Lan Nguyen 0:01
In this episode of Her Story, Dr. Julie Gerberding, Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Officer at Merck, explores the intersection of women, leadership and healthcare with Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath and Rachel King.
Michelle McMurry-Heath 0:16
I spent that year taking science policy classes and getting a chance to pursue the other questions that were dawning on me, like who gets to decide what science is actually pursued? Who’s involved in that decision making process? It has really been about following that curiosity and that discovery, and finding out: what are those intractable questions that eat away at you? And how can you use your career to help drive pursuing those questions?
Lan Nguyen 0:43
That was Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, speaking about preparing for her career in scientific innovation.
Rachel King 0:54
When I was starting in biotech, that was eventually the first company that got approval to do gene transfer in humans in the United States. But it was also a startup company. There were times when I was there with my Harvard M.B.A. personally, ordering the lab supplies on the phone, because that’s how we did it then. And yet, what I learned was how to get a company off the ground, the nitty-gritty that has to happen. And eventually, I ran that company
Lan Nguyen 1:18
That was Rachel King, co-founder and CEO of GlycoMimetics, sharing her experiences working at and leading a startup company. In this conversation, Rachel and Michelle reflect on their careers in biotechnology and scientific innovation, from the lab bench to academia, government, venture capital and chief executive, and the leadership lessons learned along the way. Let’s listen.
Rachel King 1:40
We feel, sometimes, like we need to be more prepared sometimes than men feel.
Michelle McMurry-Heath 1:55
I think it’s important to have the confidence to step into that unknown or expanded role. The more transparent you are about how being a woman helps you or impacts the way you lead, the more it will help the women coming behind you to see themselves in the leadership around them.
Lan Nguyen 2:10
We’re delighted to welcome Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath and Rachel King to Her Story.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 2:19
Hello, and welcome to Her Story where we’re bringing together some absolutely amazing women to tell their leadership stories. I’m Dr. Julie Gerberding, the Chief Patient Officer at Merck, and a strong advocate of our two guests today, who I have known for several years and absolutely admire. So I’m so excited to have a chance to interview these incredible people.
Let me start by introducing our guests. First, we have Rachel King, who’s the CEO of a biotechnology company called GlycoMimetics, and has an amazing story about how her journey led to this interesting and innovative role that she serves. And then I have Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, who is the CEO of BIO, the Bio Innovation Organization, that really is the trade association for a large number of biotechnology organizations, both in the human health area, but also in agriculture and animal science. We have women who have been in multiple sectors, who are strong advocates of biotechnology and innovation, but also have had some amazing transitions along the way.
So Rachel, I’m going to go to you first and just tell us a little bit about your journey. You’ve gone to some pretty amazing universities, including Harvard, and you have a lot of background behind you that led up to your current role as CEO. So tell us the short story.
Rachel King 3:49
I will thank you Julie, it’s great to be here with both of you. It’s really a privilege. I did go to Harvard Business School for my M.B.A. and Dartmouth undergrad and felt lucky to get the education that both of those provided; worked at Bain and Company in consulting first, and then got into biotechnology, and have basically stayed somewhere around biotechnology in the years since working at a startup gene therapy company. And then that company was eventually bought by Novartis, and worked at Novartis for some time, then went into venture capital work at NEA, and out of NEA started GlycoMimetics, and over that time, became very involved with bio also. And I’ve also very much enjoyed that opportunity as well.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 4:28
Let me just probe a little bit. Why biotech? What was the attraction to get into this innovation space?
Rachel King 4:36
I loved science. I was one of those nerdy people in high school; I had a microscope and a dissecting kit in my house, and was always collecting things and looking at them and dissecting things. I always loved science, but I didn’t go into it. And when I was in college, I got into other things. And when I was working at Bain, actually was on a case team looking at one of the early biotech companies and a light bulb went off when I realized that maybe there was a way to combine that interest in science with what was becoming more of an experience that I was having in business. Realizing that made me appreciate the opportunity to potentially join those things and work in biotech. I’m very driven by science and also by the potential that we have to have an impact on people’s lives, which is so fundamental.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 5:19
Maybe you could just tell us briefly what you’re working on at GlycoMimetics.
