People need to appreciate how necessary soft skills are to succeed in board governance or in leadership roles. The better one understands human dynamics, the more one can recognize and predict what can go wrong.
Dear Chairwomen of tomorrow,
I started working as an engineer at a time when there were few women in that field. As a young child, I was drawn to toys that were considered “for boys” and gravitated to playing games with the guys. Later, I often found myself the only woman in the room. This started when I was in grade school. I excelled in math and was invited to participate in a gifted and talented program which gave me the opportunity to learn “programming” when I was twelve. I realized much later that, as a woman, I was one of the lucky ones.
After receiving my mechanical engineering degree, I worked for an engineering consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Its staff was mainly men. I cannot say there was a secret to my success. I just worked to the best of my ability, and my work spoke for itself.
Early on in my career, I wasn’t conscious of the fact I was any different from the other newly minted male engineers or my gender somehow made me different. Perhaps my childhood experiences as that girl who hung out with the guys gave me an advantage. Perhaps it was that, during my college years, even if people told me I didn’t look like the stereotypical engineer, I thought like one: if you encounter a problem, you work through it to find a solution.
I was promoted quickly when I switched engineering firms while earning an MBA. I was then hired by a French company, Rhone-Poulenc, for a program that sent young international executives from all over the globe with science, engineering, and business backgrounds to the French headquarters to be deployed around the world as “company and country ambassadors.” I was chosen to participate as one of the Americans.
Interestingly, the cohort before ours had only one woman in it, whereas ours was split evenly. There were ten of us. I was one of three American women who participated with two other women from the Netherlands and Brazil. The concept was lofty and innovative at the time and created cultural diversity. Although I am not sure it worked the way the creators originally envisioned, I worked for the company for almost ten years and rose up through the ranks based first in France and then in Brazil experiencing diversity firsthand.
Just yesterday, I was mentoring a young woman about gender bias, and she was unaware how often people don’t realize they are exhibiting biases. Unconscious bias is prevalent everywhere. It is founded in our upbringing, our history, and our personal experiences. One needs to recognize one’s biases in order to overcome them.
When I joined Golden Seeds, an early-stage investment firm focusing on funding women-led ventures, much later in my career, I met many accomplished women who had, early on, worked in the financial sector and had experienced blatant and overt gender bias. I think I benefited from the fact that, at the time, although there were still biases, the pharmaceutical industry appeared more accepting to me as a woman than Wall Street had been to my colleagues.
In a sense, I was fortunate to have worked in France and Brazil, in addition to the U.S. I went from the engineering field to finance. My experiences in finance, and handling mergers and acquisitions at Rhodia, the Brazilian subsidiary of Rhone-Poulenc, were always on the company side in an industry with more female role models. This, coupled with my problem-solving mindset, gave me more opportunities for advancement. Looking back, I was once again one of the lucky ones.
I met my husband during my time in France and, after moving to Brazil, I worked at Rhodia while my husband took over his family business, which was also in the pharmaceutical industry. The business grew, and we decided to professionalize it and move to the U.S., where we started a complementary business together, a consulting and trading company connecting the Asia-Pacific Region, Brazil, and the U.S.
I began the transformation from employee of a big global corporation to a serial entrepreneur. I brought along the experience I had gained in the pharma industry in finance, although I had to reacquaint myself with working in the U.S. after so many years abroad, not to mention learning the differences between owning my own venture and working in the corporate world. It was trial by fire. I went back to Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey for a refresher entrepreneurial certificate program. Today, I am teaching there as an adjunct professor in entrepreneurship so that the next generation may perhaps be spared from repeating the same mistakes I made on my journey.
New Jersey is often referred to as the nation’s medicine chest with its plethora of pharmaceutical companies, so I was able to leverage my experience when I returned home. We had the opportunity to start another new business in the pharma sector with my husband’s uncle. We began as consultants and, before we knew it, founded a biotech company and ultimately brought a product through Phase II clinical trials. And that was my first experience serving on a board.
