Enjoy the good things when they happen. This is so important. We forget to relish a bit in the successes we have when we have them and push to the next big thing.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Hall. Ashley serves as the Chief Development Officer at Esperion, the Lipid Management Company, committed to developing and commercializing cost-effective, convenient, once-daily, oral therapies for the treatment of patients with elevated LDL-cholesterol. Prior to joining Esperion, Ashley was the global regulatory lead for cardiovascular at Amgen, where she oversaw the regulatory strategy and global filings for the evolocumab program, leading to the world’s first approval of a PCSK9 inhibitor for cholesterol lowering. Before Amgen, she held various roles in global regulatory affairs, helping accelerate approvals for Micromet, RevoGenex, MedImmune, Abraxis Bioscience and La Jolla Pharmaceutical Company. Ashley earned a Juris Doctorate at the University of San Diego School of Law and Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the University of California San Diego.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I’ve always been very self-motivated. I left home when I was pretty young, around age 16, and supported myself through undergraduate and then law school. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have many mentors along the way that could guide the path I was on, I just pushed myself to do my best every single day leading to graduating at the top of my class with a degree in biochemistry from the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I was drawn to science, and I always thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. However, fortunately, I had professors that helped me identify and cultivate my strengths and encouraged me to pursue law school instead of medical school which was a better fit for my personality. When I examined my background in science and law, I considered it advantageous to combine the two which is what led me to regulatory affairs. Early on in my career I was a part of a few smaller companies managing the regulatory pathway of new treatments from early development to approval. By intensely studying and memorizing previous regulatory communications, learning how to think strategically about the regulatory process and proving myself as an essential asset to achieving development goals I quickly found myself at the executive table. The regulatory pathway for is complicated and nuanced, and I love challenging myself to navigate this area to get essential treatments to patients in need. I am truly grateful for the education I have and the guidance I found along the way that led me here.
What led you to this particular career path?
Overall, I have always had a passion for both science and helping people. Combining my passions and talent for both science and law, I found regulatory affairs. I wanted to dedicate myself to a career that made a difference for people with illnesses, and pursued an area many consider complicated and intimidating. It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical industry is riddled with well-intentioned regulation, and I have taken it upon myself to help navigate it through all means possible. For example, I have camped out on executive’s doorsteps to push for expedited designation for treatments where patients had little to no options. I ran internal company campaigns to rally people from every end of the drug development process — scientists to executives — to collect the necessary data and get a treatment to approval. My superhero power is persistence. I am always well-studied for both sides of an argument I enjoy using every resource in my toolbox to pilot highly complex regulatory situations to improve lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In late 2017, my husband and I became legal guardians to an 18-month-old little girl who needed a home. We went from a quiet, peaceful home to having a toddler running around. We didn’t have the first clue about how to raise a child, including how to change a diaper, feed her, bathe her or even how to buy the right size of clothes. At this same time period, we were granted a mission critical meeting with the FDA so I essentially tackled new motherhood while leading one of the most challenging meetings of my career at the same exact time. While I was preparing meeting materials, our little girl caught a stomach virus at day care and over the holidays we ended up with the worst 24-hour illness of our lives. In the meantime, I still had to write-up briefing documents but I was doing it while being brutally sick and still having to parent.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It was me, my first boss in the regulatory industry and our team, and we were sitting face-to-face with the FDA about our regulatory pathway for a new treatment. My boss misunderstood a comment made by a senior level FDA official sitting across the table and she stated, “I just need to clear this up, did you just say that the FDA doesn’t care about safety?” The room went dead silent and I was thinking about what just happened. Fortunately, the FDA official made a joke about it and everyone laughed. I was the minute-taker and I captured her question in the meeting minutes exactly as it happened. Needless to say, it didn’t make the final minutes. We laugh about it to this day. I learned that a good sense of humor can alleviate lots stressful situations and it can even stimulate cooperation.
What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
As a C-Suite Executive I have overall accountability for leading and managing our current and future drug development activities. Specifically, I lead and manage global regulatory affairs which includes regulatory operations, global regulatory strategy, medical writing, pharmacovigilance and drug safety, program management, medical affairs, patient advocacy, research and development, clinical operations, and Asia general management. This gives me an opportunity to play a major role in the strategic focus of the company. After years of steering the ship in the right direction to achieve global regulatory goals, being an executive lets me contribute to the original map. A key facet of who I am — my leadership and tenacity — prospers in an executive position. Especially at Esperion, where I deeply believe in the mission of the company, I’m honored and excited to play an important role in the execution of our mission — developing and commercializing oral, LDL cholesterol lowering therapies for the millions of patients not met by existing treatment options or who cannot access them.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives make the ultimate leadership choices to fulfill the mission of the company and help guide the overall success of the organization. As a pharmaceutical executive, compared to leading or heading up a single department, you have to worry about balancing the science in a regulatory context while leading your staff, meeting the requirements your business needs to grow and the expectations of external stakeholders and the Board of Directors. You must manage this by giving the company what it needs to fulfill its mission while satisfying external stakeholders — it’s a complex balance.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I am enjoying learning about all aspects of the business. I know global regulatory affairs very well and now I have the opportunity to lead new areas. I enjoy being a part of leading the direction and strategy of the company and driving something forward that didn’t previously exist, like a new drug for patients in need. It’s a lot of pressure but the reward of helping lives through innovation in both science and business is amazing. Esperion is a small company doing big things, and I could not be prouder of the team.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
My learning curve is still very high for my current role and to some extent it’s like starting totally over to establish my credibility as a leader in this expanded role. It’s been a challenge, but I plan to rise to the occasion.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that you have to have an IVY league education and you have to check every box to be ultra-successful in the corporate world. In reality, some of the most successful people I know pushed through major adversity and didn’t have an easy road, and also didn’t win every time. Sometimes failures and life challenges push you harder to succeed and make you more grateful and humble when you get there. These qualities make for strong leaders in many ways.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I can only speak for myself, but I probably have to push through a lot more internal dialogue and negative self-talk than my male counterparts. I coach myself on a daily basis and think constantly about what I can do better and how I can be better for my company and the team. That said, I was raised in a house with only males so to some extent, I am just used to finding a seat at the table. My father taught me to negotiate well for myself in all situations and this skill has proven very critical to my success in this industry.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The biggest transition for my career was going from being an individual contributor, to then being both an individual contributor and a leader, and now to just being a leader. I expected this would be difficult, but it’s even harder than I anticipated. Essentially, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
If you want to advance change in any sense, you should never limit yourself or avoid leadership. No personality test or skill assessment should stop you from feeling like you can’t rise and effect change at a higher level. That being said, there are certainly qualities you can naturally possess, or work towards, that make being an executive or thriving in any sort of leadership position a lot easier. For me, perseverance and being influential and positive have proven to be essential in doing this job effectively, and also helped pave the way for me to obtain this position.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It’s very important to set your intentions. Ask yourself ‘what do you want to accomplish?’ There’s a million different ways to go about accomplishing your goals, but you need to set the vision for yourself. Networking and finding mentors are also crucial. I tell women to make at least 1 to 5 new meaningful connections a month. Spend just as much time building relationships with people as you spend studying or practicing to become an expert in your field.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was in high school I worked a full-time job. My high school advanced science teacher really pushed me academically and believed in me, but he also knew I was facing some personal challenges. Him and his wife came in every week to my job where I was the “nacho girl.”- I served nachos at happy hour and they talked to me, coached me, listened to me and also left me a large tip (on a teacher’s salary no less). This teacher encouraged me to start college early since I was already supporting myself and showed promise academically. This ended up being the single best decision of my life. He remains a great friend today and I am working on putting together a scholarship in our names to honor him and give back to another young student who has to support themselves from a young age.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Something that comes top of mind is a clinical program I worked on in the oncology space. I was involved in a program for a new therapeutic class that people have never seen before in terms of development and believed to be high-risk. On top of this, it was an orphan drug, which means the drug is used to treat an extremely rare disease and small population. The treatment was for pediatric patients that had no other options and would face a short life untreated. I knew this drug worked in this population, and there was a need for an accelerated approval to get this treatment to the children that needed it. There was a lot of trepidation around this treatment and whether the regulatory pathway was sound for accelerated approval, but I fought for this. I knew this drug would contribute to children’s survival with the disease and I knew it needed special care to get it to approval. There is little tolerance for risk in the pharmaceutical world, but I’m a thoughtful risk taker, more than that, I am a benefit driver. After one failure, I rallied on and the company was able to achieve Breakthrough Therapy designation the second time around. I was an early champion and small part of a large group of people who worked on this treatment over a long period of time, but I pushed relentlessly against a lot of odds in the early stages of its development.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Not everyone is going to like you or be happy for your success.
- It’s lonely at the top. I originally thought that being an executive would be a more social role, but it’s quite the opposite.
- You will get older. Okay, I knew this but you really don’t understand until your hips crackle when you walk and wearing high heels gets harder.
- Enjoy the good things when they happen. This is so important. We forget to relish a bit in the successes we have when we have them and push to the next big thing.
- Take a step back and smell the roses!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I truly believe in the power of education. It opens your mind to a world of possibilities. I think that everyone deserves a good education. As far as a movement, I think every high schooler should have to spend a semester living and being educated in another country in order to graduate. Obviously, the economics of such an idea would have to be worked out but I think this would open minds and would amount the greatest good for the greatest number. As many of us are, I’m troubled by the state of the world today and constantly think about what we can do to change it. My idea is to change the story by changing the landscape of one’s current situation. Allowing everyone to see something different from what they grew up in so they can see and experience different cultures and ultimately have more acceptance of diversity. This expansion via education and experience could lead to peace, protection of the environment, and less hate.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father always used to tell me, “luck favors the prepared mind.” I think the official quote is “chance favors only the prepared mind” by Louis Pasteur. This saying always stuck with me and motivated me to prepare. I am a person that is all about preparation. I always studied hard and practiced for everything. I always set my intention to put myself, my family and my company in the right position for success.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to make lunch for Oprah Winfrey at her house in Montecito. I find Oprah’s life story inspirational and there are some similarities in our background and struggles. She is incredibly intelligent, persistent, influential, spiritual and giving and I deeply respect those qualities. I truly admire Oprah and feel like she would be a great friend and mentor. A girl can dream.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.