Rachel King 5:22
Sure, our lead program is in AML, which is a form of leukemia, and that’s in phase three trial. So we’re pushing that forward in a number of different clinical settings. We also have a program in sickle cell disease that we’re trying to explore whether we can resurrect, actually, it failed in a phase three trial, but we’re looking back and analyzing, trying to understand what happened there. So hoping we may be able to do something in sickle cell disease. And we have some other earlier stage programs. Also in the hematology oncology space.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 5:50
We’ll come back to the sickle cell story, because I think sometimes we learn our best lessons in life from the things that don’t go the way we hope. But let me turn now to Dr. Michelle, as she’s affectionately known in the bio community. Michelle, you also have had an amazing career trajectory, starting with your academic background and moving in and out of various roles throughout your career. Give us your short story.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 6:14
Thank you for having me. And I have to say I loved Rachel’s story as well, because I loved hearing the kismet of finding how your different passions can be pursued simultaneously. I think that’s really the journey and the path that we’re all on as individuals and as leaders. I was raised in a public health household and I thought I would go into medicine. And when I went to Harvard, I was just preparing my pre-medical courses, and I had a teacher’s assistant who said, “You guys should really work in a lab over the summer because you’ll see completely different sides of science.” And I called 29 college professors at UC Berkeley, which was the campus near my house, and 28 of them said, “Thank you very much for calling,” and the 29th said, “Why didn’t you come in and speak to me?” and this is a real story of female sponsorship. She was a young assistant professor at Berkeley who had been a Harvard undergrad. And even though we look nothing alike, she saw herself in me and just let me waste the time of her graduate students over the summer. They really showed me what scientific experiments at the bench were really like and I fell in love with the discovery process.
And so while I’ve had many different roles, it has really been about following that curiosity and that discovery and finding out what are those intractable questions that wake you up at night or eat away at you. And how can you use your career to help drive pursuing those questions. So I worked in industry, I worked in government, and through that, found my way to bio, but that’s really been the common thread.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 7:51
So you’re both CEOs, and you’re both in the industry, and you both are amazing people, but I’m sure the pathway to get to the top hasn’t been a smooth sail at all times. So I’m going to probe a little bit in terms of some of the obstacles that you might have faced along the way, and not so much the mistakes that you made, but how do you learn from your mistakes? And how do you recover from them. So, Michelle, just continue with you, and then I’ll pop over to Rachel next.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 8:21
The interesting thing about doing an M.D.-Ph.D. program is you’re confronted with two different ways to go about get, reaching a goal. In medical school, if you do everything you’re told, if you turn in your assignments on time, and you do your test, you’ll finish. In graduate school, there’s absolutely no guarantee of success. And so you learn how to start having almost an investment portfolio of projects. You’ll have some projects that are high risk, but high payoff, some that are likely to succeed, but only will be so-so in impact. And you spread yourself across that range of risk. And then hopefully, you have something at the end. And I kept that lesson, and I’ve applied it in every role I’ve been in, so that when you hit that project that can’t work either because of an intractable external force, or because it’s the wrong timing, or because you just got it wrong, and you were on the wrong track. Have some other irons in the fire that you can pick up, so that you can keep giving yourself that sense of accomplishment, because that’s really what keeps you going even when other things don’t work out.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 9:27
What did you do your thesis on?
Michelle McMurry-Heath 9:29
I did my thesis on gene recombination in T-cells. It’s so funny because that’s the way I found my way to science policy. I was making transgenic mice, because we were studying the chromatin structure and how histone acetylation and chromatin determined which part of the T-cell recombined, but I had to breed transgenic mice. And back in the day, that meant a year of all these different backcrosses and I was studying it in immunocompromised mice. So they had these tiny little [inaudible] and it took like 60, 70 mice for one experiment—controversial, right? Exactly. I had nightmares about those mice. But I had this extra time that year. And I spent that year—since I never liked to have grass growing in my feet—taking science policy classes, and really getting a chance to pursue the other questions that were dawning on me, like who pays for the science, anyway? And who gets to decide what science is actually pursued? And who’s involved in that decision-making process? And I’m still asking those questions today.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 10:30
Rachel, I’ll come to you; similar trials and tribulations as you progress to your leadership role today.
Rachel King 10:38
One thing I would say about biotechnology, and I think this is true of life in general, is that things don’t go according to plan. When you think about things like trying to finance a biotech company, you have to have a plan. You write your business plan, you lay it all out, you say what you’re going to do, and how are you going to spend the money that you hope someone will give you and yet, it’s pretty much guaranteed that things will not go according to that plan. And so you think a lot about things like who you want to have around the table with you to deal with what’s going to happen and how you’re going to address when they don’t go according to plan. And so I think in biotech, and in life, it’s about being flexible, and recognizing that you plan as well as you can then you deal with the uncertainties that you face and developing options. And so I think it’s about developing a plan and retaining flexibility and really trying to ensure optionality. And that’s been my experience. I mean, there’s so many things that didn’t go according to plan, it’s probably too many to count. But I think it’s been a story of trying to work through the changes and come out as best you can. At the other end.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 11:36
I just have to say how much I love what Rachel just said, because it’s almost like the plan is that your plan will not work. But that is really important because it level-sets expectations and lets you deal with the ups and downs.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 11:51
And you both have had plan B’s. So that’s good, right? If it’s not Plan A, it’s Plan B. I’ll just ask you if you’re comfortable answering this question, what’s the worst mistake and how did you recover from it?
