. I’m saying this on purpose because probably most people listening or watching, maybe some do, maybe some don’t see themselves as a potential CEO, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do it. And you were trained in a different skill set previously.

Song Kim: Absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: Now you have the management skill set also, but you worked in a different culture, you were working in politics and law in Korea as well. We were chatting earlier, we both come from cultures where women really are trained and normalized to speak more deferentially and perhaps have a softer tone. And maybe those aren’t the things people expect or respond to from a CEO. What are some of the ways that you’ve had to recondition yourself, or are there any ways that you feel you’ve been evolving through this role?

Song Kim: Yeah. That’s such a great question. And I think—

Teresa Chahine: Maybe now you’re in the middle of it and it’s hard to... it’s too early to say.

Song Kim: Yeah. I feel even now, even early on, I feel like it’s been such a time of personal growth for me in a lot of ways. So to this point about being a woman and being a woman of color, being an Asian American woman, even when I was a lawyer, and even when I was litigating cases, my opposing counsel tended to be older white men. And so the dynamics that played out there were also interesting. And I have had to learn to become more aggressive and assert myself. Not that that’s, like those are the markings of a CEO, but that is against my nature and something that I’ve had to learn to do in that kind of setting. So as women, I feel like we’ve had to condition ourselves throughout our lives to navigate a space that has been told that doesn’t belong to us. And so, yeah, I feel like I’ve headed and dealt with those conditions as a lawyer a little bit differently in that I had to essentially respond with aggression, had to respond with—

Teresa Chahine: You have to fight. Yeah.

Song Kim: Yeah, exactly. And be like ultra-prepared and better prepared and just better at everything than the others because when they come in, they expect me to be just meek and mild and not say the right things or whatever have you. In the CEO role I feel like the thing that I’ve had to learn is, and I’ve had feedback from this even early on, is that when I come in a room with my team or even with others, I slip into this role. I used to have the tendency of slipping into this role of being almost like a facilitator or a consensus builder, rather than just making the call and making the decision and saying, “This is the decision, follow it.” And I’m still working on it. And I feel like when I first heard that feedback, I was like... well, at the time, I guess I actually wasn’t CEO the first time that I heard that feedback, and I said, “Oh, well, actually....” Yeah, I was a CEO and I’m just, and they were taken aback and they were like, “Oh, we thought you were the CEO. Sorry about that.”

Yeah, so that’s something that I’ve been thinking about is, okay, how do I not be that person who’s just trying to build consensus and make sure that everyone’s happy and be people-pleasing and really own the decisions that I know are right. And even if they’re not right, that’s okay because I will own my mistakes and figure out a way to fix it. So that’s yeah, absolutely something that I’m working on now. I think when I walk into investor pitches and things like that, and I am an Asian American woman, it’s sometimes very clear, and especially when I’m talking about something like sickle cell, it becomes very clear very quickly, oh, this person basically wants to do a charity, wants to do good in the world, and that’s clear, but maybe doesn’t have the skill sets. And so then I’ve learned, I’ve had to learn how to navigate that and say upfront, oh, actually here is basically my resume. I am—

Teresa Chahine: Oh, wow. Before people make assumptions.

Song Kim: Before people make assumptions. And I can literally see people’s, the way that they look at me changes. And they’re like, “Oh, okay.” Now you have credibility almost.

Teresa Chahine: “Now I’ll engage with you.”

Song Kim: Yeah, and not to say that that’s everybody. Not to say that that’s everybody, but that is something that I have noticed and I’ve had to learn to navigate.

Teresa Chahine: Yeah, I guess sometimes you’re defending and pitching your startup and your idea and importance, but also in some situations you have to defend and pitch yourself too.

Song Kim: Yeah, absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: Here’s why this needs to be done, but also here’s why we should be the people doing it, and here’s why you should be paying us. And even internally in your team, I think what I heard is that there’s always a balance. In some situations it is about consensus-building. In some situations that is the process. And if you’re the CEO there will always also be situations where you’re the boss and you get to decide, and people... and then you execute, and your team helps you execute.

Song Kim: Yeah, absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: It’s helping people see you differently but also seeing yourself differently.

Song Kim: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s such a big part of it. I couldn’t agree more, and I so appreciate that, and I so appreciate you reflecting that back to me.

Teresa Chahine: Yeah, and I also want our audience to know sometimes there can be a straightforward path to being a CEO.

Song Kim: Yeah.

Teresa Chahine: Not every path has to be so long and windy as yours. So even if you don’t look like the typical CEO, you might still have a straightforward path for yourself, or you might have a long and windy path. We don’t know how you’ll get there, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t and that doesn’t mean that you can’t also adapt and adjust and just step into opportunities and roles.

Song Kim: Absolutely.

Teresa Chahine: I’m so grateful to you, Song, for taking the time to come share these learnings with us and—

Song Kim: Thank you.

Teresa Chahine: ... we’re learning as we’re discussing. We’re so grateful for you.

Song Kim: I so, so appreciate you having this space and for welcoming me into it. Yeah. It’s been, yeah, so wonderful to get to share my journey. I feel like there’s not a lot of places to talk about the true, right, like what it’s really like being a startup founder and what it looks like for people who look like me, who have had my journey, or who have my background or whatever have you. So yeah, this has been so valuable to me as well, so I’m really grateful.

Teresa Chahine: Thank you. Thanks for changing assumptions and for sharing with us.

I’m Teresa Chahine, and you’ve been listening to Impact & Innovation. Subscribe to stay tuned and follow us at Teresa Chahine and SOM Ventures. Special thanks to the broadcast center at Yale School of Management.