There are many reasons why someone donates their time or treasure to Susan G. Komen. For national Board Member Eugene Kim, it was a sense of gratitude for the people who came before him who made it possible for his mother to survive breast cancer. Kim, who is currently the CEO of The Walking Company, recently visited with Susan G. Komen and discussed why he is so passionate about supporting Komen and what he’s excited about for the future.
Komen: How has breast cancer touched your life?
Kim: About 20 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with pretty late state HER2-positive breast cancer. And back then, that was pretty much a death sentence for how far along. I remember talking to her doctor and her oncologist and they said, you know, “Seriously, it’s best to make preparations – the high likelihood is your mom is going pass.” I think she was only given a 4 or 5% probability of surviving.
I was a young man at the time, and it was just devastating, because it kind of came out of the blue. She had caught it real late, for various reasons. And, you know, obviously we were very distraught. It was the first time I’d ever faced the concept of mortality. Rather than give up, I decided to do everything I could. I was working for a Wall Street bank at the time. And my boss, his wife actually worked for Sloan Kettering in New York, which is one of the great cancer organizations out there. They ended up putting me in touch with a researcher and a doctor who put her on an experimental drug called Herceptin, which, at the time I think was in phase three clinical trials, and it specifically targeted HER2-positive cancer.
She was put on the drug and we just kind of waited; it’s been 20 years. I think at this point, it’s fair to say she probably has licked the disease. But when I think back, I remember just praying to God to save my mother. It was tough. I would’ve done anything at the time.
Komen: How did you come to serve on Komen’s Board?
Kim: Years later when I became a CEO and had means, I needed to do something to give back. When you’re a young man and you’re trying to make ends meet, you always say that, “The day will come when I can go do something to repay all the kind people.” And when Paula (Komen CEO, Paula Schneider), who’s been a good friend of mine … when she became CEO, I jumped at the chance to join the board.
It’s funny, when you unravel the history, Susan Komen played a part in helping fund some of the research that ultimately led to Genentech creating Herceptin. So, my plea to people is take these small acts of kindness… whatever you can give make all the difference. You don’t understand how these little things that seem like just a tax write-off years later can give a young man his mother back. The work we do here is more than just raising money.
I’ll do everything I can to give back. I can support this amazing organization on their mission. And it’s not just about finding the cure. Susan Komen does so many things that ultimately saves lives, outside of finding an ultimate silver bullet. We go after low-income families that don’t have access to mammograms. We give people rides to oncology departments. We fund young researchers to go and pursue their dreams. You never know that there’s a breakthrough with just a little bit of money that just will touch the lives… in the case of Herceptin, probably tens or hundreds of millions of people. Every little bit counts. Who knows whatever small donation was the straw that broke the camel back on that particular medicine that directly led to all of these lives being saved? So, for me, it’s a very personal thing and it’s personal in so many ways.
Komen: From your career, what do you think is the key to innovation?
Kim: You know, at one point in my career, I was a venture capitalist. I’ve spent time in China and other countries in Europe and they marvel at the technology that comes out of America. They say, “How is it that the United States is just always on the forefront of breaking technologies? Why is that they’re able to do things that, despite all the investment that the rest of the world can’t do?”
I think that organizations like Susan Komen are basically like what venture capital is to the internet and social media tech, that’s what Komen is to breast cancer research. It’s kind of abstract, but the reason why it happens is not just because of funding. But because such funding exists, you could be a Ph.D. student or a young researcher and just the knowledge that there is the possibility of getting a grant to basically fund your passion and your research keeps all of these people going. And the hope of being able to receive a grant is what gives people the motivation to press forward. And with the thousands of brilliant minds attacking cancer and knowing that they have a shot of reaching out to an organization like Komen to receive funding makes it worthwhile. You go into these other countries where no such ecosystem exists, people just give up. Komen gives on so many levels. And it’s the existence of such organizations that make our nation so great, and why I’m very confident that just as we put a man on the moon, we will find a cure to this disease. And it just takes time, money and pressure.
The people in our country are literally the most generous people in the world. I was just a poor kid growing up, and it’s the generosity of thousands and millions of Americans that gave me all of this opportunity as a business person, but it’s also the generosity of people before me that allowed my mother to survive. I’m always impressed by the kindness and generosity of people. I implore people to really dig deep, because it’s the gifts that are hard to give that are the ones that really make a difference.
Komen: What was it about Komen that surprised you once you joined the Board?
Kim: I thought of Komen primarily as races and walks that go to fund research dollars to unlock life-saving technologies. And when I joined Komen’s Board, I learned that the mandate of the organization is to actually save lives. And what I’m impressed most by and most surprised by is how practical of an approach Komen takes.
It’s not just the fundraising side, but they look at their mandate of saving lives and a lot of that comes through traditional research and medical breakthroughs, but a lot of it comes to the rendering of services for people who could be saved with the range of treatments and capabilities that exists, but they just lack access. So, I’m really impressed by the education component of it, the services component of it – they really look at the problem from all angles, and not just purely research. I think that there are lives to save through great breakthroughs like Herceptin, but there are also lives to save by just getting women mammograms. They really look at this holistically saying, “Look, with the time that we have, the expertise and the funding that we’re able to accumulate, how do we take that budget and that human resource and touch as many lives as possible?”
I loved the humility of the organization that’s saving a life through driving an African American female to a mammogram, that it’s no less important than funding a big data project that leads to an eventual cure. I think that they look at it and see the value in both and everything in between.
Komen: What are you most excited about regarding Komen’s work moving forward?
Kim: I think that our organization is really on the cutting edge of understanding how to use technology. If you take a look at the way our society has evolved, there was a lot of things that you would’ve liked to have done intuitively, but there was no practical means of doing it. And now with big data, technology and their ability to touch so many people through the breadth of their organization, they’re able to utilize advanced artificial intelligence and statistics to kind of attack the problem in a way that 20 years ago wasn’t even possible.
I like that Susan Komen has evolved with the times. They take stock in terms of how the world has changed, what tools and technologies are now available. And I believe that this organization has stayed on the cutting edge to increase the efficacy of everything they do and every dollar that’s donated to the organization. It’s not even just medical science, but using statistics and large data to figure out positive signals to understand what drives a certain response is being utilized across different industries. And I appreciate the fact that Susan Komen has decided to not be a late adopter to these new techniques and these new tools, but to be an early adopter and to be an innovator in our space.
Komen: Any final thoughts about the importance of giving this year?
Kim: We’re just the most generous people in the world. I really believe that. We are the most hardworking. We are the most selfless people. Giving when it’s hard makes a statement about your character and collectively sends a signal to the world of who we still are, despite all the madness you see in the media. Giving when it’s hardest to give, you will receive what you most need to receive. You make deposits and you make withdrawals. There was a time when my family made a withdrawal. And since then, we’re making deposits. And maybe someday I need to withdraw again. So, whenever you can, give to society, give to Susan Komen, give to organizations like ours, because you don’t know, there will come a time when you’re going to need to make a withdrawal.