A personal promise to fight brain cancer
1 February 2021 at 8:21 am
As the new CEO of the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, Lance Kawaguchi is using his business skills to refocus the organisation towards its mission of finding treatments for the deadly disease. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
The story of a corporate executive changing to a job with more purpose isn’t new. But for Kawaguchi, a former banking executive of 20 years, his transition into the charity space is a little more personal.
Just before his mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, he promised her to dedicate his life to helping others.
Leaving the banking sector behind, Kawaguchi has spent the past five years learning about the charity sector, and is now using his leadership and business skills to refocus Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, bringing it back into line with its mission to not only increase the rate of survival among brain cancer patients, but to support the patients and families.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses his personal drive to achieve change, finding creative solutions to difficult problems, and where he draws inspiration from.
What made you want to move into the charity sector after 20 years as a banker?
In 2016, my mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, and passed away within five months. Within those five months, I flew from my home in London to visit her in Hawaii four times, and I was fortunate enough to be with her in her last week. One of the things that I promised her was at some point in my career to give back to something bigger than myself, because banking and investment banking can at times be very narcissistic and self-centered.
My mother was a school teacher for over 40 years, so had dedicated her life to giving back to people. From that point on in 2016, I really focused on trying to better understand the charity sector, and more importantly, the biotech sector because when my mother was diagnosed, I tried to find support, but also how I could save her life
. One thing I found is that it’s very difficult to get any information, because it’s not consolidated and it’s all over the place. And specifically with cancer, there are so many different treatments, it was very confusing to me. I partnered with and spoke with private equity people that I knew in biotech to gain a better understanding of cancer but also on where the need was to get more treatments for patients. So that’s really been the motivation.
And what do you want to achieve with the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation?
When I started this journey, I identified six charities that I really wanted to pursue, and the reason why I selected Cure Brain Cancer Foundation was that I wanted to provide stability. It’s no secret that there’s been quite a bit of a turnover in the CEO position, and I think it’s important to provide the donors and the community [with] stability. My commitment to this job is not for me, it’s actually a promise to my mother. So I will follow through on this. I also want a sustainable structure so that if I go back into biotech, private equity, or banking, I can look back and have some sense of achievement that I helped establish something that’s going to last for years to come.
But the most important reason I selected brain cancer as a cause is that it’s the number one killer of children in the US, UK, Europe, and Australia, and over the past 30 years, there hasn’t been that much investment in this type of cancer. I felt that I could bring my experience with capital markets, and also my global network to help get some of these biotechs up and running, so then we could have more treatments, because right now there’s nothing compared to other cancers.
Finding treatments for brain cancer is no easy task, how do you manage challenges and stay grounded?
If you look at my history, for example, I was based in Baghdad, Iraq for two years, so I’m pretty used to being in difficult and challenging environments. But I don’t view things as challenges, I view them as opportunities. I know a lot of people say it, but a lot of people don’t do it. One of the reasons why I took this role at Cure for Brain Cancer Foundation is because there have been quite a lot of challenges, but I think there’s also a significant opportunity to create something really great and impact the people that we’re trying to serve.
What inspires you in your work?
Meeting donors, meeting the people with cancer. But more importantly, every day that I look back on the promise that I made my mother, I know that I will not fail. She was the closest person to me. We were always together and I spoke to her daily. So that’s something bigger than just a job, there is no failure in my vocabulary right now.