“I strongly believe the world would be a better place if we had more women of color in leadership” with Candice Georgiadis & Dr. Kimberly Smith

I think it is important to take the time to know your team. In taking an interest in them from every level, you truly understand their impact and their value. It doesn’t go unnoticed in my experience, and it helps build their own understanding of their importance within their team. Fostering a sense of belonging […]

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I think it is important to take the time to know your team. In taking an interest in them from every level, you truly understand their impact and their value. It doesn’t go unnoticed in my experience, and it helps build their own understanding of their importance within their team. Fostering a sense of belonging is crucial to the success of any company.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewingKimberly Smith, MD, MPH, Head of R&D for ViiV Healthcare.

Dr. Kimberly Smith is physician and researcher dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic and has made it her life’s work to answer the unmet needs of those living with HIV. She began her career at the start of the HIV crisis as a clinician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and has focused on the gender and racial disparities that are endemic in the HIV community. Today, as the Head of R&D for ViiV Healthcare, a company solely focused on HIV, Dr. Smith leads the research and development of innovative new medicines for the treatment and prevention of HIV and is driven by the mission of leaving no person living with HIV behind

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

From a young age, I was overcome with curiosity and was always fascinated with how things worked. I’ll admit, I was a bit of a nerd growing up. In middle school, I led our six-person “Equations Team,” where we would compete in math games with schools around the U.S. We actually ended up winning both the state and national championships!

To that point, STEM subjects were always “my thing,” particularly biology and math. I took organic chemistry in high school and even ended up tutoring my peers in college. It didn’t feel like there were many roadblocks in my career path, primarily because I was dedicated and passionate about my work and had a deep, robust understanding of the material.

Medicine was the perfect extension for my ongoing focus on understanding how things worked coupled with helping other people. I was the first person in my immediate family who went into the field of medicine and everyone was very supportive of my decision and encouraged me throughout my education — which is not always the case for women in STEM. I had a strong support network that reinforced the idea that there were no limits to what I could achieve, and I believe that mindset propelled me through college and helped me obtain my medical degree.

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

It’s certainly difficult to pin-point just one interesting story at ViiV Healthcare since starting! If I were to choose, it would be an event that happened recently. We have a new medicine that is in clinical trials for the prevention of HIV and it was found to be superior to the current daily standard of care in populations that are at high risk for acquiring HIV. This study is going to have such a great impact — it has the potential to change how we approach HIV prevention and I am fortunate to be involved.

One of the most exciting parts of the trial was that it was stopped — two years earlier than anticipated — because our medicine proved to be extremely effective, and a study stop is rare. The data analysis was happening in the midst of the COVID pandemic, which really tested our ability to communicate with the study sites. This study ties into some of the most important work happening at ViiV Healthcare to deliver prevention options to transgender women and men who have sex with men.

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?

The learning curve when you first start practicing medicine is massive. I can remember one instance, in the first month as a physician where I admitted an older patient from a nursing home who happened to be blind. This patient was the sweetest woman and we ended up having a lovely conversation where we bonded over the fact her and my mother shared the same name. After I took her history, I noted which medicines and tests the nurses should be giving her. A day later, the nurse and I went to explain the tests I had ordered. As the nurse was discussing the tests that needed to be administered, our patient suddenly felt very strongly against these tests. Without realizing I was there, she began speaking very candidly how she felt about me and used some very colorful language. I remember her saying how she didn’t “care what Dr. Smith and her mammy ordered for me.” I was so taken aback — not only was she cursing me out, but she had brought my mom into it as well — I’ll never forget that!

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?

There are so many people that encouraged me along the way; I absolutely agree that no one is able to succeed without the help of others. I can think of a dozen teachers that continually reinforced the idea that if I worked towards my goals, nothing could stand in my way. This was reflected in the opportunities I had to work with women in leadership positions who had made space for themselves in predominately male-dominated fields. Their experiences encouraged me to maintain my motivation, I was always so impressed by their ability to succeed.

If I had to choose one person to thank for my success, it would have to be John Pottage, the former chief scientific medical officer for ViiV Healthcare. John and I met while at Rush University Medical Center, where he was my attending physician. We developed a great friendship, particularly because we saw the world in a similar way. At the clinic, John would stop at nothing to ensure our patients were able to access and afford care, going so far as to give them money out of his own pocket so they could cover costs — I soon became the same way.

