By Dan Schell, Editorial Director, Life Science Leader
Progress. If there’s one word that exemplifies the status of the gender disparity struggle that has plagued our industry for years, it’s progress. And much of that progress has happened in the past two to three years as a plethora of initiatives, programs, and conferences have popped up with the intent of ensuring that this isn’t viewed as simply a social issue du jour but more as a permanent movement that intends to change our mindset.
Of course, there are varying degrees of progress, and undoubtedly most of you would agree that the biopharmaceutical industry still has work to do in this area. In our July issue’s article “Increasing Diversity Among Leadership And Boards,” Helen Torley, M.B. Ch.B., president and CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics, said it best: “Biotech has been talking about diversity for years, but that hasn’t resulted in any meaningful progress.” Torley heads up BIO’s workforce development, diversity, and inclusion (WDDI) committee, which in April launched its “Right Mix Matters” campaign “to provide specific tools to accelerate gender, racial, ethnic, and LGBTQ representation on biotech company boards, in C-suites, and in functional leadership positions.” A campaign like that, backed by an organization like BIO, is indeed a step in the right direction — it’s progress. But the organization that’s probably been championing this fight for the longest — and consequently has the most to show for its efforts — is Women In Bio (WIB).
You already may be familiar with WIB (it has, after all, been around since 2002) and its Boardroom Ready program, which launched in 2016. Nevertheless, one of the foundational tenets of this magazine is to provide readers with information they can act upon to improve their business and themselves. So, we thought it would be helpful if we not only reviewed what the Boardroom Ready program is and has to offer but also talked directly with some of the past and current participants to get their perspectives.
In a nutshell, the program was started in 2016 and is designed for WIB members who have held VP and higher titles with substantial managerial experience and have a desire to serve on corporate boards. Only 20 applicants are chosen for each year’s cohort. Once accepted, each woman is required to pay a $5,000 fee that covers the expense (not travel and lodging) of a five-day board certification course held at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.). The course is split up into two 2.5-day modules held during September and October. Some of the topics covered include:
D&O (directors and officers) insurance
fundraising and financing through IPO
Cynthia Smith was part of the first Boardroom Ready cohort in 2016. She has 20 years of experience in pharmaceutical operations and says her involvement in the program was very influential in securing her current seats on the boards of three public pharmas (Akebia Therapeutics, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Spero Therapeutics). “To me, the most valuable part of the program was gaining real-world practical expertise from women who were already serving in the boardroom,” she says. “They explained everything from board interview tips to how to best prepare for your first board meeting.”
Part of the program teaches women how to transition from their roles as C-suite executives to board members. Smith says this was a challenge considering she was used to concentrating on operating a company, and as a board member she needed to focus on things such as corporate strategy, good governance, and asking the right questions. “A memorable phrase from one of the WIB panelists during my training was that boards should be “noses in, hands out,” she recalls.
For Alpna Seth, another 2016 cohort participant, the Boardroom Ready program was a refresher of sorts, since she had already been involved with some other events focused on women joining boards. Still, the long-time Biogen top executive, who recently took on the CEO role at Proneurotech, says the Boardroom Ready program taught her to purposefully think about what her key strengths were and to use that knowledge when evaluating board positions and what committees (e.g., audit, compensation) to be involved with. She’s now on the boards of Bio-Techne and Seattle Genetics. “We learned a lot about how to determine which company is right for you [when seeking a board position],” she says. “Yes, they are interviewing you, but you need to remember that you’re interviewing them, too.”
Seth says she also enjoys the annual alumnae retreat, which includes all the women from each year’s cohort. Here, the women can network and share common lessons learned. For example, two of the women she met are Renee Gala, a biotech exec with 25+ years of experience who is currently on the board of Gossamer Bio, and Shehnaaz Suliman, M.D., M.B.A., M.Phil., a veteran biotech executive from the 2018 cohort who currently serves on the boards of 10x Genomics and Ultragenyx.
“There’s no doubt that one of the key differentiators of this program is its commitment to seeing everyone involved succeed,” Suliman says. “We’ve all established friendships and commitments to each other, which continue to deepen.”
Similar to the feedback from Smith and Seth, Suliman stressed the value she received from the program’s real-world content and advice pertaining to committee participation and preparation for a board appointment interview. She says she learned to think more strategically about how to leverage new and existing relationships into conversations that could lead to board appointments.
At JPM in 2018, Suliman helped launch the Executive Women In Bio Executive Profile Directory initiative, which is designed to raise the profile of all Boardroom Ready alumni with key stakeholder audiences such as recruiters, board chairs, CEOs, and VCs. “I encourage others to build their networks thoughtfully, and to focus on building relationships with decision makers. Work hard to ensure that these relationships are based on substance and deep trust. This can take time and needs to be about not just what you can bring to a board functionally, but also about the value you can add as a multidimensional leader.”
FORMER BOARDROOM READY PARTICIPANTS SIT ON THE BOARDS OF THE FOLLOWING COMPANIES:
Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Five Prime Therapeutics
Nivalis Therapeutics (Acquired by Alpine Immune Sciences)
Sellas Life Sciences