Ep. 102: Never Too Late to Pivot

with Deborah H. Telman
Episode hosted by: Julie Gerberding, M.D.

February 15, 2023


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Deborah H. Telman
Executive Vice President, Corporate Affairs & General Counsel, Gilead Sciences, Inc.

Deborah H. Telman is the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and General Counsel at Gilead Sciences, Inc., responsible for Government Affairs, Policy, Public Affairs, Legal, and Compliance functions. She has over 25 years of experience in providing legal counsel both in-house and in private practice, including experience in global mergers and acquisitions and governance. Deb holds a Juris Doctor degree from Boston University School of Law and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a board member of AtriCure, Inc. and City Colleges of Chicago, and a Board Member of the Chicago Humanities Festival.


Embrace your life. Learn how to zig and zag through your path.



Julie Gerberding, M.D.: So welcome to her story. I am absolutely delighted today to be able to talk with Deb Telman, who is the General Counsel at Gilead and the executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs. She is an amazing woman who has a fascinating journey throughout her career, and I can’t wait for you to have a chance to hear from her and let her tell her story herself. So Deb let’s go back because you were a long time in getting to your current executive role at Gilead, way back to the time when you were a little girl, and somehow ended up as a math major. Not a was student in your pre-law program, but tell us about how you got started down this pathway.

Deborah H. Telman: Thank you, Julie. And first let me say thank you for inviting me to your podcast. I have admired you for so many years in your careers incredible as well. So I feel particularly honored at that. You asked me to be a part of this this this video series, so thank you for that. I guess I, I always go back to your point, might my beginnings. The many blessings I’ve had over the years starting with really great parents that really believed in me and allowed me to pursue my own journey. I am first generation college grad but obviously really great parents. Who worked hard and brought me up with really strong work ethic and the belief so that’s always been my North Star as I, moved around over my career. And I will share is, it’s a little ironic. That I’m in a pharmaceutical business albeit on the corporate side. But I actually, I was a pre-med major and, every many little girls growing up particularly in the seventies had, beauty about being a doctor. And that was something my peers thought would be wonderful for me, for our family to have this position in the family. . But once I got into college and started taking my classes, I quickly figured out that was not my path. And and kept, doing what I did well, cuz there was always a fallback position. Do what? Do well. And that was been math. So it was a happenstance that as I tried to figure out what I wanna do I fell into that. And then I actually had. Difficult choice or what do I do with that math degree? And again, Idea of work ethic and giving back was really important that I find a job I had a lot, I had a few options coming out with that math degree. One was, when was it actuary? So I, I thought about that for for a little bit. But then I had this opportunity because I was at Penn and I could interview in a number of different schools of Penn, including Wardy that I ended up taking a job with Merrill ly. And I did, I worked for Merrill Lynch and then Morgan Stanley for a few years in the late eighties. And then I had the cross score. What did I wanna do? Did I wanna go back and get an MBA or do I pursue something else? And my really close friend, he went to the stay in my college roommate, he just started at Emory. And I would talk to her and hear, Her stories. I’ve been in a classroom and are utilizing, being Socratic method and I just fell in love with that idea that I could make an impact through a legal degree. So I went and got Rich jd. But because I had this kind of corporate background finance invested banking. I gravitated toward the corporate aspects of about being the lawyer. And when I graduated from law school, I did public finance. I did financing cuz I was always taught all the money we in transactions and then ended up as as a m and a warrior. And that ended up being my tree passion. It was my lodging pack. But where I am

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: it is a, it’s a zigzag path, and I think that was your expression for your career of sometimes, we have a fantasy that our careers are just going to go like this. And Yeah, you’re describing is you tried something and you had a good success, and then you wanted to do more. And so you made a sayings. And that’s not the only time that you’ve done that zigzag. I remember you talking a little bit. Your movement into the pharmaceutical industry, but then stepping back because you had other competing priorities in your life. Tell us a little bit about that, because I think

Deborah H. Telman: Oh, absolutely.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: that a lot of women face.

