How Cancer Made This Leader Stronger Than Ever

A quintessential “intrapreneur”, Sonia Couto found her voice through identifying problems in existing companies and fixing them. Leading as current Director of Konverge, Couto has concurrently jumped in head first as Founder and CEO of nutrition analysis company MenuSano. An impressive feat, proving both strengths as an intrapreneur and entrepreneur simultaneously.   

As an active Peerscale member and Peergroup leader, Couto knows the value of sharing lessons and experiences with peers which has led to this story. In this in-depth interview, she shares insights on how she has turned her biggest challenges into opportunities to prove her resilience as a tech leader.  

Family Life and Battling Cancer 

On top of the mentality that life is a series of challenges, Couto’s family instilled a strong team ethic in her. They taught her to do and say what is necessary for the good of a team no matter how difficult. As a budding intrapreneur, her ‘team’ was the entire company and speaking up put her on the radar of executives and mentors. These individuals pushed her, gave her additional challenges, and encouraged her to continue growing professionally. Couto flourished.  

She was doing a lot of heavy lifting to drive the business on a fast trajectory until cancer threw her a curve ball, forcing her to slow down and change her approach.  

When Couto got her stage-one breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, she was Director of Konverge, a software development company in Toronto. She said the diagnosis felt “like somebody grabbed me by the back of my head and smashed my head against the wall.”  

“That feeling lasted about an hour and then… I picked myself up and I said ‘ok, this a new a challenge,” she continued.  

Couto didn’t want pity from her team or board, so she didn’t take any time off from work during treatment. It made life tough, but she wasn’t going to let cancer take anything from her. Part of this mentality was from her family, all of whom were not particularly sentimental, said Couto, and taught her to view life as a series of challenges to overcome.  

Having cancer required a mindset shift. In controlling everything, she was not providing time for herself to heal or for the business to grow. So, she started delegating.  

“I learned a really valuable lesson from being sick,” Couto said. “I learned to delegate and trust people. When I told my team [about my diagnosis], they really stepped up. They started volunteering to take over things.” 

A self-professed “control freak,” Couto was initially worried by her team stepping up – not because she thought they were incompetent but because it meant she wouldn’t have control over things.  

“I [used to be] a believer that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself,” Couto said. “I’m not like that anymore. I actually promoted people into management positions so they could be responsible for certain departments. So, I had a lot of peace; I knew that I had a team that was still keeping things moving. The work was still being done.” 

Mentors and Women in Tech 

With one challenge behind her, teaching her the importance of a team, Couto reflected back on her career and how she got to that point to begin with. As a woman in tech who’s been in the industry for over a decade, she’s seen the evolution of the workplace equality debate from the front lines. It’s given her a positive feeling on one hand but a concern on the other.  

“I understand the whole equal pay [debate],” Couto said. “I totally agree with it. But I don’t like the conversation around ‘let’s bash men, because it’s their fault,’ because it’s not.” 

After she got a clean bill of health and became cancer free, Couto moved onto her current entrepreneurial venture as founder of MenuSano, a nutrition analysis software she is building within the Konverge umbrella.  

She faced an uphill battle, and still does as a founder, but said that she worries the ecosystem might look to her as a victim and blame men for creating her hardships.  

She couldn’t disagree more with that mentality. 

Instead of seeking to assign blame for challenges one faces, Couto encourages women to be unafraid of stereotypically ‘male’ traits, like being direct. Further, she sees the real loss, if women-in-tech conversations anchor on a ‘blame men’ mentality, as the loss of male mentorship and sponsorship for women.  

Instead, she advocates for mutual support and handling issues on a practical level, a mentality that puts her in league with many current women-in-tech advocates of all genders. 

“I have some fantastic male mentors in my life that I would never trade for anything else,” she continued. “[There have been] many men in my life who helped me get to where I am.” 

Living Healthier, Helping People 

Couto is building MenuSano to help people live healthier lives. Her mission extends beyond that, though, as the opportunity for the technology – which uses AI to assess food nutritional content – can be used to customize menus for a variety of ailments, illnesses, and conditions. It can also help people with food allergies enjoy their favourite restaurants by isolating a ‘custom menu’ based on available foods that meet their restrictions. 

“It’s about providing a tool that will allow food creators to be transparent with their consumers,” Couto said. “So that consumers can make healthier decisions in their diet every day to fight disease, for example control diabetes or obesity. We want to… help the general population be healthier and live healthier lives.” 

As Couto continues to show up to face every challenge, she still finds time to show up for her Peergroup round tables too, and for good reason. “My Peerscale group has really helped me identify areas for improvement, solve challenges I never encountered but mostly a place where I can speak freely about my challenges and not feel so alone.” Says Sonia Couto, Director of Konverge and Founder of MenuSano.  

Interested in connecting with Peerscale members like Sonia? Apply here to join the discussion with Toronto’s top tech leaders!  

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