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 12:04
I knew it was time to leave FDA when I was there. I’ve been there for almost five years and I completed a cycle of success. I always like to if I transition from a role leave after you’ve had a cycle of success and that you know you’re leaving because It’s the right time to pursue a new area of interest rather than frustration, because you never want to just leave in frustration. And so I was looking around trying to determine what I wanted to do and I took a wonderful consulting role in an organization that a dear friend leads [inaudible] Daniel [inaudible]. I think you know, Deborah Lathan, too, as well. She’s still a wonderful mentor and sponsor.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 12:43
Absolutely wonderful person.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 12:45
Such a wonderful person. And it was not a good fit for my skillset. It was a wonderful role. It was a wonderful organization. But it’s not the best fit for my skill set. And I found myself sitting there going, I’m not quite sure how to build here. And coincidentally, J&J reached out to me around the same time for a while that did really fit my interest in my skill set. But I wish I had assessed that opportunity a little more carefully, rather than going in and everyone’s investment of time and all of that. And luckily, to this day, we’ve been able to keep those friendships and, and that experience, dear, but that was a lesson learned.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 13:24
Building on that, if you were advising someone, how they could be wiser about fit? How would you recommend they approach it?
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 13:35
It’s such an important question, because I think you spend so much time, particularly if you love what you do, you spend so much time trying to evaluate, okay, is this the right time to depart? Is this the right transition point? I learned what I can learn. And sometimes you’re not paying enough attention to what you’re going towards. But, you really have to have that internal barometer, which is almost physiologic, that lets you know whether or not it sits right with your core. Whether or not it really feels like this is comfortable on my skin. This is a coat I can wear every day, and wear it with pride and feel incredibly comfortable and at ease. And if you don’t have that sense of ease, if you have a little bit of apprehension, which is different from being intimidated by the opportunity, which can also happen. But if you just feel—it’s not quite me—then just pause and wait. You’re not in any hurry.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 14:27
Rachel, I’ll ask you the same question. But also maybe just building from what Michelle just said that there is that other factor, which is: “Am I good enough? Am I ready for this? Is this overreaching my potential?” Because I think that’s a part of this as well.
Rachel King 14:42
It’s actually reflecting some of the things you were saying, Michelle, I was remembering when I was starting into biotech, one of my first jobs was working at genetic therapy. And I was thinking about actually a mistake that I almost made, I didn’t did this one I didn’t I didn’t quite make it was the early days of gene therapy, as it turned out, that was eventually the first company that got approval to do gene transfer in humans in the United States, which was a very interesting, exciting time. But it was also a startup company. And when I was interviewed for the job, the then CEO said, looking at me as kind of an enthusiastic, well educated person who might have high expectations, he said, “I just want to be clear, the roof might be leaking one day. And that might be your problem.” And just trying to kind of bring me down and let me see that there’s going to be a lot of nitty gritty there.
And while the roof didn’t leak, there were times when, for example, I was there with my Harvard MBA personally ordering the lab supplies on the phone, because that’s how we did it then. And these people right out of college were rushing over to me saying, “I need these test tubes by Tuesday. Can you get them here by Tuesday?” like that. And I personally organized the library back when people had physical libraries, where people brought in all their journals and dumped them in a room and I put them in the year in order and all this stuff — also there with my MBA feeling like I could be doing something more challenging than that. And feeling that sometimes, really discouraged, at moments when I feel like, “Why am I doing all this? Can’t I be doing something with more challenge and more brain power involved?” And yet, what I learned was how to get a company off the ground, the nitty gritty that has to happen. And eventually, I ran that company. And some years later, after it was sold to Novartis as a division of Novartis, we took the company public, we had a lot of really great experiences there.
