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Diversity in the Life Sciences Boardroom: Women Leaders on the Power of Different Perspectives—and How Women Can Take Their Seat at the Table

March 25, 2021

The life sciences sector continues to evolve to meet the emerging challenges facing organizations and consumers alike, including the unprecedented circumstances posed by COVID-19. While the fast-moving industry has kept pace with the demand for innovative products and services, more momentum is needed to achieve gender balance on life sciences corporate boards.

Research shows that incorporating diverse perspectives in decision-making fosters enhanced collaboration and can lead to increased profitability. But how do life sciences companies best identify and recruit diverse candidates? And what can a diverse professional do to get their foot (and talent) in the boardroom door?

Morgan Lewis intellectual property partners Krista Venegas (PhD) and Christina MacDougall (PhD) sat down with diversity and life sciences leaders Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire (president and CEO, Berkhemer Clayton), Barbara Kosacz (COO and GC, Kronos Bio), and Jennifer Chao (founder, CoreStrategies Management) for a discussion on how companies can recruit diverse women to their corporate boards, what women can do to land open board positions, and what it takes to be an effective member from the very first board meeting.

What’s the value proposition for companies interested in creating more diverse corporate boards? What does the research tell us?

Betsy: I think it’s important to understand that promoting diversity isn’t just an equal rights or social issue. It’s a business issue. Recent studies have shown that companies with at least three women on their boards are more profitable, more productive, and have workforces that are better engaged. Women bring not only their career experience but their life experience to boards.

Jenn: I agree with Betsy. It’s about a best practices business mindset. While we may all have a different appreciation for what diversity means, we’ve seen that more homogeneous groups tend not to challenge the status quo or push for necessary change. Boards can easily fall into the trap of herd mentality, and a more diversified, qualified board can help raise the bar.

How can companies interested in creating more diverse corporate boards get started?

Jenn: I think it’s helpful to ”knowledge up” and appreciate what is meant by diversity. Possibly have it on the agenda for the annual board meeting, make it an important topic to discuss, and invite experts to the table to share best practices. Engage the board in appreciating how diversity can strengthen it and the executive team. Diversity encompasses varied backgrounds, business and industry perspectives, ethnicity, gender, orientation and so forth. Strong diversity initiatives are led by C-suites and boards that embrace the opportunity to raise best practices in their effort to formulate competitive strategies and top execution.

Barbara: I would recommend identifying the areas where your company is currently active and anticipating its future needs, and then tie those to the skill sets and backgrounds represented by your current board. By their nature, the needs of emerging and high-growth companies are constantly evolving. What you need from your board as a platform biotech company that is not yet in the clinic is very different from the kind of support you’ll need when you’re getting ready to commercialize. Once you’re at that point, you may want someone with commercial sales experience, government affairs expertise, or pricing and reimbursement experience.

How can diverse candidates be recruited to corporate boards, and what considerations should they make before choosing a board to serve on?

Betsy: There are three tactics diverse candidates should employ when trying to get recruited to corporate boards—strategic networking, demonstrating applicable experience, and being visible in their specialty area.

In terms of networking, they should start by choosing 25 contacts and reaching out to them. They don’t have to ask these contacts to do anything as formal as sponsoring or mentoring them, which is usually seen as more of a responsibility and potentially time consuming. Just make it known that they’re interested in serving on a board and what their timelines are, and ask for advice. Boards are built on relationships of trust. Members primarily rely on their own networks, and their networks’ networks, when recruiting.

As far as prior experience is concerned, candidates need it, but it doesn’t have to come from serving on corporate boards. Candidates looking for experience should try obtaining a position on the board of a nonprofit organization as a start or with local city, county, or state commissions.

Finally, candidates need to be visible within their specialty areas. For example, attorneys who are aspiring to serve on boards shouldn’t only serve on the board of a professional association for attorneys. They should join a trade industry association in an industry they specialize in such as real estate or manufacturing. Serving on industry boards and joining professional organizations expands the networks they can tap into for guidance and potential board recommendations to companies in the industries that they know best.

Jenn: This is really a two-part question. In terms of finding the right board opportunity for you, it is helpful to identify specific skills that you bring to the table in making a positive difference. The role of the board is to support, guide, and challenge the vision, strategy, and execution of the company, so the ideal board member can bring a set of skills that benefits an organization’s potential. Every board benefits from strong cross-trained athletes. However, there are key functional areas that always need bolstering. If you specialize in intellectual property, for example, it’s good to start thinking about how your skill set may match with a company’s needs, and to deepen or broaden your skill set to be able to offer the best perspective and strategic contributions. Another example is, say, if you’re interested in serving on the board of a company that faces high-risk exposures or challenges, try to bolster your experience with relevant and up-to-date Securities and Exchange Commission material disclosure matters that help strengthen the company’s compliance efforts. Building substantive and relevant knowledge can be very beneficial for your conversations in exploring board opportunities.

In terms of choosing the right boards to be involved in, ultimately it comes down to the people and the mission. Spend time appreciating the CEO’s vision and outlook, mission, and goals, and have deeper conversations with board members to gain a fuller appreciation for the varied perspectives for the challenges and opportunities.

Barbara: I recommend that before you begin your search you know your strengths and play to them. Don’t be someone you’re not. Boards need a diversity of thought and background. It’s helpful to understand how you may fit in and what contributions you can make and when. In life sciences, the question professionals often ask themselves is “do I have a PhD or not?” It may be daunting to consider applying to the board of a science-based company if you don’t have scientific training. But it’s important for these boards to include members with different academic or training backgrounds because they think and frame things differently. Don’t be daunted. You can learn the science, but good judgement is something else and may stem from a very different background. Your networks also are valuable. Oftentimes existing board members look to expand their companies’ networks by leveraging the networks of potential board members.

Once you are recruited to a board, what are some ways you can begin to establish yourself?

Barbara: You should start by listening and asking if the company has some kind of “onboarding” prepared for new board members. If not, ask for the chance to meet with the team, go through the latest corporate presentations, etcetera. For the first couple of meetings just let things sink in and try to learn the dynamics of the board. Outside of meetings, study up on things like who the company’s investors are and its history.

Jenn: I agree. There is no substitute for preparation ahead of meetings where the group is convening to move the ball forward. I’m a big proponent of really getting to know all the board members. Boards are typically rich with experience and wisdom, and you will find yourself having many enlightening conversations.

More About Our Panelists

  • Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, in addition to being president and CEO of Berkhemer Clayton Inc., is CEO of 50/50 Women on Boards, a leading global education and advocacy campaign driving the movement toward gender balance and diversity on corporate boards.
  • Jennifer Chao was formerly chairman of the board for BioSpecifics Technologies Corp. (acquired by Endo International plc in December 2020) and is the founder of CoreStrategies Management, a provider of corporate and financial consulting to biotech and life sciences companies. She currently serves on the board of directors of Endo International plc.
  • Barbara Kosacz is COO and GC of Kronos Bio, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to the discovery and development of novel cancer therapeutics designed to transform patient outcomes by targeting dysregulated transcription.