Little things matter — remembering birthdays, children’s names, hobbies, pets — and kindness is the ultimate difference maker. We know that the greatest human need is to be significant, and by remembering the little things, people feel significant.
Asa part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Saundra Pelletier.
Saundra Pelletier is the Chief Executive Officer, President and Executive Director of Evofem Biosciences, Inc. Saundra possesses more than two decades of broad executive leadership experience, and a strong track record driving multiple billion-dollar product launches, expanding commercial capabilities in ex-U.S. markets and advocating for women’s health. She is a published author, skilled moderator and coveted keynote speaker who has been profiled by The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, CNN, Glamour, Marie Claire and Vogue.
Thank you for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Iwas born and raised in Caribou, Maine, population 7,736. My mother was one of 12 and grew up on a potato farm, where pervasive poverty meant a lack of access and resource availability — particularly for women.
In my town, girls were told they had two choices: who they would marry and how many children they would have. My mother didn’t agree. She threw her effort into equipping me with a strong intellect and sense of self. On particularly bad days, she would put me in front of a mirror and have me repeat… “I am amazing, powerful and I decide what I deserve.”
Thanks to her, I left Caribou dead set on being successful enough to make my own decisions — period.
I began my career in the pharmaceutical industry as a sales rep in the women’s health division at G.D. Searle. I spent the early years of my career working tirelessly to climb the corporate ladder. I moved seven times and took nine promotions. I worked extremely hard (sometimes seven days a week) and became very successful, growing the franchise revenues from $50M to $250M.
But I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t making a direct impact on the customers we were serving, nor was I able to influence the company culture in a way that was positive for its female employees. I thought that if I could reach the upper echelons of leadership, I could change the culture. After visiting Africa with a friend and witnessing the dire state of women’s health clinics, I made a choice — and decided that in order to do more, I needed to make a career change.
I chose to leverage my skillset in new ways. I became an executive coach, motivational speaker and wrote the book “Saddle Up Your Own White Horse.” I met a ton of people, traveled and learned a lot. During this time, I was approached with the opportunity to lead a new non-profit called Woman Care Global. My immediate response? “Lose my number.” I always saw myself as a strategic, results-driven leader, and coming from the world of big pharma, I didn’t see the non-profit sphere as a good fit. But they were persistent. After six months of conversations, I agreed. With my 1.5-year-old son and mother in tow, I moved to North Carolina and started my journey with Woman Care Global.
I joined Woman Care Global with the belief that poverty elimination can be best impacted by allowing any woman, no matter who she is and where she lives, to choose when, if and how often she has children. And she should do that with access to safe, quality, affordable contraception. During my time at Woman Care Global, we were able to secure approximately $68M in committed funding from major foundations and organizations, allowing us to create sustainable supply chains that deliver products to women in developing countries.
Eventually, Woman Care Global partnered with Evofem Biosciences, a biotech company developing a promising investigational non-hormonal gel with contraceptive potential. After months of discussing a potential collaboration between Woman Care Global and Evofem, Evofem’s founder approached me about becoming CEO. Again, this prompted a “thanks, but no thanks” response from my end. But the synergies were there, and difficult to ignore. Evofem was building commercial capabilities in the U.S., and Woman Care Global had a network within 100 countries. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing to develop this much needed product and be able to bring it to market in the developing world?
As Evofem’s CEO, I’ve been committed to ensuring that we have enough funding to clinically develop, manufacture and commercialize our transformative contraceptive candidate — Phexxi™. It is currently under review with the FDA with the potential to be the first hormone-free, female-controlled, on-demand prescription contraceptive that puts women in the driver’s seat of their own reproductive choices.
Not even cancer could stop me from fulfilling my mission. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in August 2018, but I refused to let that stand in the way. With the support of our Chairman, my amazing oncologist and care team and my Evofem team, I continued to lead the company while undergoing a double mastectomy, aggressive chemotherapy, an oophorectomy and a hysterectomy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
When I was working in the pharmaceutical industry, I was one of 50 people out of a pool of 1,500 selected to participate in an evaluation program to determine our promotability, executive leadership and influence. From this group of 50 there were only eight women. At the start of the program we were told that we were all being evaluated against a new standard of excellence and not each other. The week-long program was extremely intensive and rigorous, and we were observed constantly by the company’s top leadership — they watched every move we made and everything we said. Each evening we were given individual and group assignments that would normally take four weeks to complete but we had to do them overnight and present the next morning. At the end of the program, we were given a blank sheet of paper with 50 lines and asked to rank everyone from the group from best to worst. As the results were shared, I was told that I was the only woman that put herself first in the number one slot. The main lesson from this experience for me was that women do not always put themselves first and too often do not feel they deserve the top spot. From a young age I was told what I should feel and say. Women in my era and my mother’s era were raised to be pleasers and mediators and taught that there was great nobility in putting yourself second. I am thankful that today is different with regard to women’s empowerment. We are raising both our daughters and our sons to be strong feminists.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made an assumption that my boss — who was a man — knew what I was thinking and feeling, because we were very aligned and had what I thought was a really great working relationship. When a new developmental opportunity opened up that was perfect for me, I assumed that I would get it because I knew my boss thought I was qualified and ready to advance and that he would advocate for me. When I did not get the job, I asked my boss why I wasn’t chosen. He responded that he didn’t even know that I was interested because I didn’t ask to be considered. Only my male colleagues asked specifically for a chance to be promoted. The hard lesson I learned is that women are intuitive by nature and men are very literal. People cannot read your mind, so you have to be very careful to always spell out exactly what you want and make it very clear in an approachable, non-aggressive way.
