“Be comfortable with the unknown”, with Dr. Vered Gigi and Fotis Georgiadis

Be comfortable with the unknown. Unfortunately, a lot of women in STEM think that knowing all the answers gives them credibility and proves their worth. During my training as a scientist I learned that the unknown is greater than the known and this equation actually breeds creativity and collaboration. Being able to admit to a […]

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Be comfortable with the unknown. Unfortunately, a lot of women in STEM think that knowing all the answers gives them credibility and proves their worth. During my training as a scientist I learned that the unknown is greater than the known and this equation actually breeds creativity and collaboration. Being able to admit to a certain amount of uncertainty and reach out for help are strengths that lead to better answers.

As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Vered Gigi. Vered is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at CURE Pharmaceutical, an innovative drug delivery and development company. Dr. Gigi oversees CURE’s strategy to deliver sustained growth and diversified revenue. Before joining CURE, Dr.Gigi served as a project leader at The Boston Consulting Group. During her tenure she worked with global biopharma and medtech companies focusing on corporate and network strategy, operations and marketing. Dr. Gigi graduated from Tel-Aviv University in Israel with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree investigating immunotherapy and stem cell. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in Immunology from the University of Pennsylvania, focusing her studies on DNA repair mechanisms and genome sequencing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Vered! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It is pretty straight forward — my love for science and health. As a teenager, I thought I would be a lawyer; however, when I was 16, I had the opportunity to participate in a youth delegation revolving around cardiology called The NIR School of the Heart. I vividly remember a task we were given: “If you can redesign the heart how would you do it and why?”. This unconventional and investigative approach to teaching science was a turning point for me, and I never looked back. Both my BA and MSc are in Bio-Medical sciences, and it was a natural progression to do a Ph.D. where I can really produce a meaningful body of work on a topic on which I am very passionate. I was certain I would stay in academia but during my Ph.D. I had another “Ahh-ha” moment realizing my interests and skills would be better suited in the business world.

This led me to Boston Consulting Group (BCG). While at BCG I focused on health care and with my teams, I assisted companies in identifying, distilling, shaping and communicating initiatives along the value chain of Pharma and MedTech companies. I learned a lot during my tenure, but I was missing the implementation and execution portion of the strategy that we built. Our role usually stopped at the recommendation, and it was up to the client to fully execute and deliver. We could help via enablement, but we could never really own it. My current role with CURE Pharmaceutical not only gave me that ownership but also allowed me to do it with an exceptional team and for a great cause. I believe a person should follow their passion all the time, yet remember that there isn’t only one right path and that they are embarking on a journey to pursue their passion.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Maybe not so much an interesting story but more so an interesting observation: Our COO, Jessica Rousset, is passionate about establishing a company’s culture and values but more importantly living and working by them. When I joined the company this initiative had already launched and I had the opportunity to see and participate as it was molding. Coming from consulting to big pharma and the cultural challenges of huge operations, I was certain that this would be an easy implementation in a start-up. However, that was not the case; it was surprising and baffling how some challenges are agnostic to company size. The amount of people who need to buy into the culture is not the root of the challenge but rather the difference in personalities that has to be addressed. People are coming from various backgrounds and cultures hence a value of Humanity, for example, can be interpreted differently. It is the company’s responsibility through different mechanisms to bring everyone to agree on a definition they can identify and relate to so they can also work and live by it.

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?

At BCG, it was my first project where one of the requests was to identify and visualize drivers of cost variance from previous year to this year for a certain department. My manager tasked me with putting together the first draft for this ‘ask’. The identification of drivers was not too hard, but I was totally off in the visualization. I chose from the set of graphs we had on hand to present the triggers as a jigsaw and how all the pieces come together like a puzzle to the 100% variance. I wish I had a camera to capture my manager’s face when she saw it; she was pretty speechless. I told her that I was trying to think outside the box and didn’t want to present it as column or waterfall graph. She told me she appreciated the thought, but this is not the project to do so and to revert to the expected.

