Erika Smith on Women Entrepreneurs & Overcoming Gender Bias

Nov 28, 2017

Q&A with Erika Smith, CEO of ReNetX Bio

We spoke with Erika Smith, CEO of ReNetX who has more than 25 years of experience as an investor and entrepreneur, on her experiences as a female in a male-dominated industry. 

How have your experiences/career path impacted the way you think about diversity?

My career path experiences as an engineer/MBA has allowed me to see many parts of the life-science industry from manufacturing, to QC/RA to M&A across therapeutic, diagnostic devices and healthcare IT. I’ve been lucky enough to work with and lead multidisciplinary teams across all parts of industry from Fortune 500 companies to small startups. I have certainly been aware of the dearth of women in my roles as I started in a classroom where 90% of my colleagues were men. My career has advanced into even more rarefied air as I launched and ran three different investments funds over the last 15 years with funding from Yale and J& J in an arena where <5% of investors are women.

Although I have had a bit of an atypical career, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to bring business and science together and I’m very passionate about the ability to create innovative solutions that need both parts of the puzzle. Seeing the need for increased engagement throughout my career, I’ve continuously been active in encouraging young women to explore varied career paths from my work as the President of a local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to launching innovative programs at Yale to encourage diversity in entrepreneurship. My experience has provided me an opportunity to lead by doing in my current role as a female CEO (<3% of women represented) to address a completely unmet need for Spinal Cord Injury patients. 

From your experience, what are the barriers for women in creating and launching their own companies?

To see the barriers directly, I encourage you to type CEO entrepreneur into Google and search by images. When we think about successful entrepreneurs we typically think about Mark Zukerberg or Bill Gates. The biggest challenge I’ve seen with women creating and launching their own companies is that they don’t even consider this option (i.e. AWARENESS). Part of the reversal of this issue is just making sure that #1) women are aware that this path exists and #2) they can be successful at it. When I was at Yale we realized that education/skills workshops were attended 50% by women, but when we put out a competitive program that number dropped almost by half. Letting women try on this new (and sometimes at first uncomfortable) role allows for confidence gains and awareness of the “real” risks associated with trying entrepreneurship. I’m excited about the many accelerators and incubators that are supporting startups with mentors, funding, education, etc. to reduce the “perceived” barriers of risk to try. 

My advice to women that are thinking about starting their own company: network, network and network! There is an incredible opportunity to explore your idea, continue to refine your plans and recruit supporters to provide guidance as you grow your organization.

What’s your advice to these women – how can they overcome gender biases?

I’d broaden this question to ask, “how can WE overcome gender biases”. This goes to both men and women. I’d first say that there is a lack of awareness that bias exists. No one want to think that they are biased or prejudiced. However, study after study (like this one) show that both men AND women hold inherent bias. 

Holding people accountable for actual diversity at the leadership level is the only way to truly reverse this effect. This cannot be accomplished by just hiring or promoting diversity at the lower levels. This also cannot be accomplished by simply having one token person representing diversity. According to a recent Time article – there is a minimum level (>25%) of diversity in a leadership team to make real change and to ensure multiple viewpoints are heard. My hope is that we hold leaders (from industry, investors and academia) responsible for diverse teams, recognizing the value created in these types of organizations and that nothing short of balanced leadership teams will be acceptable.  This requires that both men and women partner for this change.   

What are you plans as CEO as ReNetX to ensure diversity at the company?

I’ve been very impressed with the depth and insight with the MassBio survey and summary. Even though we are a small organization, we are well positioned to be aware of the challenges and advantages of encouraging diversity. We have already started to follow a number of the suggestions on this list. I am proud to note that we have actively already put into place the following items: candidate long-lists and short-lists should aspire to be gender-balanced, with at least 30% participation of the minority gender. We strongly believe that conferences/symposia should have diverse representation and that has been a key point for both my day job at ReNetX Bio as well as other initiatives I continue to personally support at Yale. 

Both personally and professionally, I have the incredible opportunity to break down the barriers for a transformative technology for CNS injury/disease. My leadership in the company is to follow the impactful words from Ghandi: “Be the change in the world you wish to see.”

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