Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Suelin Chen, CEO and co-founder of Cake
I spoke with Suelin Chen, CEO and co-founder of Cake, the leading online platform for navigating mortality. Cake serves 1.5 million people each month and works with world class partners in healthcare and financial services, including some of the largest care organizations and banks in the world.
Suelin’s mission has always been to make a difference through healthcare. She got her undergraduate degree and PhD from MIT where she focused on prognostic tools in oncology. Through this experience, she realized that the best option for each patient was influenced in large part by their values and went beyond more deterministic, black and white scientific diagnoses.
After MIT, she became the director of The Lab at Harvard, which supported student entrepreneurs . There, she helped students with their startup ideas with a special focus on the commercialization of technologies. From there, she began advising more healthcare startups on commercialization and M&A strategy.
Through working with these startups, Suelin saw the amount of time, money, and energy spent on extending life, but there was limited focus on supporting people at the end of life. She founded Cake to provide this support. Of course, when a loved one passes away, there is so much inevitable pain we feel with this loss. Cake focuses on eliminating all the pain around the planning and administrative work involved. More broadly, Cake helps users develop a healthier relationship with mortality. Suelin realized that there were consumer brands for every part of life from birth to adolescence to love to parenthood, but there was no consumer friendly brand for death. Cake fills this crucial white space.
Suelin shared her perspective on the founder journey, effective communication, building partnerships in healthcare, and how mortality gives us a better perspective on life.
On the founder journey, Suelin underscores the importance of joining communities with other founders. Founding a company can be a lonely journey, especially as a CEO. Other founders can deeply relate to the challenges you are facing and be a sounding board and source of advice and inspiration.
Internally, Suelin has really enjoyed building a team of incredible people, each with unique strengths. Identifying, hiring, and cultivating amazing talent has been one of her favorite parts of founding Cake.
On effective communication, Suelin shares her advice both from the perspective of communicating complex scientific concepts to diverse audiences through her background in research and from the perspective of navigating emotionally complex topics like mortality through her work at Cake.
In broader communications in the scientific world, she leverages analogies to make more complex concepts understandable and resonant, meeting people where they are and relating to their unique experiences. Suelin often finds that in explaining concepts, whether to peers or even to her children, she develops a deeper understanding and identifies gaps in her own knowledge.
At Cake, Suelin focuses on building an empathetic brand that sounds much like a trusted friend. To this end, she acknowledges the inevitable emotions that are associated with mortality while focusing on making sure everything else is as simple as possible. She uses different types of language to identify which messages resonate best with her audience and incorporates keen understandings of different cultural contexts. Empathetic communication has been especially important as Cake has worked closely with customers who face discrimination by society or even by their own families. Trans people, for example, have turned to Cake as a way to ensure their wishes are known and respected.
On building partnerships, Suelin highlights the importance of building a strong reputation. Oftentimes larger institutions initially see startups as risky and have certain hesitations around partnering with them. To alleviate these concerns, Cake has also partnered with nonprofits with strong brands in the space and taken on smaller projects to build credibility gradually. Small wins build up and eventually lead to more trusting reputations and larger wins.
Ultimately, character is everything. Suelin and her team always prioritize acting with integrity and empathy. Your reputation as an individual and as an organization always precede you, and reputation can be the biggest asset for companies, especially in the healthcare space.
Looking ahead, Suelin is excited about helping people better understand the growing number of options around mortality (such as technology that converts ashes into diamonds). Gen Z has been one the fastest growing segments on Cake and collectively has one of the most pragmatic, curious, and life-affirming outlooks on mortality.
Suelin has found that the exercise of writing your own obituary has been a surprisingly constructive one for many people, including and especially young people. Having clarity about what is most important to you at death helps you live a better life.