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CLSI FAST Company Female Executives Defy Industry Norm
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CLSA FAST Spring 2014 graduate and Whole Biome CEO & Co-founder, Colleen Cutcliffe

Earlier this month, CLSI President and CEO, Lori Lindburg, presented on a panel entitled Advancing Diversity in Healthcare Management organized by the group How Women Lead. The panel – which included Ann Lee-Karlon (SVP of Genentech), Kristen Miranda (CA Market President & Western Regional Head of Aetna), Darryl Robinson (Chief HR Officer of Dignity Health), and Lisa Serwin (Co-Founder of CSweetner.org) – sought to address the healthcare industry’s continuing lag behind other industries in closing the gender diversity gap.  Panelists weighed in on some of the proven ways that their organizations have effectively begun to move the needle on improving the gender diversity landscape.

Ms. Lindburg presented on CLSI’s FAST Accelerator and the remarkable success of its 50 FAST graduates, who have raised more than $328M in funding, with 15 Series A investments, nine strategic partnerships, and three acquisitions. For the purposes of the panel, she extrapolated on another remarkable data point for the FAST program: the fact that approximately half of the FAST company graduates have had a woman in the C-suite, and most, as founders and CEOs. Ms. Lindburg noted that this reflects a phenomenon evident in the Bay Area at large, based on a prior Economic Impact of Bay Area Startups report conducted by CLSI in 2016. The report similarly found that approximately 47% of Bay Area startups had a woman in the C-Suite (based on 22% survey sample of the then estimated 600 life science startups in the region). By all appearances, the face of the industry is changing at the startup level.

Often asked to explain this phenomenon, Lindburg turned to the founders to ask what their impetus was for starting a company:

  • A few who’d had longer careers in the corporate sector stated that they were tired of being the only woman on the team or in the board room and saw starting a company or joining a startup as a chance to be part of a culture where everyone is respected, listened to, and valued for their contribution. One CEO noted that the only thing that differentiated her from being successful at leading a new company was “the guts to get out there and do it.” These are women who were ready to have more control over their professional lives.
  • The majority of founders, however – many early in their careers and most stating that they initially did not see themselves as entrepreneurs – were driven by the very compelling technology they were working on. Many looked around them and realized: “I can do this better” or “Why not me?” Others had advisors or investors reinforce the message: “Why not you? What you’re doing has legs.”

All were driven by their desire and the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on health, and many were drawn to the excitement and fast pace of the startup environment.

Emblematic of a cultural and generational shift, many of the founders cited the Bay Area entrepreneurial culture where women are thriving and achieving accolades in the lab alongside their male counterparts.  This was particularly noted by women founders who had come from other parts of the country or other countries. Many pointed to the proliferation of university-based programs in the region that support company formation, as well as their supportive family members and male and female mentors and advisors.  Of note, 43% of almost 300 CLSI FAST advisors are female.  We also see many women executives from established companies and later-stage startups championing the next generation of women-led companies.

When asked whether diversity is important to these women as they build their teams, the answer was universally affirmative.  It is commonly accepted that “novel discovery is a direct byproduct of creative, out-of-the- box thinking and problem-solving,” and that “diverse organizations out-perform homogenous counterparts.” But many women founders stated that they don’t overthink this, and that this is happening organically as they assemble the best people with the right competence and drive for their teams.

Read an article about the panel.