But what’s important, and what made me reflect on that in your comments, Michelle, I think it was fit with the people that maybe kept me going. There were really quality people involved. And what we were trying to do was that important, engaging thing, and that kept me going. And so that got me through the days of ordering the test tubes and getting the library set up. Because I also got to sit in on meetings with the venture capitalists and hear about what we were going to do with trying to get FDA to agree to the first gene transfer experiment, etc. So, just reflecting on what kind of keeps you going. And I think those things are critically important as elements of people. And that personal engagement was something that is meaningful beyond yourself.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 17:01
When you’re in the lab, I certainly went through a painful transition of being a doer to being a manager and then a leader. But there is a big difference between being the scientist at the bench and then managing people, and then ultimately becoming a CEO where you’re leading a strategy in a broader organization. We’re not often prepared for those transitions. This isn’t naturally something that we’re born knowing; it’s a skill set and a process of maturation. So I am wondering how each of you made that transition from the science focus to the leadership umbrella.
Rachel King 17:40
I was never science focused in the sense that Michelle was with the MD-PhD, I don’t have that educational background or like you, Julie. I never went to graduate school in the sciences, yet for everyone, man or woman, you get to a point where you are, hopefully, if you’re lucky, you get a chance to do more something that may be beyond what you thought your capacity was, if you’re lucky. And I do think what I’ve heard from a lot of women is that we feel, sometimes, like we need to be more prepared sometimes than men feel. And so I do think it’s important to have the confidence to step a bit into that unknown or expanded role. And I think there’s an internal confidence that hopefully one brings, if lucky enough to have those opportunities. But yes, you do. It helps at many stages in your career, get to a point of discomfort, right, which is also the point of learning. I certainly have felt that all along the way.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 18:31
I haven’t told you this, Rachel, but I actually attended a bio meeting in your region. And there was a woman there from your company. And I said, “Oh, well, you must know Rachel King,” and she adores you—amazing things to say about your leadership and the spirit and culture that you’ve created within your company. So whatever your hesitations were, I think they should be long gone, because you’ve obviously been incredibly successful. So, Michelle, you made that transition, and are probably still making it because you’re in your brand new CEO role now.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 19:04
It’s interesting, I was reflecting as you were speaking, and did the nitty gritty at the lab bench. And then I did the nitty gritty in policy, you know, running in the halls of Congress, trying to draft legislation, middle of the night. Just elbow to elbow with folks that are just learning about policy and legislation as well. But you get to a point where you start having a sense of mastery at what’s right in front of you, whether it’s at the lab bench or with policy, or probably with business decisions, and then you start seeing a more complex landscape around you. And you start envisioning, “Well, you know, if we move this chess piece over here, we’d have the ability to do this, and this and this,” you suddenly realize that to get to your destination, it’s going to take a team. And that’s really the step at which you should hold your head up high and look for those leadership opportunities. And start small, you know, that first team that you manage of two or three or four people, that is a major shoe to step into, because that’s an entirely new way of working; realizing how you work through other people keep other people motivated, cheer them up, when they’re down, manage not just what’s their day job, but also how their personal life impacts that. Take your time with that transition. Because I think that is an incredibly important step.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 20:21
The three of us are part of BIO, which as I said earlier, is the trade association for the biotechnology industry, and there are CEOs from all walks of life, and people who are doing some of the most amazing entrepreneurial work that is going on anywhere in the world. So if the world is going to be saved, it’s probably going to be saved by someone who sits around the leadership table there. But, when I first joined BIO, when Rachel was the president of the organization at that time, there weren’t a lot of women around the table. So I’m gonna ask Rachel, what was it like to be the leader? When you’re almost an N of one?
Rachel King 20:58
One thing I would say is that in most of my life, that’s been my experience. So it wasn’t so unusual at BIO. I mean, that was even starting back when I went to college. When I applied to Dartmouth, I did not realize that it had recently gone co-ed: I confess that. When someone said to me, in the interview process, how do you feel about going to a school that’s been all male until recently, I was a little taken aback. So there and then when I was in business school, really most of my career I’ve been in situations where there have been more men than women. And so I guess I’ve gotten used to it. So I don’t think BIO was different, so much for me. I did have a very strong, even domineering, I would say, father, in my life, who prepared me made me comfortable dealing with strong men, he had gone to West Point and worked on Wall Street. So I have had a comfort in the men’s world through those different experiences. And I think the people in BIO. that the mostly men at that time, and some women are, and were just really wonderful, engaging, intelligent, forward thinking people, and just a real pleasure to be part of that group. So I think that made it feel like a reasonable thing to be, to be doing.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 22:03
I know you had an incredibly successful tenure and you were certainly a role model to me for how to conduct myself in that kind of environment. Now, Michelle, you are also an N of one in your leadership role of the entire organization and I know you’re in the early days of the transition, but you certainly hit the ground running. In addition to the important work that bio is leading in the context of the pandemic, and the important policy work that still has to continue on Capitol Hill, you’ve launched a new initiative at BIO that really directly speaks to health equity, but also diversity and inclusion, can you just say a few words about that, and why you chose that as your own signature strategy going into this new role.
