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Biocom California Forum Focuses on Female CEOs

LIFE SCIENCE: Redefining, Supporting ‘Authentic’ Leaders

Women who are CEOs at life science companies should be labeled “leaders” – not “female leaders.”

Joe Panetta
Biocom California

That was the message at a recent Biocom California forum held at the Alexandria at Torrey Pines. And to emphasize the point, the title of the Dec. 1 event, “Let’s Talk About Female Life Science CEOs,” featured a line struck through the word “female.”

“When I think about this evening – and you saw in our announcement that the ‘female CEO’ part was crossed out – this is about true lessons in leadership from some great CEOs,” said Biocom California CEO Joe Panetta in his introductory remarks. “They’re all examples of great leadership, great accomplishment, great members of the community – all people I look up to a lot.”

Inspired by Arizona Retreat

Panetta said the inspiration for the forum came from a gathering of women biotech CEOs at a retreat in Arizona held back in March of this year. The forum’s panelists – Ciara Kennedy, president and CEO of Sorriso Pharmaceuticals; Sabrina Johnson, president and CEO of Daré Bioscience; and Sheila Gujrathi, executive chair of Ventrys Biosciences and chair of ADARx and ImmPACT Bio – all attended the retreat.

“What came out of that was redefining what authentic leadership is all about and continuing to move the needle on diversity and pursue supporting women in the industry,” Panetta said, adding that the retreat was “geared toward women and confronting issues they face, but I think it’s clear the themes of leadership are themes we can all benefit from.”

Lori Kaiser
Senior Director, Business Development & Strategy
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The forum was sponsored by ThermoFisher Scientific and Halloran Consulting Group and was moderated by Lori Kaiser, director of business development at Halloran.

Kaiser kicked off the forum by posing a question: “Why does a female CEO have to be something other than a CEO?”

She then pointed out that less than 25% of biotech CEOs are women or identify as female “but we continue to remain energized,” before asking Gujrathi, a co-planner of the retreat, about the vision and mission of the gathering in Arizona.

“In the last decade, there were more of us stepping into important leadership roles in our industry. A number of us were in important leadership roles and while we had perfect sponsors and mentors along the way, I think we had faced different challenges,” Gujrati said, adding that some challenges were the kind faced by any CEO, but others were particular to being a woman from a diverse background. “There are conscious and unconscious biases that we deal with, subjectivity, things that come our way.”

Leadership roles can make people “feel alone,” she said, and over her career she had developed a network of leaders that supported each other when help or advice was needed.

Sheila Gujrathi
Executive Chair
Ventrys Biosciences

“I was on speed dial for a number of CEOs saying, ‘How do we negotiate a term sheet? Who should I put on my board? Should I accept this offer or not?’ – all these questions that we could be there for one another to answer,” she said. “The intention [of the retreat] was to create a network and a safe environment for women leaders to come together, share their stories, share lessons learned and also spend time trying to figure out how can we help each other better.”

Gujrathi said the main takeaway lesson she learned from the retreat was the need for women in life science to expand their network of both men and women who share the same set of values of diversity and “the power of having a safe, thriving community with trust and meaningful bonds.”

Kennedy added the importance of taking time and sharing experiences with others in creating the trust needed for a community network.

“One thing I realized from this experience is you are always building your community – you never really arrive at your optimal community,” she said. “I realized how many people from the San Francisco Bay Area I didn’t know, how many people from other parts of the country that I was not connected to.”

Mentors and Sponsors

Kaiser then shifted the conversation to the role of mentors and sponsors in the careers of women in life science. “I think that mentors play a critical role, particularly when you’re at a nexus in your career or you’re trying to get somewhere,” Kennedy said, adding mentors “can be someone who’s been there done that, has done something similar you can learn from, or has done something tangible.”

Ciara Kennedy
President & CEO
Sorriso Pharmaceuticals

Kennedy also pointed out the distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.