Deborah H. Telman: Yeah. Yep. No, that’s right. I think that the zigzag the change and the shift. Has allowed me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And so that was a muscle I started to build early because of decisions. I had to make some because I didn’t have a choice, and some of those decisions were voluntary, honestly. And as I looked at my career, I spent some time at a law firm and make partner. Whereas again, that was a North star. We were taught that you should achieve. But decided I not, did not want to remain as a partner to love Storm. by this point. I’m married, I have twin boys. And I wanted a little bit more control over my schedule as a working mom and decided to go in-house. And I was able to do that obviously cuz I had a great partner of my husband, Nigel. Yes, like my right hand and many decisions I’ve made over my career, I always consult with. And we both decided that he would stay at a law firm, but I was much more comfortable going in-house. Again. I had a great background in terms of mergers and acquisitions that I was a leverage. So when Boeing moved to Chicago, moved the headquarters to Chicago where I ended up practicing it was a great opportunity to work for global. Fortune 100 company that had, that was doing global deals. And that was fantastic for me because that allowed me to travel to other countries and negotiate and lead deals and gave me skillsets that I still utilized today because of that experience. So our stayed there for a while, decided didn’t want to. Stay in the aerospace and defense and had my first experience at Abbott which was a wonderful experience, great company. Stayed there received a series of promotions which ultimately led me to end up leading the international legal operations. That, but that presented, a lot of opportunities for me, but quite frankly, challenges in terms of how do I marry this great opportunity I have, but also, be a mom which was my, and still is my first priority in my life. So I had to make a decision. Do I stay and travel the world, continue to travel the world? When I had these young white male, older teens, would they say as they get older, the problems get bigger? Or do I take a step back and I made a choice to take a step back and move to a different company. What allowed me to spend more time at home and be present for basketball games and teacher parent conferences. That was my first decision in terms of, okay, now I have to pivot. But I still was working. I and I, enjoy what I do. So I didn’t wanna give that up, but I had to be in a place that allowed me to manage my personal life.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You’re bringing together a lot of threads here. On the one hand you have this really strong north star of being purposeful in your life and giving back and achieving. And at the same time, what comes first in terms of your priorities that your kids and your family are really worthy, overarching priority. and somehow you had enough confidence to know that you could take a step back from the big corporate opportunity and still and still progress in your professional life. Where did that courage come from?

Deborah H. Telman: I have a lot of confidence in who I am in my skillset sets. I will say cuz as you could imagine in many settings, I’m the only one, I’m the only woman. I’m the only person of color. I’m only black person. So when you’re the only one you have to start being really comfortable speaking with the. Otherwise skills that you should be bringing to the table, the value you can bring will not be present because you’re holding back. So I have always been. Comfortable. Because I had to, I didn’t have a choice. When I started it on Wall Street, there were very few women, senior leaders working at investment banks, right? There was this old white male culture unfortunately probably still exist to a certain extent today un with the Wall Street banks. But I have to be really comfortable in that space. And so I’ve taken that and used that confidence in myself over and over.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: Speak, you talked about being the N of one and you’re right. Any of the industries that you’ve been in, women are not in the majority, especially in the leadership positions. There, there are advantages sometimes to being an end of one, but there are also some tactics that I think we learn to use to help us be successful in that environment. And the fact that you have this in your confidence is a piece of rap. But what are the other things that you do to try to be heard and to be influential in an environment? , you don’t have a lot of people like.

Deborah H. Telman: No, it’s a great question, Julie. And it all depends on the culture. I always think it’s always helpful to collaborate. Defined like-minded individuals who believe, like you believe. And quite frankly, that could be white males, that could be other women, other people of color. I think when you step outside of the room and have one-on-one conversations, you could build a relationship that maybe is not there. So when you’re speaking up or are in a room where there difficult discussions happen. that there’s an echo for you in those discussions. Cuz I agree. It’s really hard with only one person speaking up. So I’ve discovered and found over the years you need to find people who also have a view similar to yours. And that’s through building relationships, that’s being in a situation. You could have coffee and lunch and really get to know. So that you can really collaborate and bring the best value to your company or situation.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I think is so often true that when people create an environment that’s not. So shall we say that they’re not ba bad intentioned.