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 22:46
So funny, I almost feel like it chose me because I started at BIO, five months ago, and my second week on the job, we had our big annual convention, and it was the week of George Floyd’s memorial service, and so it was really kind of the focus of the country. And it really made me stop and think, “What can our contribution be to trying to make the world a more equitable place?” And that framing has really touched on all of my senses of our policy that we do as well, not just DNI policy, but also our innovation policy. How can we look at it with an equity lens. So BIO quality just has three pillars. One is to try to do everything we can as an industry to end health disparities. And I think specifically, that means stepping up on improving diversity in our clinical trial populations. Pillar two is really around improving visibility to the great pipeline of talent that is out there. Many of our companies sponsor great training programs for women and minority scientists and entrepreneurs, I for one, am, a grateful beneficiary of a Merck fellowship when I was in graduate school. So giving visibility to all of our BIO member companies of that great talent pool is something we’re going to be doing. And then pillar three is focusing on how can we use the power of our supply chains to help patronize women-owned and minority-owned businesses. So it’s really about economic development, the talent pipeline, and healthcare disparities. And I think that’s where we can really have an impact.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 24:14
We don’t have a lot of time left. But I just can’t end this conversation without asking you each about how you would advise the next generation, where you see women who are interested in biotechnology careers, who aspire to leadership positions. How do you support their interest and what advice do you give them in terms of how to accelerate their own opportunities for success? And I will start with you, Rachel.
Rachel King 24:42
I think perhaps the most important thing in a career experience is: who are the people that you’re working with? As you think about what is a good opportunity, I think the opportunity is substantially driven by the people. Obviously, science is important, you got to choose a good organization, but who are the specific people that you’re gonna have an opportunity to work with, who you’re going to be able to get to know, because over time, those are the people whose lives may cross again with yours whose careers may cross again with yours. And so, to the extent you can find a network of people that you both admire, and I would say, enjoy, I think that’s critical, and to the extent that you can find something — and this industry actually provides a lot of that—but something that connects yourself to something larger than yourself something that’s that’s broadly meaningful to you, I think that those two things are really probably the most critical.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 25:30
Michelle, what do you say?
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 25:31
That last point is so powerful, because you have to be working for something that just drives you and that you’re passionate about. And also just to be courageous, because when you’re intimidated by a situation, don’t hide, don’t withdraw, take a moment. Really take it in, see where you can get support and help and then move forward. Because I guarantee you, 10 years down the road, when you’re looking back, you’ll be, why in the world was I intimidated by that? It will seem so much smaller in retrospect. So just keep that long term vision in mind, and bring your whole self to work. Because the more transparent you are, about how being a woman helps you or impacts the way you lead, and how you do your job, the more it will help the women coming behind you to see themselves in the leadership around them, and that’s critically important.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 26:25
You no doubt both had mentors, if you’re advising someone to find a mentor, what’s the most important thing they should look for?
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 26:33
We think about mentorship in such a transactional way sometimes. And I think it’s really a lot about finding people who remind you of yourself or who you aspire to be in some sort of way. And then not just approaching them for the 30 minute coffee where you ask them about their lives, but really finding out how you can volunteer to help them on something because you will not get paid to do the job you want to do today. You have to earn the skill set to really be valuable enough to take that on, and often the way to earn that experience is to volunteer for it and learn from them as much as you can.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 27:11
Brilliant. Rachel, can you add anything to that?
Rachel King 27:14
I think you’re right that sometimes we think of this as being too transactional. I would encourage people not to think of it as transactional but to think of it, rather, as desire to develop relationships with people over time.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 27:27
So we’re at our time, but I have one last question. I bet you can guess what it is. The title of this conversation is Her Story. So I’d like to know, if you decided to write your story, what would you title the book?
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 27:43
I think I’d have to say, Walking Boldly and Making Waves.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 27:48
Making Waves. All right.
Rachel King 27:48
Mine would have to be something to do with gratitude, something about a grateful heart. I feel very thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had, for the people I’ve been able to meet like you both. And so I think mine would have something to do with gratitude.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 28:02
Well, there you have it: two really incredible women who have had all kinds of professional development experiences and are CEOs of really important organizations. And just lovely people. I always say that leadership is a privilege, and it’s certainly been my privilege to have a chance to have this conversation with you. So thank you and good luck. I wish you both every success.
Rachel King 28:25
Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath 28:26
Thank you so much for having us.
Lan Nguyen 28:28
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