Women of Western Wake: Susan Braun

The journey that Susan Braun is on is one that’s extremely personal.

“When I was a new mom, my college roommate was diagnosed with cancer when her baby was just 6 months old,” she said. “And she died two years later. It broke my heart.”

At the time, Braun  had been working for biopharmaceutical firm Bristol-Meyers Squibb in various roles, including with its oncology division. Her close friend’s death led her to ask why.

“I thought, why don’t we know more?” she said. “Why was I so surprised that a woman my age would die of cancer?”

It was then that Braun’s career path took a turn. She left Bristol-Meyers Squibb to become CEO of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, where she served for nine years.

After several other high-profile roles, including one as executive director of the American Society of Clinical Oncology Cancer Foundation, she came to Cary two years ago when she was appointed CEO of The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

A self-proclaimed “layperson, but a little bit of a science geek,” Braun loves the mission of The V Foundation, its staff, the board, and the members of the foundation’s scientific advisory committee, whom she calls “rock stars.”

“This has beaten all of my expectations in every way,” Braun said. “I am so lucky to be surrounded by people who are as passionately committed as I am.”

In the office on any given day, she might oversee budget planning or communications, or meet with donors or scientists.

She spends about 50 percent of her time on the road, and the reasons can vary greatly, from attending ESPN’s ESPY Awards ceremony, where the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance is presented, to visiting children at a cancer center.

“My job is about raising money, spending it well, and stewarding it correctly,” she said.

Braun succeeded Nick Valvano in the role as CEO, but never felt nervous about coming in behind the brother of the late Jim Valvano, who passed away from cancer in 1993 and for whom the foundation is named.

“It could not have been a smoother transition,” said Braun, who knew Nick Valvano even before she took the job. “Nick is fabulous. He was very mindful of making this a successful transition.”

Many of the changes she’s made since assuming her role as CEO actually began before she took over. The V Foundation continues to work on expanding its reach under Braun’s leadership. The number of board members has expanded, the staff has grown, and the foundation has increased the number of fundraising events it holds nationwide each year.

Braun and her team are working with the scientific advisory committee to ensure they are “funding well, funding the right stuff, and working toward very specific goals.”

Like Jim Valvano himself, a former North Carolina State University basketball coach who led his team to a national championship in 1983, Braun understands the importance of teamwork.

“People who think they can do it alone are often misguided,” she said. “One thing that’s critical in any job is to recognize we create the atmosphere we work in.”

She recognizes that a cancer research foundation must be a compassionate workplace.
“This is a very personal mission for all of us,” Braun said, relating how she and her staff often cry at the loss of the cancer patients they’ve gotten to know, and celebrate the wins with them as well.

“If we stop crying, it’s time to do something else,” she said. “If it doesn’t touch us, then maybe we’ve lost our heart.”

If she’s ever having a rough day, it’s the mission that keeps her motivated.

“I know that we genuinely are doing work that can save lives,” she said.

Braun spent her free time over the past two years getting to know the Triangle area, which she said she’s fallen in love with. Family keeps her busy too, with a grown son, Alex, in Texas, and five brothers and sisters and her parents, all scattered up and down the East Coast.

Her other baby, a Havanese breed dog named Leo, is a big part of her life too, and can sometimes be found sleeping under her desk while she works at The V Foundation.

As hard as she works, Braun plays hard too. She’s been a certified scuba diver for 25 years, taking trips all over the world to dive. She’s a lover of music, both as a singer and as an audience member at musical events, and she meditates and practices yoga to keep herself centered.

As she looks toward the future, Braun may be one of the few whose ultimate goal is to one day be out of a job. If that happens, she points out, it will be because cancer has been eliminated.

“I want to go out of business,” she said. “Nothing would make me happier than putting an end to what we’re doing.”

Title and Organization: CEO, The V Foundation for Cancer Research

Education: B.A., George Mason University; M.A. in Health Science from the University of Maryland; MBA from Westfalische Wihelms-Universitat in Germany

Family: Son, Alex, a marine biologist; five brothers and sisters; mom and dad

Early job: Working in a hardware store

Hometown: Born in Iowa, raised in Washington, D.C.

Recent accolades: 2014 Triangle Business Journal Women in Business Award; member of the board of directors for The Smith Center for the Healing Arts, Commonweal, and The Barbara Smith Fund

Fun facts: A certified scuba diver for 25 years, traveling the world to dive; enjoys singing in three-part harmony

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