Conversations With 2011 Leadership Awardees
Chief Executive Officer
How did you become CEO of Syndax? Were you involved with the initial launch of the company?
Syndax is an oncology company that is developing drugs using epigenetics (a novel way to control gene regulation) to overcome the problem of resistance in cancer. The company was founded by Eckard Weber, a serial entrepreneur and partner at Domain Associates. I was involved in the original building and vision of the company since I’ve been in this space for many years. I officially became CEO in 2006.
For many people, the fear of start-up costs or not being able to raise enough money, deters them from pursuing entrepreneurial ventures. How did you finance Syndax? Are there certain sources of financing that have proven to be most effective to you over the years?
Syndax was and still is venture capital (VC) funded. Since Eckard is a partner at Domain, there was clearly some intention that it would at least in part be funded by Domain. The most challenging piece for us was deciding on the size of the capital that we were going to raise and finding the right partners (in addition to Domain) to work with us on this. We ended up raising $55 million, which is a lot of money. Some investors were just not interested in putting that amount of capital in.
What past experiences most prepared you for running a company like Syndax?
Before becoming CEO of Syndax, I spent a year in VC as an entrepreneur in residence at MGM Capital. Part of the problem with raising money is that most people don’t really know what it’s all about. I did this so that I would better understand the dynamics of VC funding. I think this experience really helped when I went out to raise money for Syndax. Besides that, running clinical trials and having strong technical knowledge has been really beneficial to my role at Syndax.
An organization like WEST is all about giving back and helping fellow women succeed in their careers. Did you have any key mentors during the early stages of your career? How did he/she help you?
I certainly couldn’t talk about mentorship without talking about my father. Growing up in the fifties, sixties and seventies, it was still a little more challenging for women to go into technical fields. I had three brothers but it never occurred to me that there was any real barrier for me to do whatever I wanted to. I think this was largely due to the way that my father treated me and the aspirations and expectations that he set for me.
My second mentor was Gilles Brisson, a fabulous guy who is now retired from Sanofi-Aventis. Gilles was really instrumental in my moving out of clinical development and into more general management and business. I wanted to do this but I was thinking I would do it by going back to business school and getting an MBA. Gilles gave me the opportunity to run a joint venture within Chugai-Rhone-Poulenc, centered around product development. The goal was to develop a product for the European market and launch it. Giving me that opportunity was much better than sending me to business school because I was in a protected environment and learned everything hands-on. Half way thru running that, Gilles asked me to start putting together the business oncology unit and I said “I’m not sure I can do both”. He said “Absolutely you can”. Then a couple months later I realized I was pregnant with my second child, and I went back to Gilles and said “I really don’t think I can run these two functions and have a baby”. Gilles said “Sure you can!” and I did. 1994 was quite a year! I was VP of Oncology at Rhone-Polenc Rorer, General Manager of Chugai-Rhone-Poulenc and gave birth to a second child. I still keep in touch with Gilles today and we always try to see each other when we are going to be in the same city.
Last month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review was called “The Failure Issue”. One of the underlying themes in many of the articles was that “Failure Breeds Success”, suggesting that one learns more from their failures then their successes. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I think it’s important to learn from your failures, but I think it’s even more important to focus and learn from your successes. I want to replicate success so I tend to focus on things that I have done well and figure out how to do them again. It’s important for people within an organization to know that they can make a mistake, but ultimately I don’t think we should spend too much time focusing on this.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment to date? Do you think your “failures” along the way helped you to achieve it?
Still today, until Syndax proves itself to be a complete success, I think launching the oncology business at Rhone-Poulenc (now Sanofi Aventis) is my biggest accomplishment. Not only were we able to get a drug to patients but we were able to do it in a way that put now Sanofi-Aventis on the map in the oncology field. But this is slowly becoming overshadowed by the work that we are doing here at Syndax. In addition to that, I like to think I have a fairly balanced life and so I am just as proud of the achievement of raising two kids and seeing them develop into wonderful young adults as I am of my professional accomplishments.
Many people (women in particular), struggle with maintaining work-life balance. How have you managed to do this in the midst of launching and running a company? Do you have any advice to give to someone who is struggling with this in their own life?
We often spend a lot of time thinking about the team of people we need to be successful at work. I think you need to make sure you have the best team supporting you in other parts of your life as well. I spent a large part of my career running these businesses and raising two kids on my own. I remarried again about two years ago, which was wonderful, but for a long period of time I was single. So making sure that I had the right support network and team at home was key.
The other thing is I really encourage everybody to find something other than work that they feel passionate about. I don’t think it really matters what it is. It could be gardening, playing the flute, golf or some sort of volunteer work. I think you need to find something else that you feel so incredibly passionate about that you will find the time to do it, even though you don’t think you have another minute in the day, let alone an hour. That way you will automatically provide some balance in your life. Find something that you care about so deeply so that you will find the time to do it. For me, there is a particular class on Saturday morning at the gym that I absolutely won’t miss. Other than that, it’s volunteer work.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
Focus on your skills; focus on the things that you’re really good at and make your heart sing and think about that as the driver for what you’re going to do. For example, for me building things has always been a passion of mine, whether it’s within a company or the volunteer work that I do. Find that, and only after you’ve done that, should you start focusing on the skill sets that you are somewhat deficient in. Then think about how you can overcome them – for example, by partnering with someone who is strong in the area you are somewhat deficient in. I think sometimes people spend too much time worrying about the things they don’t do well, where really what you should be doing is building on the successes that you have. That comes back to the conversation on failures and successes. I’m a big proponent of focusing on your successes.