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 am definitely grateful for Thomas Lynch, who was Evofem’s Chairman of the Board until his unexpected passing in April. He came into the organization when we were very vulnerable on many levels. Most business executives with his cachet and stature would not have given us the time of day, however he took the time to sit down with me to learn how I thought and what I cared about. During the entire time we met, he was assessing my ability to lead the organization, which then determined his comfort in joining the Board. His acceptance of the Chairman role, and his incredible endorsement in me as the CEO, gave tremendous credibility and gravitas to our organization. His presence will certainly be missed. I am particularly sad that he will not be here to see the potential approval of Phexxi — but we are honoring his memory by focusing all of our energy on that goal.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
There’s a significant unmet need for non-hormonal contraceptive options around the world. In the U.S. alone, approximately 45 million women are at-risk for unintended pregnancy. Of those, there are more than 17 million who:
- Do not want to get pregnant
- Do not want hormones in their birth control
- And are fed up with their current birth control options.
What they DO want is:
- An option that doesn’t require hormones
- An option that speaks to their needs.
I have spent my entire career working to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women, which is why I am so excited about the potential to deliver Phexxi™ — the first hormone-free, female-controlled, on-demand prescription contraceptive option to women which is currently under review with the FDA.
We also hope to impact the increasing risk of two dangerous sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — chlamydia and gonorrhea. According to the CDC, in 2018 the incidence of sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. rose for the fifth consecutive year — with 1.8 million reported cases of chlamydia and nearly 600,000 reported cases of gonorrhea. Currently, there are no approved prescription products for the prevention of either of these infections. The only existing option for protection is condoms — which are not female-controlled, and women often don’t win the condom negotiation.
Our Phase 2b study results demonstrated a 50% relative risk reduction in chlamydia infection and a 78% relative risk reduction in gonorrhea infection compared to placebo. We are excited about the potential for our product candidate EVO100 to reduce these risks and look forward to continuing its development.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Exercise as much as possible. I work out a minimum of four times a week — the stronger your body is, the stronger your work performance will be.
- Fake it till you make it — if you only have enough money to buy just one business outfit, go ahead and buy the most fantastic power suit that makes you feel amazing.
- Identify and develop a strong advocate who will always tell you the truth — no matter what.
- Skin. Skin. Skin! It’s so important to take care of your skin so that you look as healthy and vibrant as you feel. As silly as this may sound, having healthy skin boosts your confidence and makes you feel more empowered. Staying hydrated helps too!
- Little things matter — remembering birthdays, children’s names, hobbies, pets — and kindness is the ultimate difference maker. We know that the greatest human need is to be significant, and by remembering the little things, people feel significant.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would provide effective, safe and affordable contraception to every single woman in the world. We know that poverty elimination would be best impacted if women had the ability to determine if, when and how many children they have. If women were given full control of their reproductive health, the world would change profoundly.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Get to the highest level of authority, the fastest way possible. This will allow you greater control over your schedule and more freedom to be both an executive and a mother should you choose to. Your success and the freedom you establish also builds a runway for the women who will come behind you.
- Do not have children until you are able to financially support them on your own, because a man is not a plan.
- Behind every successful man, is an amazing and strong woman. Make sure you take every opportunity to meet these remarkable women as it will only strengthen your professional relationship with male colleagues.
- Save 20% of all your earnings every year as there will always be rainy days. You can only count on yourself to come through when you need money.
- Always send thank you notes — no matter how small or big; a hand-written personal thank you note goes a long way.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
There is a salient link between access to contraception and global sustainability. When women have access to family planning, they are healthier, their families are healthier, they stay in school and they continue to work. That’s why I am so committed to Evofem’s mission and our efforts to bring Phexxi™, a much needed, new, hormone-free contraceptive option, to women. One that she controls on her terms.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
LinkedIn and Twitter: