Ep. 112: The CancerIQ Solution

with Feyi Ayodele
Episode hosted by: Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.

May 10, 2023


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Feyi Ayodele
Founder & CEO, CancerIQ

Feyi Ayodele is the co-founder and CEO of CancerIQ, a fast-growing precision health platform that allows providers to identify, evaluate and manage entire patient populations based on individual genetic risk factors. In 2013, Ayodele co-founded CancerIQ after taking a sabbatical from the finance world to work alongside her mother, renowned medical oncologist Olufunmilayo Olopade, in the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at University of Chicago.


If you want real feedback, you have to go and ask for it and demand it.



Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: I am here with Feyi Ayodele, the c e o, and founder of CancerIQ. And so I’d just like to welcome you to her story.

Feyi Ayodele: Thank you so much for having me.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Great. So we’re gonna spend a little time together and enjoying each other’s company, but also sharing with the world what inspires you. And hopefully part of that story will be used to inspire others. I know that you and I have a similar vein in being able to pay it forward as part of our mantra, and so I find her story an excellent opportunity to pay it forward by sharing pizzas of ourselves with those who also want to venture into the healthcare and the entrepreneurial space. So Feyi, I’d love for you to just start with your. Background, who you are, what you do, and maybe even how you came to be the c e o and founder of such a great company of cancer iq.

Feyi Ayodele: Okay, there, there’s an abbreviated version that I can try and give you, but who am I as a person? I was born and raised in Chicago to two. Physicians at the University of Chicago, they’re immigrants from Nigeria. I decided not to go down the medical path. I chose to go down the business path. I started my career off in financial services as an investment banker, a private equity person. And it was when coming back for business school that I wanted to take little bit of a change in direction. I went to Penn. It’s nice, talking to a fellow Penn alum and I know Gary was also Penn alum, but what’s interesting is that I went there twice and the second time around I went for business school. I was looking for a little bit of a different experience than just learning the nuts and bolts of finance. And I can actually say that’s when my entrepreneurial journey actually started. I was leader of a student organization called the Wharton Social Venture Fund. And I was hell bent on making it a permanent program within Wharton’s curriculum. And that student run organization that I was a leader of is now called Wharton Impact Investing Partners. And it’s a permanent opportunity for students to be able to apply finance for good and then invest in socially impactful ventures. Now how did I get to where I am today? I, after leaving Wharton, I felt really compelled to take the entrepreneurship path. Even though I had accepted an offer to work at McKinsey and Company. I was very lucky to have a partner who believed in me and gave me the opportunity to take some time and explore that entrepreneurial path. And where I chose to explore entrepreneurship was in healthcare, working with my mother, who is not only a great mom and a great doctor, but she’s also a MacArthur Genius Award winner for her work, understanding the basis for disparities in breast cancer outcomes. So on this journey I got to learn about a number of things from my mom. I got to learn just how difficult it was to do what she does. I got to learn that the cause for these disparities may not be what we traditionally think, but more importantly, I learned that the solution to these problems were never gonna be solved in late stage drug therapies. They were gonna be solved through early detection and prevention. So I left my badge at McKinsey. I. Was really interested in solving the problem, and that’s how Cancer IQ came to be. I was really trying to scale a lot of the work that my mom did at the University of Chicago and make it accessible for all.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Wow. So few people, let alone women have the opportunity to take a vision and a passion and a desire and then turn it into their purpose. I think it’s a gift. That we have. When we’re able to do that, maybe share with the audience, particularly those who are interested in starting something or creating something that doesn’t exist. What are some of the thought processes that you had to go through? Weighing, I have a bird in the hand, right? With the W2 job I like to call it at McKinsey, and now I’m going to launch and venture off into a space. Where I’m creating something out of nothing. What are some of the decision points you had to make or data points that you needed?

Feyi Ayodele: Absolutely. So luckily my. Career prior to being an entrepreneur was really on, on the venture side. And the key things I needed to test out is th is this a business, right? Or is this a passion? Because one thing is, and I’ve learned again from the social venture space, is there’s no money, there’s no mission. So very early on in the process, I used a lot of my skills from finance and venture just to test that there was a business behind what I was trying to do. In fact I leaned in so hard to the business aspect of things and making sure that there was some sort of commercial path for Cancer iq. That I still tell this funny story that we actually signed two five figure contracts with health systems before we even built the software. So I had a ton of validation early on, our ability to generate revenue and, through that, the ability to raise financing that made it so that it was a measured leap of faith and not just a leap of faith on its own.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Yes. That validation is so important, right? Because you wanna know that what you’re doing will bring value. One of my favorite books is I Love Start With Why, but the other one is Be Fearless by Jean Case. And she has book chapters that speak to. Some of the greatest inventions of mankind that are standard in our lives were because somebody wanted to solve a problem that they thought they had, that others might be able to benefit from. How will people benefit from a CancerIQ?

Feyi Ayodele: Yeah, so I think it actually goes back to what was so novel about my mother’s research. She’s a medical oncologist on the south side of Chicago and she sees of course, a number of black women. But what was very interesting is that, It wasn’t race alone, it wasn’t socioeconomic status, right? You can see the wealthiest women, and they still had poorer outcomes than other patient populations. And what I like about what she did is she dug beneath the skin literally beneath the skin, and looking at people’s genetic makeup and their family history to identify the same patterns of cancer that Jewish women have and have been able to tackle. So how do you solve the problem? You look at how other people solve the problem. In Israel, everybody gets genetic testing. Everybody gets personalized. Cancer prevention plans, they get breast MRIs. In addition to mammograms, there’s a tailored approach to this genetic disease that is somehow helping them evade the SCO of cancer, the cancer rate that America is facing day to day. So how do you scale that practice of medicine? You need to make sure that not all patients have to see my mom at the University of Chicago. So I followed the thread of her educational grand rounds, her genetics education programs. I follow the thread to those people and I asked them, Hey, you know what Dr. Olopade is doing great. Why aren’t you doing this at scale in your community? And they told me all sorts of things. They said, Hey, we don’t have the knowledge. Hey, we don’t have the time. And I logged all of these problems in my little notebook and it was through that kind of organic communication with people who are understand what the solution should be, but had barriers to doing that, that we ultimately came up with Cancer iq. A truly a way of automating a lot of those workflow challenges in solving time issues. Truly a knowledge resource where we could surface a lot of the content that people like my mother are on top of. But your ordinary physician isn’t tracking day to day. And if we could essentially replicate the same practices and workflows of the Cancer Risk clinic at University of Chicago, be able to do that in a non-academic community based setting, then we were truly onto something. And that’s why Cancer IQ is really skilled today.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Knowledge and time are key and essential. I heard that as well as communication. If you think about your greatest coach or mentor or somebody who sponsored you, what did you learn from that person? And it sounds like your mom is probably one of those people in your life, but what would you say is like the top one or two lessons that you’ve learned as a leader from your greatest cheerleader?

Feyi Ayodele: So my greatest cheerleader outside of my mom is actually one of my earliest investors. And it was a man who was an angel investor in Chicago. And what I loved about him and how he helped me get to where we are today is that he had radical candor. I was seeking negative feedback. As early and as often as possible so that I could redirect and compensate for those issues. And what I found is that it’s carried us from being an early stage company where people say, no, we’re not gonna do what Dr. Olopade does because of this. And seeking, the detractors, the naysayers early upfront I think was really critical. And I think as a woman, it’s almost even more important. Because one of the things this investor told me is he said, you’re a really great, articulate, smart woman, but there are men who are not gonna tell you the truth. They will tell their buddies the truth. They will tell, through locker room talk, people will get this kind of feedback, but they’re not going to try and, hurt your feelings or, they think you’re a little bit more delicate. So if you want real feedback, you have to go and ask for it and demand it. And I think that is definitely one of the things my greatest cheerleaders have done for me to make me successful.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: That is absolutely fantastic and I’m taking all of that in because I do think it’s critically important to ask People seem to be nice, and they equate being nice with not being candid and upfront. And so there are very few people who you interact with in your professional life who will be candid and honest with you so that you can grow and that you can stretch. I think that’s incredible and fantastic. On the flip side, I know I’ve experienced this Faye, where I actually am quite candid and upfront. And it can be off-putting right to people. And I think there is a correlation between our training at a place like Penn, right? And the environments that we’ve been in and our ability to be exceptionally candid and forthright, and even, I’m gonna use the word ambitious, which others have translated into aggressive because there’s not an expectation. That women and people look like us can be so assertive in going after what they want. Tell me how you’ve had managed some of those conflicts in your life between being the CEO, the boss lady, with people who have expectations of something other or less than.

Feyi Ayodele: Interesting. So one of the things I’ve learned over time, and I think this has taken time, is that sometimes your voice doesn’t always need to be the voice. That is the end all. Be all of everything. I think one of the things I’ve learned becoming a manager and a leader is building this consensus, right? And sometimes I know. That sometimes who says things can matter. So I have, I think, learned to make sure I express my opinion, but sometimes will use others on my team or collaborate with others to make sure that the person who I’m trying to send this message to is actually hearing it.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Yeah. Yes.

Feyi Ayodele: And again, it seems like a little bit of a song and dance and extra, but sometimes that extra, just helps you get it done. I think that’s what matters. I think in a younger version of myself would’ve been I said it, I said It should be done this way. How come it’s not getting done? But I think, sometimes when you learn a little bit of that nuance, building alliances, building coalitions, Having people translate your message on your behalf. Those are things I think that women in particular need to do and can sometimes be more effective that way.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: I think there’s also a level of humility, right? That we have to have an embrace to enable us, to allow folks to help us support us and move through right. Some of that noise. And I absolutely agree with you. My younger self never wanted to be mansplained. My older self is you know what?

If he figured out how to get my idea across better than me, I’m good with that.

Feyi Ayodele: Yeah.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Cause at the end of the day, it’s just getting it done. Just getting it done. So that’s really important. One of the things I always like to ask people is maybe share a challenge that you’ve had in your leadership journey and then how you dealt with it.

Feyi Ayodele: I think a challenge I’ve had in my leadership journey is people just not thinking I’m the right leader. If you think about it, especially when you’re a, like a venture backed, healthcare entrepreneur, there’s just not a lot of women and not a lot of women of color who are in my seat. So I think the biggest challenge that I’ve had is continually trying to demonstrate and prove to people that I am the right person for this job. Because if, again, even back in my adventure days, if I were gonna look at the data and look at, all the successful founders and all the, healthcare technology, exits. There will be people who are probably much older than me, much more male than me, and much wider than me that have proven this, to have positive outcomes in the past. What do I do? I try and make sure that I can measure up to those people, and I also try and make sure that I can become a data point. For other investors to look at when they’re making investment decisions in the future. It’s a little bit harder on me, but I’m will say that, if I have the stomach for trying to get A’s on everything that’s how I’ve always performed. So if I see a model of someone who’s been, a successful entrepreneur, I try and emulate as much of what I’m doing with with what people ahead of me are doing. And it doesn’t even need to be a female entrepreneur or a female c e o. I’ll learn from the white male ones, right? Because I wanna make sure that I’m a successful case study that other people can point to in the future.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: That’s so critical and essential. Thank you for sharing that. I’m gonna switch gears. Let’s talk a little bit about. Just life in general. I know that you have a little person and being a mom is part of also your joy and your glory. Talk to me like being a mom and working and what are your hopes and expectations for your little person, for your son?

Feyi Ayodele: I recently made a decision that if I have to travel for business instead of me, trying to, sneak out at 6:00 AM in the morning and come on a red eye so that I’m back home as soon as possible, I’m gonna bring my son with me. And Carla, Denise, you don’t know this, but right before I, I hunted you down at the health conference in October. I had just finished feeding my son up in the hotel room. And I literally was like running around the conference in between, my infant son that at the time was five months old. And trying to meet with other executives and presenting on the health stage.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Yeah.

Feyi Ayodele: What I hope this does is I hope it does for him. What seeing my mom do has done for me. I think when I was a child, my mother carried me everywhere. I went to all of the, Oncology conferences with her. I, I came to her lab and used to play there after school. And what I got to see is I got to see my mom not just being a mom, but I got to see her thrive professionally. Yeah. And I think what’s very important for my son is to not be guarded from my professional life and the fact that I’m a CEO, but actually be able to observe that firsthand, right? So he knows that this is what moms can do.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: We have that in common cuz there’s a story, and it used to be a rumor, but it’s actually true that I had my laptop and my, at the time, Blackberry in my lap in the delivery room when my daughter was born. And I did not get an epidural because the nurse came in to give it to me and I was in the middle of constructing emails and I told her to go away. And the baby came about 10 minutes later with no drugs. So my daughter was born drug free.