Deborah H. Telman: Now,

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: It’s success. It’s just a lack of awareness of the environment that is being created and bringing allies around the table, as you said, or getting people who can amplify what you say or refer to you in vice versa, that really augments the influence that you can have. Building a building more than an N of one.

Deborah H. Telman: Right, exactly.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: the personality or characteristics of the person are, their safety and numbers. It a.

Deborah H. Telman: I think that what you said is really true. Don’t assume good intent cuz you, I’m sure you’ve been in situations where you find out on Monday that there was a golf event. on Friday. And I’m like, okay, I did. I get that invitation, And then sometimes people don’t know you play golf and lemme tell you I don’t play golf. But if you said there was a group of people going shopping I’m your girl . So I think it’s important that we, we don’t assume bad intent. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s, Have gotten those calls from other female say, I didn’t know this was going on. I said, take a step back and let’s figure out as if there’s a way to get you invited to invite yourself. Don’t be hesitant. Use your voice for good, for yourself and

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: kinda is self-advocacy, right?

Deborah H. Telman: Exactly. Exactly.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: We have in commonness Professional stage of working for a pharmaceutical company. It’s an ironic time when on the one hand the industry has just done so much in the context of Covid and the pandemic to really demonstrate the value of biopharmaceutical enterprise. And at the same can be painted with a very black cloud at times. In terms of how people perceive. In our industry. How do you cope with that? You live in a broad world, you have friends in a lot of different sectors. How do you explain yourself and your role in a.

Deborah H. Telman: No I think that. So true, but I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t work for my company, Gilead. You, Julie wouldn’t have done what you’ve done over your career if you didn’t believe in the size and the good that our industry. Has made to the globe and to the world. From my perspective, health equity is really important to me. And we do so much to try to help with health equity, trying to remove stigmas associated with certain diseases. I know for myself Gilead’s efforts around h HIV and removing the stigma there, it’s really important to. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people of color who are living with H I V who are not taking advantage of some of the medicines we have. So for me, I’ll put, unpack that and make that available is really important. I also think, I think there’s so much misinformation out there about pharma. Take the opportunity to really have real discussions about the good that we bring, whether it’s talking about volunteering, licensing that many of our pale and many of our peers have done in terms of making s available to lower higher income countries. People don’t know. Madison’s patent. Cool. We have relationship with them. Many pharma companies do. So I think unhappy to give examples and really unpack those conversations when they happen. And I think until we can do a better job telling of all the great work we have done in our industry, look at Colt. All the innovation that has happened that allowed the world to come out of Covid. It’s just re, remarkable. So I like where I’m talking, whether I’m talking to legislators, I’m talking to the family or friends, I talk about that. And honestly, a lot about families, they have taken advantages of the medicine that, that’s been available. Unfortunately, I have had a sister died, multiple my. , but she’s lived a long time with that disease and had a really rich life that would not have been possible, but for the innovation that we’ve paired in our industry. So I remind them that it should be personal for you that we’re allowed to continue to innovate and do what we do.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: It’s interesting, we had World Aids stay in December and there’s just the acknowledgement that 25 million lives have been saved because of PEPFAR and the availability of antiviral medicines to prevent maternal child transmission, as well as to keep keep people alive, living really healthy and productive lives and take up for granted. But, it’s a miracle of science and a miracle of a whole. Network of

Deborah H. Telman: That we try to do. Exactly. We’re both outside about Len Avir, which just got FDA approval for, the, those that have heavily treated our experience with H I V and that’s gonna be a game changer for our global the world, and.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: So what do you tell people, if you’re counseling young scientists or young innovators who are considering a career in the. Health science’s perspective and spar are biotech. How do you counsel?

