FAVORITE AUTHOR OR BOOK: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I WANTED TO BE THIS WHEN I GREW UP: Formula One driver or professional soccer player. SOMETHING THAT MAKES ME LAUGH: Playing with my partner’s kids, Elijah and Solomon. SOMETHING I’M REALLY PROUD OF: Going from moving solo to the U.S. as a young adult to creating Kenzen.
Remembering Sonia’s legacy and taking it a step further
BRINGING EVERYONE TOGETHER. Sonia Sousa was more than just the founder of Kenzen, a company that makes wearable devices to detect and prevent heat injury in workplaces. CEO Nora Levinson and Chief Commercialization Officer Heidi Lehmann agree that Sonia will forever be remembered as a unifying force in the company. And Heidi says that since Sonia’s passing in 2018, no one at Kenzen has equaled her combination of research expertise and business savvy.
Heidi knew Sonia remotely through mentoring for the nonprofit StartOut. “There aren’t as many gay women as men in the entrepreneurial space, and by default we are aware of each other within the community,” she notes. As Heidi was looking to expand into wearables, she saw Sonia’s LinkedIn profile and her mission to create change in wearable technology. Heidi was impressed, and in 2016 she joined to help raise funds and create partnerships.
Kenzen was founded on Sonia’s vision to help others avoid the kind of personal loss she had suffered. Her brother was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, though he’d had a clean bill of health just three months prior. He passed away four years later, which made Sonia think about detection and prevention, and how changes in sweat could help prevent workplace injury, especially in heavy industries. “The company and Sonia’s life were dedicated to improving the lives of others, and there is something inspirational in working towards that vision,” Nora says.
That passion attracted people and investors, Heidi notes. “She could get up on stage and tell the story of Kenzen and inspire them, even when all the details weren’t available.” When investors couldn’t connect the dots or were mired in terminology, Sonia’s focus on the big picture won them over. “Sonia was full of big ideas, but she also had a great capacity for focus. When you had her attention, she would focus on just you and what you had to say.”
MOVING AHEAD WITH LOSS. In January 2018, Heidi received an early-morning call. Sonia had a medical emergency, just before they were supposed to meet with material science company W.L. Gore. Sonia’s partner, Clare Whitlam, said that Sonia would need to convalesce, but was expected to be back in May. She passed away in May after suffering a pulmonary embolism.
Championing LGBT causes helped Sonia realize her own life. Heidi recalls talking to her about coming out, and how Sonia was sad she wasn’t able to come out much earlier in her life after growing up in a conservative Mormon family in Brazil. Nora speculates that Sonia had been out for twelve years when she passed away, and she had confided that those years were among her most fulfilling. Sonia is survived by her partner, two step-children, and her family in Brazil.
Carrying on Sonia’s legacy with Kenzen means leading with authenticity, and the response to gay leaders has not been a challenge for Nora and Heidi. Investors and clients are more concerned about their ability to deliver than their background. “If they’re that hung up over what your identity is, it might be worth questioning why you would want to work with someone like that.”