Breast Cancer is Unacceptable with Paula Schneider

Every 13 minutes, one woman will lose her life to breast cancer. That is unacceptable. As we enter into National Breast Cancer Awareness month, Real Pink speaks to those on the front lines in the fight against breast cancer and those touched by this devastating disease.

About Paula

Paula Schneider is president and CEO of Susan G. Komen®, responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operation of Komen’s research, community health, public policy advocacy and global programs. 

Schneider brings a personal perspective to Komen’s mission as a breast cancer survivor whose mother died of metastatic breast cancer. 

“I know from personal experience the devastation of breast cancer, and the power and impact of the Komen mission to end it,” she said. “I am determined to do all that I can to build on this iconic organization’s mission to end breast cancer, for everyone and forever.” 

Schneider is widely regarded as an expert in organization management and finance, serving as president and CEO of American Apparel and Delta Galil Premium Brands and as president at Warnaco Swimwear Group. She served in strategic advisory roles at the private equity firm, The Gores Group. 

A featured speaker at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in 2016, Schneider also was named one of Los Angeles Business Journal’s 500 Most Influential People for 2016 and garnered the National Association of Women’s Business Owners Inspiration Award in 2010. 

As Komen’s president and CEO, Schneider is responsible for the world’s largest breast cancer research portfolio (almost $1 billion in funding to date), and a network of more than 80 Komen Affiliates serving millions of women and men in the United States and globally.


Adam: [00:00] My guest on the show today is Paula Schneider. Paula is the president and CEO of Susan G Komen and is responsible for the strategic direction, day to day operation of Komen’s research, community health, public policy advocacy, and global programs. Paula brings personal experience to Komen as a breast cancer survivor whose mother died of metastatic breast cancer. 

[00:22] She is widely regarded as an expert in organizational management and finance and has served as the president and CEO of American Apparel as well as other organizations. She is a featured speaker in Fortune’s most powerful women’s summit in 2016. She was also named one of Los Angeles Business Journals 500 most influential people and garnered the National Association of Women’s Business Owners Inspiration award in 2010. Paula, I’m so excited to have you on the show. Welcome to the show.

Paula: [00:53] Thank you. I’m very excited to be here.

Adam: [00:55] I know you’ve got quite the background, but why don’t you give us the high points of your bio from your perspective?

Paula: [01:00] Wow, well, the highlights. I’ve had a long career actually in fashion. That was my [alma mater? 01:09] was being in and running fashion companies over the last literally thirty years, and during that time I was running a rather big organization and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So that was back in 2007 and I remember distinctly I was running an organization that was in the midst of a big restructuring and literally my doctor told me I had breast cancer and then I said, “Okay, can I have three weeks, if I have three weeks and don’t go into treatment right away, will I die?” And he said, “No, but don’t take any more than three weeks.” And I said, “Okay.” So I had to do the restructure on Monday and Tuesday of that week, Wednesday I told my team I had cancer and Thursday I went into chemo, so that was probably the worst week of my life.

Adam: [01:58] I don’t even know how to respond to that like that is unbelievable that that was your week. That’s amazing. The thing is history bears out the restructure went pretty well, right?

Paula: [02:08] Yeah. I mean I’m a turnaround girl. In my past organisations, it has always been to turn things around when they weren’t going in the right direction. it’s not the way for Komen because this is a passion play for me, but in general, that was what my role was. So not easy and you try to be as fair and equitable as you can, but I didn’t want to change things up that dramatically and not be there for it because I’d orchestrated it and had to do it in order to save jobs.

Adam: [02:37] Right, wow, that’s fantastic and you’ve been at Komen since 2017 is that right?

Paula: [02:41] Yeah, it’s going to be two years in October.

Adam: [02:43] Wow, and it seems like everything’s going amazing.

Paula: [02:46] You know it’s the most wonderful organization and I think even surprising to me when I came in here was not knowing everything that we did because it’s a very vast organization as far as the three hundred and sixty degree help that we give to women with breast cancer or there’s the research side of it. There’s the health equity side of it, there’s the policymaking side of it, and each one of those has a fan of things underneath them to prop them up so there’s a lot going on here, and it’s a really, really important organization.

Adam: [03:22] Yeah. I have to confess in hosting this show and being able to interview just so many people I’m continuously blown away by how much Komen is doing and how much impact Komen is making just globally.

Paula: [03:35] Yeah, me too.

Adam: [03:36] Okay, so let’s dive in just a little bit here so as the CEO, Susan G Komen, why do you think the focus on breast cancer is still so important?

Paula: [03:44] Well, I have some people that actually walk up to me and say when we’re having a conversation what do you do? And I say what I do, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s, that’s pretty much handled now, right?” And I’m like, “No, no.”

Adam: [03:55] Not at all.

Paula: [03:55] “It is not handled.” You have two hundred and sixty thousand people, mostly women, that are diagnosed every year, there’s some that men of course because men do get breast cancer and you have over forty thousand people that die every year. So not handled, not handled. 

 Adam: [04:13] Not handled, not at all.

Paula: [04:13] You know we’re working as hard as we can to manage and bring the numbers down, but not handled and the five-year life expectancy has gone up pretty dramatically since we’ve been around for the last thirty-six years. But you people die every year and unfortunately, it’s completely unacceptable to us.

Adam: [04:32] Absolutely. I totally agree with you on that and so we’re about to kick off national breast cancer awareness month in October. Can you tell me a little bit about what Komen’s doing to reignite that sense of urgency behind the breast cancer cause?