John was the first person to approach me about moving from academia to a position at ViiV Healthcare. I had never imagined that I would make the transition from practicing medicine to the pharmaceutical industry and was only open to considering the opportunity because of my strong relationship with John. I trusted him and knew his heart. When he said he was “all about patients,” I knew it was not just a line, he truly cared for them and ensured that everything he did was in the best interest of those he was treating. Ultimately, I knew that if this was a company that John had helped create, I could trust that I was joining an organization that was driven by and dedicated to the voice of the HIV community.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Relieving stress as a busy leader is certainly important, so I look for activities that allow my mind a break and transport me somewhere else. It’s why I love to garden and play golf. When you’re gardening, it’s easy to get lost in the hands-on tasks in front of you while you’re in the midst of beautiful nature. When you’re on the golf course, there is nothing else to focus on or worry about besides chasing that silly little ball around.

In preparation for a big talk or meeting, I always play the scenario out in my head. I talk through every point and detail; what it’s going to be like, questions to anticipate, potential scenes. I focus in on certain points I want to make and how to best relay that piece of information in a digestible way for all audiences, packaging so that it will be hard to forget. Placing particular emphasis on certain messages and working through how I can get that point across is something I take great care in reviewing.

I still get nervous all the time — but you have to take it in stride — everyone gets nervous!

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

We live in an incredibly diverse world. Our company, ViiV Healthcare, serves a particularly diverse community of individuals who are living with HIV or are at risk for acquiring HIV. Our mission is to serve this diverse community and ensure no one living with HIV is left behind. In order to live up to that mission, it’s essential to listen to and foster diverse perspectives at all levels so everyone understands the company’s mission and the community we serve. Executive level diversity is then particularly crucial because the individuals in those roles set the tone for how the entire organization delivers on its mission.

Every decision we make at ViiV Healthcare is influenced by those directly affected by HIV. Annually, we host a Youth and Community Summit that is entirely focused on listening to all of the diverse voices of the HIV community. I’ve known many of the activists who attend the summit from my time as a physician before I began working for ViiV Healthcare. They know my heart and they know that I am there for them. A few years ago, I gave a presentation during the summit that discussed health disparities among people living with HIV, which brought to the surface painful and emotional memories of friends and patients I had lost over the years. After my talk, attendees came up to me to exchange similar personal stories about their lives and the friends they had lost. We’re bonded by this connection, which allows us to know and understand who we are working for and it informs our decisions at a deeper level.

There is a momentous awakening taking place in the US, it is the perfect storm. As a national community, we are finally beginning to understand the lived experiences of African Americans, the prejudice and brutality faced every day.

I’ve never seen a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement of this caliber from the corporate world. Now, corporations are outliers if they haven’t acted, which differs greatly from past social movements. ViiV Healthcare does a fantastic job of promoting and ensuring diversity in the workplace, and the current landscape is an opportunity for continued discussion on how we can be a leader for industry and society-at-large. There are challenges we face as a global company, and ViiV Healthcare and our majority shareholder GSK will continue working towards finding solutions for these challenges.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

That’s no small feat, but you can first start by listening to the voice of the communities we serve. The Black Lives Matter movement is a perfect example; we have been raising awareness as long as I can remember, yet people have historically chosen to not pay attention. When you reflect for a moment, taking the opportunity to listen, engage and understand, it becomes obvious why the inclusion of diverse perspectives is necessary to a company’s functionality. Can you imagine an executive suite without any people of color, determining how to address this crucial moment, when no one in the room has experienced the effects of systemic prejudice? If we are going to be responsive to the world and how it is changing, we must be aware of how individuals are impacted by the social structures of this world.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

As an executive, there is a responsibility to not only run things from an operational standpoint but ensure that people remain motivated and inspired. It is so important for employees to recognize what they do matters and that you are appreciative of what they do. I make an effort to know everyone on our R&D team, to understand their position and to give credit where it is due. Not only do I highlight those who are leaders within our organization, but also those who help keep “the trains running on time.” The biggest responsibility in my opinion is to maintain that internal motivation, because it’s what ultimately powers everything else we deliver.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I’d say the first myth is that you have to be a man to be a CEO or executive. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s disproportionately men that are CEOs and sit on executive boards and it’s something that needs to change. I believe, and I’m obviously biased, that having more women in powerful positions would lead to making the world a better place. In our company, our CEO is a woman and I report to her and more than 50% of her direct reports are women. I work very closely with Harmony Garges, our chief medical officer, and we rarely run into a situation where we can’t resolve an issue or problem, we don’t have battles over ego that sometimes exist with men.

