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May 8, 2017
From PhD to CEO, Elizabeth Lawler Takes on Cybersecurity at Conjur

Elizabeth Lawler uses her background in the sciences to give her a leg up when it comes to fighting cyber warfare.

When it comes to stereotypes, Elizabeth Lawler breaks through them. Unlike most CEOs in the Boston area, Lawler did not graduate from MIT Sloan or Harvard Business School. She did not start her career at Deloitte or McKinsey & Company. Elizabeth Lawler instead gained her PhD in Epidemiology and began her first career as Director of Pharmacoepidemiology Research at VA Boston Healthcare Systems.

In 2011, Lawler went from fighting disease to fighting on the cybersecurity front when she became the Co-Founder and CEO of Conjur, a now 4-year-old Waltham-based data security company.

From PhD to CEO

Just because you are the director of research at a government funded facility does not mean starting a business is any different. Elizabeth Lawler co-founded Conjur in her living room, on a card table, just like everyone else. It wasn’t her first experience in entrepreneurship, but it was her first time taking on the role of CEO. Though Lawler rarely referred to herself as CEO back then, she instead wrote “resourceress” on her business card. Understandably at the time, Conjur was a very early stage startup and her job, as she saw it, was to find resources.

Step number one was to find resources, step number two, she had tattooed on her body. It was a piece of advice given to her by her mentor Andy Palmer; “Don’t Run Out Of Money.”

It was Lawler’s adherence to these two simple rules that allowed her to move from PhD to CEO.  It was her focus on culture, customers, and product that paved the way for her success as a business leader.

Party Hats and Razor Blades

Starting a new company is a challenge. Early stage startups, as Lawler puts it, often fall into the mindset of party hats or razor blades.

“You feel like you’re either celebrating or you’re going to die. Surviving in that state of mind means balancing the difference between how you feel in the moment, your confidence in your strategic direction and ability to execute.  That centeredness helps you project calm, urgency without panic,” says Lawler.

Learning to ride the startup roller coaster was just one of the challenges Lawler faced when beginning her enterprise. The biggest lesson she learned was a quote by Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Lawler often uses the word safety when speaking about Conjur. A word not often used by software professionals, it’s a throwback to her epidemiology days. And it’s not just a word she brings up when talking about the latest data breach or hacker news; it’s the word she uses when talking about company culture.

“I think culture is probably the most important thing a CEO can tend to in the day-to-day operations,” says Lawler. “One of Conjur’s core values is safety. We want to create a safe environment for people to be themselves. I wasn’t actively driving culture in the early days, and people weren’t listening and being tolerant. That was a huge lesson for me. Now I spend a lot more time ensuring that Conjur is a safe and positive workplace.”

Not Your Everyday CEO

Lawler’s background gives her an uncommon perspective on how to run a business. She defines her personal leadership style as “the gardener.” Preferring to plant a seed and watch it grow. A direct contrast to the hands-on leadership style practiced by many of her peers. She goes on to explain that at the beginning of Conjur, she would get called into every decision. As the company grew however, she needed to add in points of elevation – delegation. Giving her employees room to grow, Lawler doesn’t micromanage. According to her, too much love can kill even the most hearty of plants.  

Now that Conjur has surpassed many of the major battles a startup faces in their first years, Elizabeth Lawler has begun to reflect on the many similarities between her work as a PhD and a CEO.  “It was the turn of the 20th century when we started making medical standards such as clean bandages and washing hands,” says Lawler. “I think it’s time to create standards for cybersecurity too.”

It is this kind of mindset, one so far away from the ordinary business dialogue, that makes Elizabeth Lawler a unique and successful business leader.


Necco Ceresani is a contributor to VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @Necco_C.

Images courtesy of Elizabeth Lawler.