This taught me that one must align early with their manager(s) on expectations early on and determine if there is freedom to operate because not everyone appreciates different thinking. Also, if you are working for a manager that is too set in their ways, it may suit you to find an opportunity under a different manager because this is a huge hurdle for growth and creativity. Who you work for and who your mentors are can have a big impact on the trajectory of your career path, so consider this carefully when making a job decision.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe what makes our company stand out is the team and the technology — in this order. The people make the company ALWAYS. You can have the best idea and all the funding money in the world, but if you don’t have the right team you will fail on execution; especially as a start-up.

Our team across seniority and positions has a growth mindset. Like many other start-ups we advance two steps forward one step back, and our team can endure and pivot as needed. If our people wanted their 9–5 job and “hide” (as I call it) they wouldn’t be at CURE. We are less than 20 people with a very flat structure which allows for a lot of transparency with accountability and our team steps up to the challenge. Everyone has a voice to offer an idea or to challenge one and overall we make each other and the technology better.

Secondly, this leads me to the technology which is still relatively new in the world of Pharma, and there are only handful of companies that play in this field. It’s just a very elegant and efficient way of delivering medicine and premium supplements. It’s actually mind-blowing that it hasn’t caught on widely yet. Our focus is an oral thin film medicinal dosage platform called CUREfilm®, which is a stamp-sized oral dissolving film that makes taking medications or supplements easier for children, the elderly and anyone who dislikes swallowing pills. However, from a technology perspective, we are always looking for synergies with other unique delivery forms that can augment and diversify our platform. As a company we seek and push for innovation to strengthen the technology.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

All of our projects are exciting, but some are more exciting. My favorite project is also one that I can’t talk much about except to say that it’s a combination of our technology with another to leverage the strengths of both platforms. It will help people by providing medicine in a convenient, fast and a precise manner.

Another one that’s a bit more public is our work with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which we believe is the new frontier in medicine. The endocannabinoid pathway is an important regulator of other physiological systems for maintaining their homeostasis. When you can regulate the body, you unlock the potential to treat a host of medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions.

Our CUREformTM platform can improve how well our body absorbs medications and supplement so that they work better with less side effects. So, right now, we’re working on adapting this to more precise dosing with different mulecules like terpens and high dose vitamin D3.. We also have a pharmaceutical product that is in the works leveraging the CUREfilm technology as a treatment for erectile dysfunction

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

In general, one can never be satisfied with the status-quo as then you will become complacent. I think we still have a long way to go for women in STEM and it must start in early childhood education and at home.

Children and girls specifically are brought up with a notion that STEM is hard. My six years old came home one day and told me: “Mom, math is hard.” He is doing addition at school. I quickly told him math is not hard; math is fun because you get a chance to solve a problem like a detective and the more you do it, the better you get at it. For girls it’s worse because these subjects are predominately taught by male teachers and industry-leading positions are held by males, which are factors that subconsciously make us think that STEM is more suited for men. We need more female STEM teachers at all levels and especially in colleges as role models. We also need our male colleagues to actively pursue female candidates for industry and hire them based on merit and not just to meet a diversity quota. The latter without the former usually backfires and worsens the problem in the long run.

Moreover, in today’s society, instead of leveraging social media to overcome this hurdle it only propagates it. Girls who are beautiful and dressed nicely are getting all the “likes” and attention. I would love to see the same happening for a girl who builds a homemade rocketship or a YouTube demonstration by a girl on how to make an electrical circuit, rather than another make-up tutorial. Let’s harness celebrities and youth influencers to break the stigma not just by showing up in ad campaigns but rather as social impact programs that are long term.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself, treat your team with respect and create a safe space for them to express their thoughts. Leverage the strengths that you have and mentor your team to grow and be leaders. Leading by example is the best approach to accomplish that.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The bigger the team, the bigger the challenge. I would probably divide the big team to small teams with unique initiatives and goals. For each team, assign a leader, and delegate the responsibilities to them. If you gathered good talent, you need to give them space to operate, don’t micro-manage them. Let them learn and make their own mistakes doing non-critical assignments, followed by constructive feedback. Then, when you need them to step up you are confident they will be successful on their own.

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?