Another myth about being an executive is that you know everything. One of the things that is really important for people to recognize is that you get into leadership positions but you’re standing on the shoulders of all the people who make things happen. Yes, you oversee it and yes, you have a deep understanding of some aspects of your business but not all aspects. There are deep experts in particular areas that I’m completely dependent on to make the work happen and that make me look good. You don’t have to know everything.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One of the biggest challenges I feel women executives face is the assumption that you are not as qualified as your male counterparts; that you are just a diversity hire or that you are there to meet a quota. A big challenge for me was adjusting to sometimes being the only woman, and sometimes the only Black woman in the room during board meetings. Luckily, we don’t have that at ViiV Healthcare, in fact, we are a predominantly woman-led organization. However, before joining ViiV Healthcare, I oftentimes was the only Black woman in the room, which meant I found myself being asked to speak on behalf of all women and the entire Black community.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

One difference I had to adjust to was no longer having the time to immerse myself in the very micro-level details of our scientific work, which has been incredibly difficult as a lifelong science nerd. Instead, I’ve had to reprioritize my limited time to focus on the more macro-level challenges the company might face from a scientific perspective. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I don’t have the time that I once had to get in the weeds. It was difficult, but I had to get used to it.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

It is really important to be able to be focused and in the moment. Every hour, sometimes every half hour, sometimes every 15 minutes, I’m dealing with a different topic. It might be a different medicine in our pipeline, a different challenge, and you have to really zone in on that particular moment. We all spend a lot of time talking about multi-tasking, which to a degree we all do. But I think in order to be a good leader and a good executive you have to be able to focus on that particular moment and be present. When you’re having a conversation with someone, hear them. Really listen. I think that makes a good executive and a good leader. So be present. Literally.

Additionally, you need to understand what motivates your people. What jazzes them. Are they motivated by their ambition? Are they motivated by doing good for the world? Understanding the motivations for an individual helps you to be a good manager, a good partner, a good leader, a good executive. I absolutely got that from many of my previous managers. I think it’s pretty transparent for me, I wear it on my sleeve that my motivation is to deliver for people living with HIV and make the world a better place in any little way that I’m able to do.

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

I think it is important to take the time to know your team. In taking an interest in them from every level, you truly understand their impact and their value. It doesn’t go unnoticed in my experience, and it helps build their own understanding of their importance within their team. Fostering a sense of belonging is crucial to the success of any company.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I hope I’ve made the world a better place — I’ve certainly tried. I’ve challenged our industry to do better when it comes to addressing the unmet needs of people living with HIV; their challenges, experiences and the granular things most people wouldn’t even imagine are important. I feel very fortunate to have a microphone providing me with the opportunity to talk about the challenges faced by people living with HIV.

When I made the decision to transition from working directly with patients as a physician to working at ViiV, part of the reason I decided to do so was because it would afford me an even larger platform I could use to make a positive impact on the lives of people living with HIV and those at risk of acquiring HIV. Every day I am grateful to have the opportunity to live my values through the work we do at ViiV Healthcare, providing a voice for those who can’t always speak for themselves.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

When I moved from academia to industry, I heard a lot from a lot of people about how I would be perceived by others. All of a sudden, some people thought my motivation for what I was doing changed when I made the decision to go from being an academic researcher to a researcher in a pharmaceutical company. The reality was I brought all the motivation I had working in academia with me when I moved to ViiV Healthcare. I like to say that I’m a bit of a troublemaker — I have stolen from John Lewis that I like to make “good trouble.” I did that before I went into industry and I continue to do it in industry. That might be one of the things that bothered me the most before I became an executive, that when I made the change from one career to the next, there would be people who questioned my motivation.

Also, anybody who thinks you work less hard in pharma than you do in academic medicine has no idea! I was super busy in my previous career and now it’s on steroids, the amount that is going on, but in return I get to have such a big impact, and that’s exciting.

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 strongly believe the world would be a better place if we had more women of color in leadership.

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

My “Life Lesson Quote” is, among others, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It reminds me that that while things don’t change overnight, we shape them to move in the right direction.

An additional “Life Lesson” to live by is relationships matter; it is my own mantra and holds true in any environment. It’s imperative that you continually strive to do the right thing in order to maintain relationships and if we are committed to a partnership, we should treat each other with respect. My relationship with John Pottage, the former chief scientific officer at ViiV Healthcare, is the perfect example of that. It was a relationship built on mutual respect, admiration, and understanding. It was a relationship that gave me the opportunity to ascend to the position I now have as head of R&D for a global pharmaceutical company. That relationship, over the course of 20 years, has impacted the rest of my life.

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 sit and have an in-depth conversation with President Obama on his experiences before, during, and after his time in the White House. He gave up so much of his life during his eight years of presidency and having the opportunity to let him speak candidly about his experiences would be educating and insightful to say the least. He’s so good about not airing his grievances, but I know he has a lot to say!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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