2023 Innovator Award Winner


Taja Lester
Mills College, MBA’11

Founder and Managing Partner, Health Equity Capital

Taja Lester photo

Healthcare Has An Equity Problem. Taja Lester’s Health Equity Capital Invests In Its Solutions

by Molly Callahan   |   October 13, 2023

Taja Lester has seen firsthand how a patient’s race, age, and socioeconomic status can affect the quality of medical care they receive. A “scientist at heart,” with a mind for venture capital, Lester founded Health Equity Capital to uplift new companies aiming to do something about it.

Taja Lester was serving on the board of directors for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, or WCRC, when she knew something had to change. 

The nonprofit organization was doing good work—helping people with cancer, often with low incomes or from otherwise marginalized groups, improve their quality of life. And Lester was proud of the many changes the group made in people’s lives. But society’s thumb was tipping the scale against them. 

“I observed firsthand that prevention of the disease, diagnosis, progression, access to treatment—all of these were directly affected by race and gender,” Lester says. “And there were very few evidence-based market interventions that were addressing this.” 

This, she says, wasn’t the first time she became aware of the way a person’s economic, racial, and gender statuses shape the quality of health care they receive. Nor was her tenure on the WCRC board—from 2019 to 2022—the first time anyone was made aware of the discrepancy among health care and health outcomes based on race.

The National Institutes of Health has been tracking the issue since at least 1990, when it created the Office of Minority Programs. In the intervening 30 years, that office has expanded to become the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, an organization that “addresses the reality that, in the United States, many racial and ethnic minority populations experience poorer health and greater disparities in health outcomes,” according to its mission statement. 

For Lester, her observations at the WCRC were more like the final straw, urging her to act. 

In 2020, Lester founded Health Equity Capital, a venture capital fund based in the Bay Area with a mission to help underserved patients benefit from cutting-edge advances in health. In particular, the fund invests in health ventures that are driving more equitable health outcomes for women, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and people over 65. The goal, Lester says, is to help eradicate health disparities in the U.S. altogether. 

As it would turn out, Lester’s timing was prescient. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in earnest in the U.S. in March 2020, exposed and exacerbated existing health disparities. The Kaiser Family Foundation, using data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that “Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) people have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to white people when data are adjusted to account for differences in age by race and ethnicity,” according to a recent report

“This problem isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but when COVID happened and people were seeing, live, what was happening in terms of efficacy and access, the issue really came to life,” Lester says. “We’re in a new age, I think, of moving from describing the problem to actually working toward trying to solve it, and I believe that Health Equity Capital is poised to take a lead role in helping to address that.” 

Lester’s vision and her commitment to creating a more equitable health environment for all won acclaim from a panel of judges at this year’s Women Who Empower Innovator Awards

Organized by the Office of University Advancement at Northeastern, the awards this year recognized 28 innovators with financial and entrepreneurial support. The winners received a portion of the organization’s largest total prize ever—$500,000—as well as companionship with a global network of women who are creating, running, and iterating on ventures across myriad disciplines and business sectors. To date, Women Who Empower has recognized 69 entrepreneurs with Innovator Awards over the course of three years, and has dispersed more than $820,000 to three cohorts of incisive, creative entrepreneurs.

“Taja has dedicated her career to combating racial, economic, social, and gendered disparities in healthcare,” says Diane N. MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern. “Her work will improve society and the lives of individuals. We are exceedingly proud to count her as a Women Who Empower Innovator and an inspiring leader in our community.”

“This problem isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but when COVID happened and people were seeing, live, what was happening in terms of efficacy and access, the issue really came to life,”

—Taja Lester, Mills College, MBA’11

“This problem isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but when COVID happened and people were seeing, live, what was happening in terms of efficacy and access, the issue really came to life,”

—Taja Lester, Mills College, MBA’11

Lester was “professionally raised in the Bay Area and in Silicon Valley,” she says, and Health Equity Capital is built upon her 30 years of experience in life sciences and technology. Most of her background so far has been outside the venture capital field, and it’s that very experience, she says, that makes her suited for this particular challenge. 

Prior to founding Health Equity Capital, Lester spearheaded commercial strategy efforts in oncology for Avastin, a chemotherapy and targeted therapeutic drug, and one of Roche Genentech’s largest brands. 

She was also a strategy consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Health Industries, where she advised clients at global, Fortune 10 organizations. Additionally, she took a lead role at Bay Bio (now California Life Science Association) where she successfully sourced deals for global pharmaceutical companies, across multiple markets and indications. 

It wasn’t until Lester was knee-deep in her master’s degree program at Mills College at Northeastern University that she pivoted to venture capital-oriented organizations. Lester launched her venture capital career at Bay City Capital, a life science venture capital firm based in San Francisco.

“Everyone who knows me knows I’m a scientist at heart,” she says. “During my time at WCRC, I saw an opportunity to invest in a significant, unmet need. And then I fell in love with the collaborative nature of the life sciences industry. This kind of work requires a significant degree of cross-collaboration, and I get to work with a ton of people who are passionate about what they’re doing. That drives a collaborative spirit, and I literally can’t imagine doing anything else.”

So for now, Lester continues to grow Health Equity Capital, and looks for new companies pushing the envelope on quality health care. But in the future, she hopes that her organization will have had a tangible impact on the field. 

“I want to have some amazing companies that transform the market from a health equity perspective, and that are clearly great investments, and that are really moving the needle,” Lester says. “I work in a space that is an emerging field, and I believe there’s an opportunity for the life science industry to step up and be a leader.”