I can’t attribute one single person or one individual story that helped me along the way; I believe it is the sum of experiences you go through life and what you do with them that propels you.

Sometimes it’s even a stranger that you observed in a situation that helps you grow. I would also like to emphasize that “help” might not necessarily come from a friend or a supporter and its important to acknowledge it so you can learn from it as well. I have one specific example from the STEM world. In Israel at high school there are different levels in math that you can be tested on to graduate. I was at the highest level for math, and my male teacher told me that there is no way I would pass the exam and that I should go down a level. Needless to say I felt insulted and was annoyed, and thus determined to prove him wrong. I switched teachers (to another male math teacher, as it would be) and graduated with a perfect score. My lesson from this was if you believe in yourself don’t let others define your abilities, but instead use it as a motivator to grow.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe our company has been successful at bringing goodness to the world by enabling people to experience supplements, and soon medicine, in a much more effective and pleasant way, which I’m proud to have a part in. This way they will adhere to their treatment and have a better quality of life. I think that alone brings goodness to the world.

Personally, I try to pay forward what I have learned from my successes as well as failures so others can hopefully learn from it and become better people and better at their craft.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why learned (Please share a story or example for each.)

That’s a very big question, and I will try to touch on one aspect at least with each of the below lessons:

  1. Present sound and logical ideas.

I found that this approach builds respect with your team and your managers. No-one can fault you for a good, structured idea even if they disagree.

2. Strive for objectivity in hard decision-making, yet leverage your empathy in delivering them.

Growing in the STEM world, objectivity is inert to our mode of operation. Being a woman, we have a greater innate capacity for empathy than men. Hence, we should combine the two as we manage. The majority of the time, it’s not the actual decision that aggravates people but rather the delivery. As a result, we should harness the ability to relate to the person and situation to get the message across in a constructive fashion.

3. Uphold your team members and colleagues to the same standards, irrespective of their gender.

The “working mom” status is a good example. Don’t task your “working mom” employee with easier, smaller tasks because you think she might not meet deadlines due to other commitments (such as her children and home obligations). This approach will create both resentments in the team for unfair assignments of responsibilities and will be demotivating for the “working mom” as it may send the message that she is not capable of performing her duties. It’s a lose-lose situation.

4. Be comfortable with the unknown.

Unfortunately, a lot of women in STEM think that knowing all the answers gives them credibility and proves their worth. During my training as a scientist I learned that the unknown is greater than the known and this equation actually breeds creativity and collaboration. Being able to admit to a certain amount of uncertainty and reach out for help are strengths that lead to better answers.

5. Manage each team member individually according to their style.

In academia, because students are coming from all over the world, you are exposed to such diversity in cultures and thoughts that it magnifies how humans are different. In the leadership/management world, I translated this into how two people, for example, cannot be managed the same. As a leader you will do better in mentoring and growing your team if you adapt your style to their style and not vice versa even if the latter seems easier. You need to find what makes them tick and what form of feedback is constructive.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want to be more involved in movements against human trafficking, specifically children and teenagers. No child should be robbed of their childhood and innocence. I have tried several times to reach out to the Polaris group for bigger involvement than donations, but with no success. I’m working to figure out a different approach to get through or a similar organization to contribute my time and skills to advance the mission. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I keep a long list of quotes that speak to me; I gather them with time. It’s very hard to choose only one, but I think in our context this one by Theodore Roosevelt encompasses my creed: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

I think my time during my Ph.D. and at CURE reflects this perfectly and I see myself as very fortunate. The beauty of this quote is that you don’t feel you are working or “just doing your job” because you are contributing to something bigger and better. I find myself spending some of my free time reading and educating myself on topics that are “work-related” while in actuality it’s my passion and I know that it will culminate in something worthwhile. It’s relevancy to me is in the perseverance that comes with work worth doing — it allows you to prevail and keep going when there are failures.

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Yes, I would like to meet PepsiCo former CEO Indra Nooyi. I think she was a true outlier in her time, successfully leading a fortune 500 company in a man’s world both in her executive team and the board room. I’d love to pick her brain on how she got to that position, navigated the water and to hear her best lessons learned; I think it would be of great value.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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