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M.B.A., Eye Surgeon And Twins at Age 53

By Carol Hymowitz

Marlene Krauss

June 1, 1999, Wall Street Journal

When Marlene Krauss gave birth to twins 14 months ago at the age of 53 -- after working at her venture-capital firm until her delivery date -- some acquaintances couldn't believe it. "Others thought I was crazy," she says. And some, aware that she has always been a pioneer, weren't surprised at all.

In 1965, when she was 20, Ms. Krauss was among the first trickle of women admitted to Harvard Business School, one of 11 females in a class of several hundred men. She spent eight years working in investment banking on Wall Street, then switched careers at 30, enrolling in Harvard Medical School and becoming an eye surgeon.

She married at 39, had a daughter at 44 and then launched KBL Healthcare Ventures, a New York venture-capital company, with her husband. Yearning for more children, she also kept trying to get pregnant, ignoring those who said she was too old and ultimately proving them wrong. "I haven't wanted to miss anything," she says.

Her willingness to take risks to pursue her dreams provides a lesson to others seeking new careers or life adventures. "When someone tells me, 'You can't do that,' that's a challenge to me," says Ms. Krauss, the only child of immigrant parents from Hungary. They raised her "to be a girl and a boy, a housewife and career person," and to succeed at each. Typically, Ms. Krauss undertakes new challenges without thinking too much about the hurdles ahead until she's halfway there. "That's when I suddenly ask myself, 'What have I done?' and start worrying," she says.

She acknowledges that it is "highly stressful" to change and take risks, and always requires a lot of hard work. "But still I say go for what you want most and stay flexible. Lots of people get paralyzed trying to decide what they want to be, out of fear they can never change their minds again," she says. "A career choice doesn't have to be the ultimate decision for the rest of your life."

Ms. Krauss didn't have a particular goal in mind when she went to business school, just the awareness that it would "maximize my career opportunities," she says. Her mother agreed to let her go "because she figured I'd find a husband there," Ms. Krauss says. "Then my mother looked through the student handbook with all the pictures, and she said to me, 'You're coming home, Marlene. These men are too old for you.' But I told her, 'I just got here, and it wasn't that easy.' "

Business school was "intimidating and formal," Ms. Krauss recalls, with the women required to wear dresses to class yet also compete rigorously. With her M.B.A., she landed a job at a Wall Street investment bank. Initially, she earned $8,000 a year, some $5,000 less than new male M.B.A.s, "but we got bonuses for deals, and I did well," she says.

After eight years on Wall Street, however, she wanted "a more humanitarian career." When she was accepted at Harvard Medical School, friends scoffed, telling her, "You'll turn 40 before you can start a practice." She replied, "I'll turn 40 anyway, so I might as well be doing what I want."

Being an older medical student who had already had a career was rare then, and the many years of training were a lonely time for her. She didn't marry until she was working as an eye surgeon. "Here I'd been to business and medical school with all these guys, and I didn't find a husband," Ms. Krauss says. So where did she finally find him? "At a funeral," she says. She calls her husband, a onetime peace activist, rancher and optometrist, more adventurous than she "and willing to share risks."

Her switch to medicine proved only partially fulfilling. "I still wanted the taste of business," she says. For several years she tried juggling a part-time retina practice with a part-time investment-banking job. She also tried to start a family but had several miscarriages. Concluding that her workload was too stressful, she quit the retina practice and a year later had her first child.

She found a way to combine business and medicine with the launch of KBL Healthcare in 1991. The venture firm has funded and overseen the start-up of several health-care businesses. Among them: Cambridge Heart, a maker of heart defibrillators for patients susceptible to sudden cardiac arrest, and Summit Technology, a developer and manufacturer of ophthalmic laser systems to correct vision problems.

While she relishes change, Ms. Krauss says, she avoids reckless experimentation in favor of "taking calculated risks and then not stopping until I get it right." Moreover, she says, she is "a tough manager because I push the people who work with me as hard as I push myself." She and her husband invested their own savings in KBL but have "minimized the risks by getting involved in running the companies we fund," often overseeing strategic planning and taking products from the lab to market.

She is equally tenacious in her personal life. There's no time these days for socializing with friends, she says. "It's either work or my kids. That's the choice I made."

While aware of the health risks of becoming pregnant in her 50s, she was willing to try the latest fertility treatments to conceive her twins. "I had an ultrasound almost every week of my pregnancy," she says, "and I was directing the anesthesiologist during delivery." Having babies this way "is a hard process and not for everyone," she says. Still she predicts that a decade from now, 50-year-old pregnant women won't be all that rare. "I'm usually 10 years ahead of the curve," she says.

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