As a woman CEO I am constantly surprised by the underrepresentation of women in the executive suite, in the boardroom and even as keynote speakers or panelists at conferences in the life sciences sector. In an effort to connect women in leadership roles within this community, I recently organized a luncheon involving 11 women CEOs in the Boston area where we shared our knowledge and discussed both our challenges and triumphs throughout our careers in healthcare. I wanted to invite them to share commonalities, create a network of support as well as empower one another to further advance and succeed in our industry. We discussed a wide range of topics including the importance of having a career mentor, experiences raising capital as a woman CEO, and how we can help women assume more leadership roles in life sciences and other industries.
A great part of my learning experience was during my 21 years at Genzyme and working for a time under my mentor, former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer. As a company, Genzyme fostered a lot of risk-taking and Henri encouraged many employees to take on roles that were a stretch and would bring you outside of your comfort zone. Not surprisingly, six out of the 11 women that attended the luncheon this month also were fortunate to have Henri as their mentor for part of their careers. Four women also worked with him at Genzyme and two were entrepreneurs who reached out to Henri for advice as they were starting their businesses. All attendees shared the same sentiment about mentors- that it is so important to have someone rooting for you and encouraging you to take risks in this industry.
This accomplished group of CEOs were at different stages with their companies- some are still private while others are doing several rounds of financings or recently had IPOs- and we shared challenges or lessons learned regarding how to raise capital and best practices for how to do so in the future. Some shared their tough experiences when meeting with some venture capital firms in the early rounds of funding. I think their insights into the challenges they faced will help peers as they go through future rounds of financings for their companies. And collectively, as we all build our organizations, we all hope to use our experiences to ensure things are better for the next generation of female and male leaders and encourage diversity across the ecosystem, including VC firms.
During our discussions over lunch the women all shared the same takeaway from the afternoon- these types of conversations among women CEOs in the life sciences are long overdue. Starting this type of informal network where women can connect and support each other is very important for future women leaders. I have led several initiatives to support diversity and the development of women leadership in business at Akcea and I am proud to say that our board is nearly 50% women and more than 50% of our management team is women, but we still have a lot of work to do as an industry. Everyone who attended this luncheon is interested in meeting again to continue our conversations, learn from one another and be more tuned-in to opportunities where we can help empower and support women, and diversity more broadly. I am already thinking about topics for our next meeting and how we might improve upon these conversations. My hope is that we have an even greater number of women CEOs attend to share their perspectives related to leading a life sciences company. Our conversations and the commonalities we share will help as we work to mentor others in the industry and set the stage for more women in executive leadership roles.
About The Author
President & CEO, Akcea
Paula Soteropoulos, president and chief executive officer of rare disease therapeutic developer Akcea Therapeutics, has worked in global drug development for nearly 30 years, including senior roles at Genzyme and Moderna Therapeutics. She serves on the Board of Directors of uniQure B.V. and the Advisory Board of the Tufts University Chemical and Biological Engineering Department. Paula has been involved with a number of initiatives to support the development of female leadership in business, including the Healthcare Business Women’s Association and Women Unlimited.