By Rob Wright
At the 2011 Bio International Convention in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to attend a variety of sessions and events. However, the event I found most enjoyable and productive was the Women In Bio, WIB, reception. The informal environment and caliber of attendees truly provided for an engaging and interesting networking opportunity.
WIB was originally established ten years ago to help women entrepreneurs and executives in the Northern Virginia area. What they have been doing must be working, as WIB now boasts chapters in Research Triangle Park, Chicago, and Seattle. The following are some of the people I had the opportunity to meet and learn from at the reception.
Don’t Let Your Background Hold You Back Lily Bengfort, an executive with DRS Technologies, was formerly the president of CenGen, which was recently acquired by DRS. Her former company received multiple awards, including the DARPA Director’s award for helping the agency fulfill its mission to ‘conceive, explore, and demonstrate advanced breakthrough concepts and technologies. Bengfort has an MBA and completed her undergraduate degree in English. So you, like me, may be wondering how she became the president of a high tech communications company. The answer — she founded the business herself. Bengfort took the time to explain to me how you don’t have to have a degree in any particular discipline to be a successful entrepreneur in that field. In a recent blog post I wrote how top talent does not need to apply for jobs. I can just imagine a member of a company’s HR department pouring over resumes and passing on hers because she doesn’t have the right technical background. I will reiterate — careers find top talent, or they will create their own opportunities. Bengfort explained to me how she cofounded two companies, both of which were eventually acquired. In both cases, she lacked expertise in the field in which she was starting a business. Nonetheless, she did not let that little detail hold her back. Bengfort’s solution, have a business partner who is the technical expert. She told me you don’t have to be a scientist to be successful in Bio. Perhaps she is pondering another start-up?
Speaking of start-ups, I had the opportunity to meet Crystal Icenhour, Ph.D., president and chief science officer of Phthisis Diagnostics. She explained to me how she had the idea for a product, but couldn’t get it to move forward at her previous organizations, so she took the initiative to get this product to market by starting her own company. One of her professional goals is to develop business and scientific skills and then successfully bridge the translational gap between the two. Icenhour’s background is definitely a fit for the company she founded, having degrees in biology and molecular medicine. What she lacked was the business acumen. Having never started a business before, she sought to hire someone who could mentor her in the process. What a novel concept. Start your own business and bring on people below you to serve as your mentors. She introduced me to one of the mentors she hired, Elizabeth Pyle, administration and operations director for Phthisis. Both confided to me the struggles faced in starting a business, as well as the current thrill of having their first product see the light of day.
Since I am dropping names, how about a few more of the people in attendance? Eric Langer of BioPlan Associates; Debra Bass, CEO of PAX Neuroscience; Debra Bowes, founder and president of Chevy Chase BioPartners; and Rebecca Shambaugh, author of two books and CEO of her own company. I had a very interesting conversation with Rebecca and thought she had some great ideas for a future Leadership Lessons article in Life Science Leader. Stay tuned. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about WIB and future networking opportunities, here’s a link – www.womeninbio.org. Perhaps I will meet you at a future event.