In a twist of fate and financing structure, we reverse-merged into an already publicly listed company and raised money from family offices and a European pharma company. By pure happenstance, I became both the CFO of a publicly traded company and one of its board members. Looking back, I should have been terrified to take that leap. I did not know what I know now, so without hesitation, I leaped into the abyss.
My philosophy had always been to problem solve, execute successfully, and not play corporate politics. However, the boardroom was way more political than I could have ever imagined.
Soft skills are largely overlooked. Perhaps it is inherent to the start-up pharma industry since so many smart people come together to solve thorny scientific and technical issues, whose sheer size and intricacy seem insurmountable. Yet in reality, the people problems are much more complex and way more difficult to solve. They stem from preconceived notions, differing backgrounds, varying experiences, interpersonal skills, and ever-changing team dynamics.
People need to appreciate how necessary soft skills are to succeed in board governance or in leadership roles. The better one understands human dynamics, the more one can recognize and predict what can go wrong. These dynamics come into play when interacting with employees and investors or when investors interact with a CEO. And they are ever-present in the interactions between board members because everyone has different motivations for serving on a board. Of course, expertise and intellect are important. However, awareness, diversity, and empathy are equally vital for a company to succeed and for a board to be effective. Being the only woman on the board, I believe I changed the dynamic for the better.
Bringing diversity into the boardroom makes a big difference, and I’ve tested this hypothesis in my classes. After selling both my businesses, I taught a course at Fairleigh Dickinson University in which teams of my MBA students consulted with start-up ventures, helping with market research and devising strategy. In the four years I taught the class, I gathered a lot of compelling data confirming my hypothesis regarding human and group interactions.
My co-professor and I even contemplated writing a book about the team dynamics we observed, with the aim to raise awareness about how, when different players come to the table, their different personalities and interactions matter more to the success of a project than the problems posed by the project itself. The patterns in group dynamics, team interactions, and personality traits we kept seeing over and over in our simple, non-controlled and certainly not double-blind classroom experiments could certainly be extrapolated and applicable to any business. Our non-scientific conclusion was that diverse teams were more successful. Recent research and data now prove this is true for investment returns for companies as well.
On my first board, I was part of the “40 Under 40” because I had co-founded the company. When you are the co-founder of a company, you are automatically thrust into a role where you might not understand the magnitude of the responsibility. One of my esteemed professors, who was then in his seventies, served on my board because we needed his independent perspective. In addition, my husband’s uncle, an older gentleman with vast global pharma experience who’d been on countless boards, was our Yoda. His wisdom and advice were instrumental to our success. Without him and the professor as our guides, we could not have accomplished what we did.
Although I had been around the world, so to speak, and advanced in the corporate world, I was still young, around the same age as the millennials who serve on start-up boards today. Diversity comes in many forms, and I am glad now I recognized my lack of life experience at the time. You cannot be stuck in your generation. Generations can harmoniously work together if they realize they need each other, and that different people excel at different things.
In our biotech company, we did not need more board members. We did, however, partner with more women in the business itself. Many of the companies we worked with were women owned. Our outsourced FDA-approved filling laboratory was led by a woman. We hired women scientists and staff. Maybe because I was part of the leadership team, there was an unconscious understanding we needed more diversity, a reverse bias perhaps. Today, unconscious bias needs to be acknowledged, and diversity needs to be consciously deployed. This is the path to parity.
Being exposed to different cultures has helped me develop a mindset that sees differences as strengths. I would not say other countries are doing anything specific to incentivize gender diversity in boardrooms. Diversity is not about having a woman on a board per se. It’s about having diversity, including diversity of experience. Europeans are more adept at this because they are geographically close to other countries. In the case of Brazil, I wouldn’t say gender diversity is more prevalent than the U.S. More work is needed to reduce the gender gap and address racial discrimination.
The issues Brazil faces have led to creative solutions. For example, the Brazilian banking system is incredibly sophisticated in response to hyperinflation. Brazil’s challenges have brought forth novel technology solutions and creative solutions. There is value in taking advantage of diverse experiences and looking at problems through a different lens. Corporations, no matter their nationality, are looking for a competitive edge because startups are disrupting them. The Brazilian corporations we consult with do not know the start-up lingo, so we teach them how to adopt a startup mentality, how to work with startups, how to act like a startup. Businesses need to stay on the cutting edge to survive. If you are only using 50 percent of the available brainpower, it makes sense to be open to diversity in all its forms. Diversity then becomes not just a nice to have, but a need to have.
