Woman on Purpose: Mai Hope Le

Changing your work-life to welcome more freedom and fulfillment is a process and a journey. Here, every month, we will share stories of women who are doing it. Real stories, real transformation. This is a virtual treasure chest -- full of the challenges, struggles, lessons and insights of others -- which you can use to enrich your own path.

This month’s featured “woman on purpose” is Mai Hope Le, a pathologist and former Chief Medical Officer at a small biotechnology company based in San Diego, CA who has now launched her own consulting practice so that she can help biotechnology companies and universities to develop novel therapies for cancer on her own terms.

Describe the big shift you’ve made in your work-life. What led you to that change?

The biggest change was going from a standard corporate situation, in which my work and paycheck were guaranteed, my days clearly scheduled and having a “regular team” of professional colleagues, to a being in a situation where daily activities are more fluid, my contributions to programs more focal, my professional interactions more intermittent and the fluctuations in my monthly income more dramatic.

My journey has been more of an evolution than a transformation. For the past 8 years, I worked at small biotechnology companies, serving as the medical lead of clinical research programs for a variety of investigational therapies. Although the work itself was both intellectually and emotionally fulfilling, my days were just so hectic... time felt pressured all the time. I wanted to be able to do this work that I love and that I’m actually good at, but I wanted to reduce this feeling of pressured time. I wanted to do this research on my own terms, but developing an understanding of trends in both the medical science and regulatory environment, a sense of the challenges in clinical trial execution, and a trustworthy professional reputation takes the kind of experience that only comes from doing the work and putting in time. Fortunately, in November of 2015, I started getting cold calls from people wanting my help….not recruiters, but the leadership in various companies. They were contacting me and asking for my "professional advice." It was time. I felt like I had arrived. The change chose me in a way, rather than the other way around. In January of this year, I launched my own consulting practice.

What were you most fearful of in making that change?

One of the hardest things that I’ve had to wrestle with is, this level of flexibility comes with a level of freedom with my time that I’ve never previously had. I had become so accustomed to having a schedule set by outside influences and pressures, and little free time. I have had to become comfortable with the fact that I can actually work fewer hours and still be very productive…..and I had to deal with not feeling bad about that. I have had to learn to become comfortable with having the free time to really relax on a daily basis and not just on the occasional weekend. I need to get used to a lack of frantic energy to drive my day. I actually think that I still struggle with this. I still sometimes hear this little voice in my head that asks, “Have you become just a waste of space and oxygen?” because not every minute of the day was spent “working.”

How is your experience of life different now?

Life and time feel a little slower now. My days aren’t frenetic. When you have to be somewhere all the time, your experience of life can become a bit of a checklist: go get the dogs, exercise, shower, get out the door.

Before I started working for myself, time and life were more demarcated. Time and space become a lot different when you work for yourself. Nowadays, I wake up when I naturally wake up and things happen more organically through my day. Work and life move more fluidly together. I think about the science and strategy of my programs while I am preparing breakfast for the dogs, rather than the checklist of tasks that needs to be done before I rush out to deal with traffic. It’s a nice flow. Ideas and thoughts feel more fluid throughout the day.

What’s your biggest concern in this moment?

My biggest concern is losing touch with the programs that I designed and catalyzed. None of the programs that I work on are “mine” anymore... I don’t get to really own a success the way I could when I was the centerpiece of a program. I’m hoping that just knowing the role that I have played will be satisfying enough for me.

Along those lines, I also worry about not feeling the satisfaction of really making a difference because my work on any given program is more limited in scope. Whereas before, I was at the center; now I am more peripheral. My impact doesn’t feel as tangible.

A very practical issue that is a big concern for me at the moment is actually getting a mortgage. Because of my husband’s job, we will likely be moving to Seattle, where housing prices are on the up and up. Since I only started my consulting practice a few months ago, I don’t have a long enough track record of income. I’ve been told that my independent income doesn’t count as far as the underwriters are concerned because I have been doing this for less than 2 years.  

What are you most excited about going forward?

I’m most excited about being able to promote programs that I previously did not have time to develop while working for a company because I am no longer burdened with corporate politics and management, which is a huge time-suck. With this newfound time, I can focus on pulling together programs with my academic colleagues and friends, who themselves do not have the time to work on. This has the added benefit of helping to promote their careers! Right now, I’m working with some friends at Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Utah to establish programs that will accelerate research for novel therapeutic strategies in breast cancer and sarcoma.

I’m also excited to have the daily flexibility of generally being able to “do what I want when I want”. Not being stuck in an office with co-workers who judge how I spend my time means that I can take a break and work on a sewing project, go to the gym, take a nap with my dogs… or have a glass of champagne with lunch.

Perhaps most importantly, this change has allowed me the ability to spend time with my dog, Mobius, who was diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder for which there is no effective treatment and that will ultimately take him from me. We don’t know how much more time he has. But, in this new life, I have the ability and flexibility to spend almost every day with him at my side, and to fulfill the Mommy and Mobius Bucket List, which is comprised of scooter/side-car rides to various locations. Thus far, we’ve taken the scooter and sidecar to Anza-Borrego National Park (our first road trip and “test run” for Mobius), and up the California coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I’m hoping to get to Joshua Tree with him soon. Although we aren’t able to travel too far in our little vehicle, it’s really just about spending time together and making memories.

If you could travel back in time, what’s one piece of advice that your current self wishes that you could tell your former self?

Don’t take things so seriously, and laugh at yourself more. I gave up trying too hard to plan my life when I was in my mid-20s, during medical school, having realized that “Life has a funny way of working itself out.”

About Mai Hope Le

Mai trained in clinical pathology at University of California San Francisco after receiving her M.D. from the University of Rochester. Prior to medical school, she worked as a clinical trial project manager and, later, as a junior associate for a venture capital/incubator group. Since earning her M.D., she has been involved in the development of a variety of investigational cancer treatments. In 2016, Mai established her own consulting practice in the hopes of both broadening her impact on cancer research and reclaiming some of her time for herself, her husband and her dogs.