'Biotech sisterhood': 25 female CEOs find new ways to 'sponsor' the next generation at Arizona retreat

During a multihour hike in the hills of Arizona interspersed with cactus lessons, female CEOs fostered a "biotech sisterhood" aimed at lifting up their peers in the industry. 

Two dozen female biotech CEOs—about half of the total invite list—came together in Tucson this past weekend for what they described as a first-of-its-kind retreat to network, create the basis for longer-term visions and bounce ideas off one another in the pursuit of supporting women in the industry. 

Their mission coalesced around an unmet need, a term oft-cited in drug development. About 23% of biotech CEOs identify as women, according to a Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) report from 2021.

“We're at this tipping point where there are enough female CEOs in biotech to actually have something like this, which I think would have been unimaginable even 10, 20 years ago," said Alice Zhang, CEO of AI drug discovery startup Verge Genomics, in an interview with Fierce Biotech. Immediately after receiving the email invite, Zhang said she'd attend and ended up meeting some executives whose presence made her feel a "little starstruck." 

The weekend gathering was a long time in the works, said Julia Owens, Ph.D., former CEO of Millendo Therapeutics and BIO board member, in a joint interview with co-organizers Angie You, Ph.D., and Sheila Gujrathi, M.D.

Being CEO can be the "loneliest job" and can't be done completely virtually, especially after two years of a pandemic, according to Owens. For some attendees, the retreat was the first public event they had traveled to since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said Gujrathi, former CEO of Gossamer Bio and now chair of ADARx Pharmaceuticals, Ventyx Biosciences and ImmPACT Bio.

Sponsorship versus mentorship

ceo biotech retreat hiking
Sheila Gujrathi, M.D., Angie You, Ph.D., and Julia Owens, Ph.D., organized the biotech CEO retreat. (Julia Owens)

Creating concrete steps for sponsoring other women's paths into the C-suite, "combating unconscious bias" and forging one-on-one connections were all key themes to the conference, Owens said. Sponsorship is "really differentiated" from mentorship, which is classically viewed as one-on-one relations, You noted, referring to a session on the subject from Meritage Leadership's CEO Susan Drumm.

"Sponsorship is a much more proactive: 'Let me put my own reputation on the line' to help someone else in their career and amplify, lift them up to that next level in their career," said You, who led oncology biotech Amunix to a $1 billion exit to Sanofi in December 2021 while CEO. "That was something that excited a lot of us, not only to ourselves to be sponsors, but frankly also to identify our male allies, many of whom are in those specific positions of power, when they can in fact help other women.” 

A day after culminating the first of what is likely to be an annual retreat paired with regional events, the organizers have already witnessed sponsorship amongst the group. And "a lot of creative discussion" during the weekend generated business collaboration ideas and the spark for potential new companies, Gujrathi said. 

Coupled with serious discussion was a weekend of fun and moments to get to know one another on a deeper level, said June Lee, M.D., former Esker Therapeutics founder and MyoKardia chief development officer. She plans to continue strengthening those bonds on a regional level post-retreat.

The biotech industry "is not for the faint of heart, and it does take a village to develop these medicines," Gujrathi said. The group wants to amplify women across drug development, banking, the investment community and elsewhere as they work toward gender parity in the upper echelons of companies.

The group is very mission-oriented, You said, and driven by purpose, according to Gujrathi. She noted members' work to create therapeutics for rare diseases, pediatric populations, women's health and other areas.

"This is an incredibly energetic group of women as it is. I mean, they're amazing mothers and partners and CEOs and founders and scientists and businesspeople, but my God, I think just to be around each other just drove our energy to a new level," said Gujrathi, who is also a venture adviser at OrbiMed.

The organizers emphasized the attendees' various leadership backgrounds, whether first-time or veteran CEOs, scientists or marketers, public or private operators, etc. They also highlighted racial, geographic (one attendee flying all the way from Switzerland) and age diversity among the group, but noted there is still work to be done.

"We weren’t fortunate enough to have any Black female CEOs with us, and we all have to acknowledge that there’s huge work to be done on some of those metrics as well, and so hopefully, while we did a great job on so many parameters, we do want to look for opportunities to advance diversity on all fronts, not just gender," Owens said.

Teams, boards, banking conferences and other pockets of the industry still lack equal representation, You said. The organizers said there was some discussion around whether metrics and measures should be put in place. 

“I am so excited that there is a growing rank of women in boards and getting board opportunities, but we also talked about how whether it’s at a banking conference or a board, it’s not enough to just have one woman and say it’s done, right? It’s really important. Why isn’t it 50% women? Where is that metric?" You said.

Boardrooms, too

Board representation was also a key theme for attendee Grace Colón, Ph.D., CEO of cardiac-focused InCarda Therapeutics, who sits on multiple industry boards, including BIO and CareDx, and the board of trustees for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Boards have traditionally sought people with prior CEO experience or backgrounds in managing profits and losses, Colón said. Those credentials are shifting. 

"There is an opportunity for female leaders and underrepresented leaders who have really detailed, deep functional expertise, whether it be R&D or manufacturing, regulatory, whatever it might be," she said. "They can bring a really important perspective to the board." 

That could be a gateway for first-time board members from underrepresented groups, Colón said. The executive, who is a member of the Latino Corporate Directors Association, said private companies "need to have more diversity," too.

A new Nasdaq rule, slated to take effect next year, would require listed companies to have at least two diverse board members, including women, people from an underrepresented group or from the LGBTQ+ community. 

The increased attention around diversity has led to more board opportunities for women "at this juncture" in their career, Colón said. 

"And we always make it a practice to pay it forward to share it with other women and underrepresented groups who could be a good fit for these board positions," she added.

Leslie Williams, co-founder, CEO and president of hC Bioscience, said she "admired from afar" many of the women who attended, but now they're supporting each other on a more personal level thanks to the retreat. 

"Is it going to help hC? It already has. It's inspired me. I feel like there’s this network of people I feel comfortable on a completely different level to tap into," Williams said. 

Williams and others interviewed said they think the group can work together with existing industry organizations, such as Executive Women in Bio, to help drive change and increase support for women. The goal is not to reinvent the wheel, You said. 

Building the future requires lifting up the existing workforce, too. 

“The biggest change that needs to be made is really to stop thinking about it as a pipeline problem, but really to be taking a hard look at what are the changes to the system and the infrastructure we've built that presents challenges to women being able to ascend," Zhang said. 

The three organizers, all of whom recently exited their roles as CEO, see themselves in the C-suite again but are taking some important time for self-care and pause before leaping into the next role.

"I've done that and am encouraging other women who are in a similar situation," Owens said. She said "stay tuned" for her next CEO role, likely to be taken on soon.