Diversity in Diversity: Cultural Exchange and Global Perspectives Enrich and Enhance the Workplace

Feb 22, 2018

By Paula Soteropoulos, President & CEO of Akcea Therapeutics

There has been a welcome signal boost to discussion surrounding gender diversity in biotechnology leadership. Even very small companies are now taking this topic seriously as they develop their growth strategies and hiring policies. As a rapidly-growing public company, I am proud that Akcea has outperformed the industry when it comes to the gender balance among our leadership, Board of Directors and the wider team. As CEO of Akcea and throughout my career, I have worked to support the advancement of female leadership across multiple industries, both within my organization and through external initiatives. I think it’s incredibly important that young women see a place for themselves as they rise through the ranks. It’s my responsibility – along with other women in executive and senior positions – to encourage our next generation of biotech leaders. Akcea was recently named a “Top 100 Women Led Business” in Massachusetts for the second year in a row, which we were very proud of – but I’d like to see more representation from our industry in this group.

We recently held our first Women’s Forum where we brought together all of the women in leadership roles to discuss the challenges that are specific to women in the workplace and try to think of ways to do a better job of addressing these at Akcea. In addition, we have pushed our hiring managers to expand the candidate pool to include more diversity, including on gender.  This hasn’t been a case of quotas, but rather pushing for expanded pools so that we have a better group to make an informed decision upon. Ultimately we choose the best candidate for the job, but a larger and more diverse pool has resulted in better choices.

In addition to having the perspective of a female executive, I also appreciate the different viewpoints that diversity brings beyond gender. Looking at the world differently or approaching a problem from a different perspective is valuable and should be considered an asset to organizations. Input from varied cultures including immigrants or global citizens both at work and in relationships adds huge value to teams taking on complex projects. My parents were immigrants to the United States from Greece. I grew up bilingual, appreciating the culture my parents grew up in but also in many ways having a very typical American upbringing. I still take my family to Greece every year and feel we are enriched with experiences that take us out of our day to day context. The cultures you experience leave their mark and inform your perspective. Of course, business functions like alliance management have known this and applied it to international relations for decades. But I’d like to see more discussion of intra-team advantages of varied backgrounds and perspectives, because I think there’s something special there. It may be the global perspective, or an added courtesy and thoughtfulness which bears fruit for working relationships – it’s likely different in every organization – but the key point is that if managed correctly, it’s part of a recipe for a highly effective team.

Cultural values are a fascinating and rewarding subject to study, and we can learn so much from cultural exchange in and outside the workplace. I often say that diversity in opinions leads to better decision-making, and this holds true across gender, ethnic background, or however someone wishes to distinguish themselves. At Akcea, it is very important to me to foster a culture of inclusion to encourage a sense of belonging. Rare disease therapeutics companies take on extremely ambitious tasks on a global scale, and to deliver the best outcomes we need to pull together as a cohesive team with shared values. In Akcea’s case, we emphasize the value of service– focused on our patients and rare disease communities, who struggle with far greater adversity than most of us can imagine.  We also place significant importance on listening to needs of our team members, patients and physician partners locally at the country level to inform our global strategy.  We see Akcea as a global company based in the U.S. rather than a U.S. company operating globally.

Patients who need our medicine and our support reside in every country around the world.  There is not a day that goes by in our office without a conversation about the importance of what we’re doing for patients who are waiting for a treatment; it drives us and our work. We’re working in disease areas nobody has been able to address in the past, and that presents us with the opportunity of being first, and the responsibility that comes along with that pioneering role – connecting the community, providing disease awareness education, supporting diagnostic knowledge among physicians, and enhancing understanding of the natural history and burden of disease.

With external audiences on a global level, we work to raise awareness of these rare conditions, which helps with diagnosis rates, therapeutic investment, medical practice and the development of support networks. Among our initiatives is FCSfocus.com, dedicated to patients with familial chylomicronemia syndrome (FCS), the rare genetic disease targeted by our lead therapeutic candidate, volanesorsen.

From only two staff members just over three years ago, Akcea now has approximately 100 team members operating in 7 countries planning for the launch of volanesorsen. International collaboration and team cohesion will be fundamental to our success, and as CEO leading a company managing rapidly evolving global programs, I believe it is essential to consider the immense value in diverse perspectives, and work hard to foster an appreciation for diversity in the wider Akcea team.

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. 

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