Deborah H. Telman: Yeah, I said, you could be part of the next solution that we need. And we need scientists. We need scientists of color to come in and help us think broadly about how do we innovate. How do we eradicate h i v? How do we get to, zero for H, hiv V and have a cure? We need those bright minds and we can talk about that. I always think it’s important to know your history. With, at the end of the day, I love to, humanities and history is a big part of understanding structural problems. So we have to remind people of the history and those lives that we’ve saved, and it’s all based on our scientists and the innovation that’s happening. And we need to continue to support that financially. We need to still invest but we need those bright minds, those, Chemists that come in and be a part of our solutions for our industry.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I’m sure I Gilead, you know where you are still an N of one in many other corners, but you’re also, you’ve gotta be an incredibly important influential leader. Not just among the black employees of the company, but the women of the company as well. And I know you get back in that sense as well. Now tell us a little bit about your sponsorship and your support.

Deborah H. Telman: Wow. Yeah. Like I said, e equity, health equity. It’s really important. I would say one of the reasons I joined Gilead is that we have particular coon in Band City Health and Black Equity. We have a dp in our organization that has that tunnel. And he’s focused on removing those stigmas. So I was happy to and push through the public affairs organization and I think that’s a novel approach to have someone at that level who’s focused on that. So I’m excited for what we’re done structurally. But I also a one of the co-sponsor. For the, one of the the black resource employee resource groups. And I take that seriously in terms of giving back and trying to be a mentor and quite frankly, an advocate. That’s what we really need. The allies. Allies are important, but we also need people to be advocates when they’re sitting in rooms and making sure there’s opportunities for women. and for people of color to have a chance to present and to, show the value that they’re bringing in the organization. So I look at that as, one of my key responsibilities that I can help foster that and be that person that can mentor and advocate for women and people of color in the organization.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: A lot of women would love to be on boards, but it’s really hard to get on your first board. How did you do?

Deborah H. Telman: yes. No. So that’s another piece where sometimes we counter ourselves out and we say, oh, we don’t have the skillset, or they’re not gonna select me cause I haven’t done this, I haven’t done that. I think you have to get yourself number one mission, say I do have the skillset because of these experiences. right? And to know how to package that. I will say that’s important to know how to put that all together to show that you’re gonna add value to, to a board. So yes, I am on a public board. And the way that happened was through a relationship. So all those discussions and engagements you have for your career ultimately pay off. Maybe not at the time you’re in those relationships, but later on, cuz you keep building out people who know you, who know of your your work ethics, your intellectual. , whatever expertise you have. And then when there’s an opportunity, you start calling people and saying, Hey, I’m now interested in being on a public board. Gimme your thoughts around that. So I think you have to engage and use and lever those relationships. Hopefully you have because those, there are opportunities out there. And I think there are a lot of organizations that you could use that could help build the. So one of the things I did is okay, as I started thinking about being on the public board, I tried to figure out what were those skills that I needed to amplify for me to be on the public boards. And then I did to show training and certifications and their organization, national Association corporate Directors, they can help you with that. If you don’t have those skills, I think you’ve gotta. , and sometimes that means personally investing to make sure that you’re gonna be an attractive candidate when those opportunities are available. But then you also have to go out and seek those opportunities.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: You know where this time has gone so fast and I’m ready. Have to close our conversation, but I do have to ask you one question. And if you were going to write the story of your life, your story, what would you title the book?

Deborah H. Telman: I know. Oh, that’s a great question. It’s never too late.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I love it,

Deborah H. Telman: I would never curate the pivot,

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: I love it. And that is the very apt description, I am using your expression this zza in my conversations with other women, because I do see so many times people are frightened if they’re not on the upward trajectory. And sometimes the ladders is a better model than a ladder. And you certainly proof of.

Deborah H. Telman: Life throws you curves and you just have to pivot it sometimes. But then always remember those pivots, those life events are teaching tools, right? That that you have to learn from. So I always say, don’t, you don’t embrace your life. I just learned and to zig and.

Julie Gerberding, M.D.: But I love it. Yeah. Thanks so much for making time for us and all the best for 2023 and.

Deborah H. Telman: Rest, stay class. Yes. All right. Excellent. Thank you.

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