Feyi Ayodele: Wow. Wow. Yeah. I get it.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: We have to do what we have to do and I know many women feel guilt about that, but I think there’s some level of resilience that comes with children that get to see their mom. Taking the reins and the child and the family actually get to be a part of that. So congratulations and kudos to you for doing that.

Feyi Ayodele: Yeah, thank you. I think they’re also side benefits. I will say that since becoming a mom, I feel like my time management has to be ex exceptional. Absolutely exceptional, and it’s unbelievable just how much I can get done in less time and. Just how exceptional that is for women in general. So if I’m looking at my next hire and thinking about who’s gonna produce the most in the shortest amount of time, it’s definitely a mom.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: Yes, mom’s rock. Mom’s

Feyi Ayodele: Yeah.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: I’m gonna reverse the tables. What questions do you have for me? What a question would you want to be answered for you at this point in your juncture? I might not have the answer, but somebody out there in the universe might I.

Feyi Ayodele: So I think, a question I have for you is, why do you engage in her story? Like why do you reach back? I guess now that you’re on the other side of success, what motivates you to get involved with. Early people earlier in their career, like myself.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: I had the benefit of having a Gary Bisbee in my life who was adamant about. Paying it forward and actually going outside of his comfort zone to pay it forward to women and young people like myself who aspired right to lead in healthcare. And so the opportunity to share any little bit of wisdom that I’ve gathered brings me joy. I think all of us are in a position to be able to share something. And if it’s only our voice use your voice. For good. I don’t know if I fully if I’m fully baked bay, I still think there’s a little bit more learning and growing for me to do. And I’m actually doing that by engaging and interacting with people like yourself, with young entrepreneurs who are trying to create something that didn’t exist and establish products and services that advance health. And so I’m having the time of my life being a part of your universe and also having the opportunity to share my story and the story of other women through Gary Busby’s and the Think Mediums, her story. Platform. It’s actually a gift that I think I’ve been given, and so I’m so incredibly grateful for that. Yeah, so incredible. I’m glad you stalked me and hunted me down at the conference.

Feyi Ayodele: Yeah. And I, that was actually gonna be my follow up question. So I’ve seen you at conferences and I feel like there’s a long line to try and get access to you. You motivate so many young people and in that queue of people who are vying for your time, how did you end up, choosing to work with me, a cancer IQ or with anyone? What attracted you to this opportunity?

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: You talked about this and I think there’s something to be said about matching how you spend your time and what you do with your values, right? And I value health. So anything that has to do with advancing health is a number one. My other core value is the advancement of people of color and women. So those who have been historically disenfranchised and disadvantaged, being in any position I can to help them achieve their own goals and levels of success. So anything that has to do with health, I’m in. Anything that has to do with advancing young people, women of color, people of color, women in general, I’m totally in. And then thirdly, anything that gives me a chance to continue to grow and learn, I’m totally in. Learning is my other big value or priority, finding out things that I don’t know and I didn’t know anything about really. Cancer genomics. And how you go about creating assessments. And doing that has been a pleasure for me. I know a lot about transactions and mergers and building hospitals and bonds, but very little about really the science and the biochemistry, as well as the knowledge that goes into understanding something as complex as cancer. So this has been part of my voyage of learning more.

Feyi Ayodele: Excellent, excellent.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: so my final question to you today would be, if you had to give advice to your younger self, what advice would you give her?

Feyi Ayodele: I think one of the key things I would tell my younger self is to keep being persistent. I think one of the key things that has propelled me to where I am today is persistence and resilience. It’s incredible, just the headwinds that my generation has been through. We had, the oh eight financial crisis and we had. The pandemic right now, we have even an unprecedented, crisis in healthcare, at least with the health systems in terms of their profitability and things really slowing down. So I think what’s really important is to stay aligned with your mission, but also be incredibly resilient and persistent to make. That dream come true because there’s a lot of stuff you can learn, and I’ve learned all of that stuff, but that’s not what has gotten us to where we are today. It’s the resilience, it’s the persistence, and it’s truly that belief that we can do better. That helps, guide me and help me think through all sorts of problems.

Carladenise Edwards, Ph.D.: I love it. Thank you so much for joining me on her story and I’m rooting for you and all of your success.

Feyi Ayodele: Thank you.

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