Paula: [04:44] You know, breast cancer doesn’t wait for October. October is a big month for us, but it’s not necessarily just the pinnacle. It’s when we get to tell a better story, it’s when the world looks to us to tell a story, but this goes on twelve months of the year.

Adam: [04:58] That’s right.

Paula: [04:58] For October in and of itself we have a very robust campaign that is talking about the sense of urgency and trying to establish that there is a real sense of urgency and that one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime, which is crazy. Plus, if you’re in health disparities, African American women die 40% more than white women that are diagnosed with the same disease. So we’re telling the story, but I like the way we’re approaching this because we actually are telling the stories and these are human stories because we can talk about statistics all day long and those are just that, they’re statistics.

[05:39] These are your mothers, your sisters, your daughters that are getting breast cancer. It’s not statistics, they’re people and then there’s the co-survivors, which are all the people that have to take care of the people that are sick. I was super lucky in my world that when I had breast cancer, you know I have a husband and friends and everybody rallied and it’s a very humbling experience, but an incredible experience that you allow people, especially if you’re large and in charge to come and help you. So I think telling the human stories and the way that it affects not only the person that’s going through breast cancer and that difficult journey but also how difficult it is for the families.

[06:26] I have two daughters and both handled it very differently. One was going into seventh grade and one was going into high school, which are really sort of critical years to have your mom and one wouldn’t leave my side and one it was hard for her to be around me and it wasn’t that they loved me less, it’s just that people have to deal with it. And it was very, very difficult on my husband and you’re going through it and you’re watching this and of course, it breaks your heart because you don’t want your mother to have to worry about you.

Adam: [06:57] Yeah, I love that you focus in on the stories because that’s one of the things that has been really encouraging to me in this process is listening and understanding people’s stories and being just genuinely inspired by them. Like it’s really amazing the way that a lot of these people have overcome to accomplish and do great things. I mean your story alone is that one week was unbelievable, so it’s really, really inspiring. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing. So next question, can you describe some of the primary ways that Susan G Komen is focusing both resources and funding on fighting breast cancer? Just give us that overview.

Paula: [07:34] Yeah, we have our bold goal and our bold goal is our North Star and our bold goal is to decrease deaths of breast cancer by 50% by 2026. It’s a very hefty, bold goal, but if that’s not just words on the page and that is actually something that you are aspiring to do, then every one of our actions in our organization is aspiring layering up to the bold goal. So we have two sides of that, one is the research side because nothing’s going to cure cancer other than research. It’s really looking at the cancers that kill, right, and so we’ve sort of funneled our money mostly now into metastatic breast cancer. Trying to figure out ways to stop metastatic breast cancer from happening and trying to figure out ways to keep people that are living with metastatic breast cancer alive longer and healthier so that they can thrive.

[08:25] Because again if it’s to decrease deaths, if that’s your goal, then that’s a big part of it. On the flip side of that is our community work, which is disparities in health care because if we can figure out ways to get people to the health care that exists today, our statisticians have told us and our scientific advisory board that we can decrease the deaths by about 30%.

Adam: [08:48]


[08:48] So it’s big, it’s hard because it’s literally person by person by person. It’s expensive, but it’s important because if we can do that and so we have very robust initiatives around disparities in health care and right now we have our African American Health Equity Initiative, which is to help figure out what’s happening in eleven of the cities in the nation that are big cities that have the biggest disparate death rates between African/American women and white women.

Paula: [09:23] And some of these cities are LA and Dallas and Chicago and Memphis, Atlanta, our capitol, DC. There’s eleven cities where the rate runs from, oh, let’s say forty-five up to the seventies, 70% higher, and so we’re trying to figure out, okay, what is causing that because it’s not always the obvious. So we’re doing landscape analysis and then once we’re done with the landscape analysis, we’ll figure out what we’re going to do to help. So when we’re talking about this, we’re not just talking about the bold goal we’re living it every single day.

Adam: [09:59] And do me one favour state the bold goal again, one more time. I want to make sure I’ve got that.

Paula: [10:05] Okay. The bold goal is to decrease the deaths of breast cancer in the United States by 50% by 2026.

Adam: [10:13] I love that.

Paula: [10:15] It’s a lot to do.

Adam: [10:16] It’s so clear, but it’s, yeah, it’s a lot to do and it gives you that Northstar like you talked about, to know how to plow ahead. I love that. So why is fighting breast cancer across all fronts important to Susan G Koman. You mentioned there’s a lot of fronts, there’s a lot of different things going on. Why is it important to attack it across all of them at the same time?

Paula: [10:34] Well because it’s not singular, right. There’s so many facets that you have to consider. There is the health equities because it exists. There’s the research that has to happen to figure out why metastatic cancer is happening and stop it, and there’s also the public policy side. I mean that’s a big important side to Komen because there’s a lot to be said for women in pink with pitchforks that descend on the hills to talk about making sure that women’s healthcare is first and foremost in lawmakers.

Adam: [11:02] That’s great. I love that and so last question a little bit on the personal side. What do you want your own personal legacy to be at Susan G Komen?

Paula: [11:11] That I helped. 

Adam: [11:13] That you helped.

Paula: [11:13] Yeah. What I would love to do is to achieve our bold goal and be here to see that out. We’re going to work as hard as we can to make this happen, but my own personal legacy is that I want to make sure that my two daughters never have to deal with what I had to deal with.

Adam: [11:28] I love that. I love that. That’s great. I really appreciate you sharing that with us and thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Paula: [11:36] Thank you. I really appreciate what you do.

Adam: [11:39] Well, thank you.


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