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Human Health, Sustainability

Pioneering Women in Biotech

In celebration of International Women’s Day, three leaders in science, law, and communications share wisdom earned from their lives and careers.

Kala Subramanian, Flagship Pioneering Operating Partner and President of ProFound Therapeutics and FL83

On her typical workday… First thing in the morning I head to the gym to exercise, which is important for my sense of calm and mental clarity. After that, it is off to the races, working on two Flagship Pioneering NewCos together with the teams, managing the execution against the strategic priorities, interviewing candidates to attract talent and the right leadership, and establishing capabilities to unlock platform value. I’m in the office every day, whether at the Southline Boston campus, where the companies are located, or at the Flagship HQ in Cambridge.

On building pioneering companies… The companies I’m working on are early-stage platform companies and, in true Flagship fashion, are pushing boundaries that others might shy away from. Furthering their development requires balancing science, operations, and resources, all while keeping the overall strategy in sight. That last piece, the science, is its own balancing act. We need to think broadly as to the potential of the platform to maximize its value, while executing to deliver in the near-term. I’m always working to keep these pillars in harmony because the payoff could be lifechanging. Biotech has become the innovation engine for big pharma — we are the trailblazers that are going to find cures for patients.

On innovating… We face a lot of uncertainty while testing, validating, and iterating on potential scientific innovations. In these situations, it is important to lay out the various scenarios and options for yourself — not being limited by what has been done before. Then, you need to be open to feedback, which will help to remove any blinders and ensure you haven’t overlooked an option or made a flawed assumption. The exciting part of working on an agile early-stage company is that you can take a parallel approach to unlock science, which must be paired with a willingness to iterate and pivot as we generate data and learn.

On getting where she is… Look for opportunities to talk to and learn from many different people, which includes people from all levels, and, on top of that, be open to their feedback. You will start to get a sense of your strengths, as well as where you need to continue to develop. That growth comes from developing skills — the building blocks of your career. Set the bar high for what you want to achieve, knowing that while you might not get there, you will likely achieve more than if you had set a modest goal. And, when you achieve a goal, know that isn’t a ceiling — we all need to continue to evolve and grow throughout every stage of our lives.

Kathy Biberstein, Flagship Pioneering General Counsel and Executive Partner

On an experience that was foundational… My family immigrated to the Detroit area, a “company town” dominated by the automotive industry, which is where I got my start as an 18-year-old co-op student and, later, as a young engineer with General Motors working on electric vehicles. Because of the oil crisis in the 1970s and pressure from Japanese manufacturers, the auto industry was being forced to innovate in a way that it hadn’t before. GM brought together people with diverse and nontraditional backgrounds — my boss had worked on people-movers at Disneyland — and young engineers like me to reimagine transportation outside of the internal combustion engine. This was an amazing challenge that taught me to seek out that environment later in my career. I was lucky to learn at an early age not to hesitate to embrace opportunities that challenged me, whenever and wherever they arose in my career. If you wait until you feel like you are ready with all the answers, you can lose the opportunity to really stretch yourself and catapult yourself to the next level.

On Flagship… At Flagship, you walk in the door with a set of priorities, and, in the middle of the day, you get a new set of priorities. This fast-paced, dynamic environment is a byproduct of the number of companies we are working on and the breadth of the technologies, as well as a workforce that is constantly thinking and challenging assumptions. When I end the workday, I reflect on the questions I was asked and how much I learned through them. It is a luxury to get to work with such creative people with varied experiences who challenge and change you every day.

On corporate leadership… I’m concerned by a trend I’m seeing toward the homogenization of corporate leadership and board decision-making, which undermines the original motivation to gather experienced people from diverse backgrounds around a table. We must be cautious not to legally and morally handcuff board members to a single vision of what is right in corporate America and how to run a company. As any scientist knows, this is going to move us toward a mean that, while it eliminates less-desirable behaviors, will also eliminate the excellence that is going to help us make the next huge leap forward.

On what she is learning… I want to, and think I need to, improve my understanding of AI and how it is going to transform the world. It reminds me of the early days in the auto industry when silicon chips where initially being introduced to replace mechanical controls, and, now, they are so omnipresent that you can’t buy a car because of chip shortages. This next step is going to be radical for humankind, and I have a lot of faith in organizations like Flagship that epitomize using science for good, as well as in the legal system to ensure AI ultimately improves the standard of living writ large.

Christine Heenan, Flagship Pioneering Chief Communications Officer and Executive Partner

On charting your own course… Societal expectations can give you the sense that there is only one “right” way through life and in a career. With so much information available to us, you can see exactly the path that others have taken, assuming you must also walk that path to be successful. While data gathering and input from others are valuable, they should really be balanced by turning up the volume of your own voice. I made a lot of choices in my career that only made sense in retrospect, but I made those choices because I trusted my instincts and did what felt right. I took input from others, but also listened to myself. If a choice ultimately feels wrong, it’s also important to recognize the mistake and pivot.

On “protecting the asset”… Women are often the anchor of their professional teams and the center of their families, which positions us with a lot of other people and tasks to attend to. It’s easy — and common — for women to put the needs of kids, spouses, friends, extended family, and coworkers above our own needs. When I was working for Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, my colleague Clayton Spencer kept reminding Drew and those of us around her to “protect the asset.” The idea was that if the President wasn’t healthy, energetic, clear eyed, and thriving, it would ultimately hurt the institution. Her taking care of herself was taking care of all else. This is a good lens for looking at investing in and taking time for yourself, which can feel discretionary compared to advising a friend, coaching a colleague, or slicing oranges for a lacrosse team practice. But, we need to ask ourselves: What if prioritizing the things that allow me to be at my best is what will enable me to deliver for everything and everyone else that I want to nurture and protect? I’m bad at this — most women are — but it is so important to try.

On the gift of feedback… Being direct and nice are not mutually exclusive. I learned this while working at the Gates Foundation watching Sue Desmond-Hellmann give constructive and critical feedback in ways that weren’t personal, cutting ,or belabored. I’ve been on the receiving end of such feedback and it has made me better and stronger, so I feel an obligation to provide it to others as well, even when the feedback is difficult or uncomfortable.

On Flagship… At Flagship, learning and innovating is prized and encouraged. Whether you are working in science, finance, law, or communications, we are told to “run the experiment,” implying the outcome could be positive or negative and permitting you to take risks and even fail in pursuit of pioneering something new. In a world where there is plenty to feel pessimistic about, this mindset keeps Flagship oriented toward the future, suffusing the organization with an optimism that our health and the health of the planet can be far better, and we will be a part of making it so.

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