I did not have a female mentor. As women, we are making progress leadership-wise. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. If you look at the Fortune and S&P 500, only 5 percent of the companies have women CEOs. Numbers are still skewed toward men in charge. We know women beget women, so if we do not recognize our biases and consciously strive to promote qualified women at all levels of the organization, the number of women at the top will not increase, and leadership parity will not happen. In 2018, of the $125 billion invested by venture capitalists, 88 percent went to all male teams. Only 10 percent went to gender-diverse teams and 2 percent went to all women teams. We have much more work to do.
At various times in my life, I held different roles. I have always felt comfortable changing directions. As an entrepreneur, I worked 24/7 while raising twins. When we sold the business, I had to decide what I wanted to do. Teaching came about by accident because, as I mentioned before, I’d gone back to Fairleigh Dickinson University after returning from working abroad to meet people and re-familiarize myself with what was going on in the U.S. One of the professors I met there conducted a case study on my company. I was invited to attend a seminar to learn more about teaching and loved it. At that time, I was between jobs and trying to decide my next move, whether I wanted to start another company or go back to the industry. Teaching was a new challenge and another novel learning experience for me. I became an adjunct professor, a guest lecturer, and then a mentor. I never had a female mentor, so mentoring was my way of paying it forward to help more young women become one of the lucky ones.
One of the hard lessons I learned as a professor is that, when teaching a class, you need to accept you will not reach everyone. You are not going to make everyone show up, do the work, and do it well, even for a grade. That is also the quandary with quotas. If you force people to do something, they won’t necessarily comply. The question becomes whether we can all do our part to raise awareness and talk about issues of biases, lack of diversity, and systemic racism to solve the problems at their roots rather than forcing people to abide by arbitrary standards. You have to give people the data showing what is happening and what the outcome will be if nothing changes. You have to encourage them to think critically, be aware, and be part of the solution.
In business, if the competition is gaining a competitive advantage by employing a diverse team, sooner or later other companies will have to reform or go out of business. There is coercion. There is persuasion. And then there is survival. Hopefully, the people you do reach will change the mindset of others. We each need to do our part to bend the arc.
I’m hopeful for this generation. I feel the millennials and those coming up after them have more diversity in their DNA. There is something to be said about how they interact with each other despite their differences that will help spur more diversity. I see it in my classes today, the increased awareness and, most importantly, the openness to accept and embrace differences much more readily and fully than generations before.
Millennials started their careers at the beginning of the digital age when the kinks hadn’t all been worked out. I find Generation Z a little more practical. My twins, who are on the cusp of Gen Z, don’t remember not having the internet, and they always had mobile phones. There is a generational difference in how technology is perceived. Many kids in school now do not know what jobs they will take upon graduation because the world is changing so rapidly. I truly believe everyone has a superpower they need to discover for themselves. No matter where technology leads us, experiencing challenges firsthand and acquiring knowledge by doing will allow you to uncover your superpower.
My students are often eager to set out on their own right after graduation. In general, I don’t think that is a good idea. Getting even a few years of experience is crucial. Starting a business and serving on a board involves taking on a lot of responsibility. It includes a fiduciary responsibility, taking actions which are sometimes unpopular, and holding a checks and balances role. People need to appreciate this before taking on a board governance role. Even if you are working for someone else for a couple of years, you will be learning and, more importantly, you will have the time to build a cadre of diverse people to guide you if you find yourself at the bottom of the abyss.
A few final words of wisdom: Find your superpower. Share your vision. Be authentic. Embrace experiences. And make your own luck by inviting all types of people into your tribe. Never try to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, be the person who ushers all those smart, diverse, exceptional people out of the room to accomplish something purposeful and grander than anyone could accomplish alone. Only then will you be a leader.