“Sponsorship requires a deeper level of trust and knowledge of somebody for you to put your reputation out there on their behalf,” she said.

Becoming a mentor or a sponsor is an “investment of time” and a process of “trial and error” to find the right people to connect with, Kennedy said, and that, ideally, the relationship will be a “two-way street, and the more you invest in it, the more you will get from it.”

Johnson added that part of the two-way street relationship with sponsors is “they open the door, but you have to walk through it. You have to say ‘yes’ and take that opportunity.”

Johnson shared three examples of sponsors she’s had in her career. When she was vice president of sales and marketing at Cypress Bioscience, the CEO entrusted Johnson with the position of CFO during a financing round, even though she didn’t have a background in accounting. Another sponsor wrote her the first check to begin funding Daré on the spot in an elevator. She also considers Receptos co-founder Bill Rastetter a sponsor for chairing Daré’s board of directors even though he had never previously served on the board of a “small-cap biotech company.”

Sabrina Johnson
President & CEO
Daré Bioscience

“I give those examples because that’s what a sponsor is,” Johnson said. “A sponsor is someone putting their reputation on the line to help you get to the next level, where you probably deserve to be, and they see it – often before you do.”

Gujrathi said figuring out who are sponsors and who are mentors in your career is challenging, “especially when you expect them to be a sponsor and instead find they are more a mentor,” but sometimes “you will be surprised by who sponsors you and recommends you for roles.”

“At Genentech when I was the Avastin franchise leader, someone whom I didn’t even know in the organization stepped up and basically sponsored me,” she said, adding that is why it is best to “cast a wide net” through trial and error and develop many career relationships.

Gujrathi also advised women to be “vulnerable” with the sponsors in their network. “Have that courage to be vulnerable, get their advice and continue circling back with them and learning from them,” she said.

Kennedy added to that and advised not to wait for a mentor or sponsor to appear and instead actively seek help when needed.

“I think it’s always powerful when somebody asks for help. It shows a confidence and vulnerability at the same time,” she said. “I think people innately, no matter how busy they are, typically want to help. They’ve had help in their careers, and they want to pay it forward to other people. So, you have to be willing to take that first step.”

Advice for Next Generation

Kaiser prompted the final panel discussion by asking the panelists what advice they have for the next generation of women leaders.

“When someone gives you an opportunity, say yes. You will find people will open doors for you if they discover that you are someone who is willing to lean in and take the risk and try hard and give your personal best,” Johnson said.

She also said women should be their “authentic self” and shared a story of having long hair and thinking she should cut it after being offered a promotion to a CFO position. Instead, she was given the advice to wear it proud and “stand out in the room.”

“What he meant was, ‘That’s you. That’s who you are. Be who you are.’ And it’s the best advice anyone ever gave me, so I give it to all of you,” she said.

Kennedy advised to take advantage of the San Diego community by attending events and joining and getting involved with organizations. “It’s a blessing. The community of San Diego is so supportive and accessible. There is a wealth of goodwill in this community,” she said. “You have to not just show up for yourself but show up for those around you and be willing to put yourself out there, even if you’re busy.”

Gujrathi stressed future leaders to “lift up and lean on” and mentor or sponsor aspiring women leaders while also benefiting from the help of established ones.

“Believe in yourself. Follow your passion. Don’t give up. Be the leader you want to be surrounded by and be the helper you want to be surrounded by,” she said, adding that the community of CEOs that started with the retreat is “now at 150 leaders and is growing.”

“We have more than 50 people coming to our next retreat. We sold out in a day,” she said.

Biocom California

Founded: 1995
CEO: Joe Panetta
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Member organization advocating for the life science industry
Revenue: $9,400,000 (2020)
Members: Over 1,600
Website:  https://www.biocom.org/
Notable: Biocom is the state’s most powerful advocate for life sciences with offices in San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, and satellite offices in Washington D.C. and Tokyo.


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