Confidence — Confidence may look different from person to person, but you must be confident in yourself
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Samantha Kerr, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of Merz Aesthetics.
Dr. Samantha Kerr leads the Research and Development team at Merz Aesthetics, the largest dedicated medical aesthetics business globally, where she is instrumental in setting and shaping scientific strategy for product innovation. She came to the business in March 2020 with nearly two decades of demonstrated success and leadership in medical aesthetics and healthcare. Prior to joining Merz Aesthetics, Kerr served as the Vice President Global Area Head Medical Aesthetics, Device at Allergan Ltd., where she oversaw the design, development and execution of global programs to gain product approvals in the U.S., EU, China and Japan, and managed a global team with responsibility for more than 15 device programs from early stage to launch readiness.
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 childhood “backstory”?
Thank you for having me! From the beginning, my family ingrained a sense of curiosity in me and I was always searching the house for my next discovery. When I was very young, I remember dismantling my father’s radio to see how it worked. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put it back together again, but it ignited my passion for science and how things work.
I was definitely the kid who asked “why?” about everything. I carried this inquisitive mindset throughout my educational and professional career, and it is now the backbone of my research and innovation-driven role as Chief Scientific Officer for Merz Aesthetics.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I have always leaned into my connection to science, so when it came time to continue my education and to identify a career path, focusing on this field was the most obvious option to me.
I went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, to pursue a double degree in Biochemistry & Immunology, and then went on to complete my PhD in Biochemical Parasitology at the University of Glasgow. During my PhD, I was introduced to the world of pharmaceutical drug development, and I was fascinated with the whole process. I later went on to complete a Genetics and Genomics certification at Stanford University to build upon that.
Once I finished my PhD, I moved to London where all the pharmaceutical jobs were at the time and started as a medical writer/clinical scientist at a Phase 1 Unit, testing new drugs in healthy volunteers. Having worked in pharmaceuticals for the first years of my career, I then joined a company that had a neuromodulator — an injection used to treat wrinkles- similar to the one that the business I now work for, Merz Aesthetics, owns.
During this time, I was working on therapeutic uses for the drug (e.g., excessive sweating, spasticity, overactive bladder) and later started investigating aesthetic uses for the product, such as the smoothing of frown wrinkles. That’s when my medical aesthetics journey started.
It felt like a natural fit as aesthetics has always been an area of interest for me. Earlier in life I was a model — and in fact, my mother was a model and my sister is a full-time model — so the beauty industry has always been close to my heart. I loved the sense of confidence I felt when walking down the runway or posing for the camera and, though my modeling days are fondly behind me, I still feel that way about my work in medical aesthetics. For me, medical aesthetics are a tool for self-expression. People are often trying to create a look that represents how they feel on the inside, which may see, small from the outside but can have an immense impact on self-confidence.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Like many, COVID-19 changed everything for me. No other single event has impacted the world and the aesthetics industry so significantly. I still recall the day we entered lockdown. No one knew what to do or expect. There was no historical precedent of how to manage our ongoing clinical trials, teams and of course ourselves. In times of such uncertainty, it was my job as a leader to maintain trust in my team. I am proud of the many accomplishments and milestones the Research and Development team achieved throughout the pandemic. Together, our research and innovation rose to the new demands of the industry and exceeded all our previous benchmarks.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would say, curiosity, perseverance and focus have been the bedrock to my success.
- Curiosity — In my work, it’s imperative to always be inquisitive — curiosity fuels science. It’s hard to find breakthroughs if you don’t keep wondering what’s possible!
- Perseverance — Most professions within Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) are male-dominated. There have been times during my studies and in my career when felt as though I needed to work even harder to be taken seriously as a woman in this field.
- Focus — When a day in the lab didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, I didn’t let it deter or distract me from my ultimate goal.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
I believe that society has ingrained preconceived thoughts as to how women (and men) are “supposed” to behave. This strict gender binary of men as the leaders and women as the listeners is a false notion that many experience throughout their lives. Societal discomfort arises when women step outside of this imposed role.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
There are many examples, and they all fall to behavior. In both social and professional settings, women are far too often interrupted, spoken over and belittled.
In pursuing a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths), I was the only woman in a number of lectures at University and it was daunting trying to assert myself and be taken seriously. I feel lucky, as I have had the enormous privilege of having a strong network of women around me who provided support and encouragement, but I would have liked to have the support of every one of my classmates, men included.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
I will say this: everyone, including women, should feel empowered to be their most authentic self and pursue the opportunities that enrich their lives. No matter the people around you or their feelings, be confident in your own voice and be willing to lead. Don’t apologize for being who you are and don’t worry about the opinions of others, as hard as it can be sometimes.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
There is undoubtedly systemic bias in our workplace and our society, and we have been conditioned to believe that we should feel unease around powerful women. As a society, we need to step outside of this notion and treat everyone with the respect they deserve. Women and men need to be stronger advocates for their counterparts and women need to have more visibility in leadership positions.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
The experiences that come to mind all have one common theme — trying to embarrass or make a person feel uncomfortable. I have seen this done, not just with women, but with anyone that may be seen as “different” to the majority.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge women leaders face is being treated as an equal to our male counterparts. Despite the fact that we are equally, or frankly, sometimes more qualified, we are often made to think that we must repeatedly prove ourselves.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
My father’s favorite expression was “work hard, play hard.” I try to do this by finding a healthy balance between my work life with my family and personal life. That usually means I have a very busy schedule, and there are certainly times when I wish there were more hours in the day. For women especially, it can be a struggle to balance all of the many roles and shoes you may fill.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
For me, the tipping point was feedback from my family and friends that had not seen me or believed that I was making work more of a priority. I then made the decision to adjust my schedule to free space for the things and people which matter most to me.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that beauty has many facets, and it’s our overall wellness that is most important — how we look and feel. Whether that’s how good we feel when we are dressed well, how rested we are, or how well we eat. None of this is superficial; it’s essential for us to feel healthy and feel good about ourselves.
As a leader, the emphasis I put on beauty far exceeds the physical — it’s about exuding and instilling confidence in myself and my team. I am lucky that Merz Aesthetics’ culture embraces our emotional, physical and mental health, to support everyone in the identification of what drives and fulfills them. For our customers, patients and employees, we exist to bring authentic confidence to life, and I could not be prouder to be a part of a business that is pioneering the industry with the way we see beauty in uniqueness and how we celebrate originality.
How is this similar or different for men?
I think it’s exactly the same. Certainly, men have an entirely different set of expectations for their professional careers, but I still believe wellness is important to all of us.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
The five things you need to thrive and succeed as a powerful woman are, in my opinion, as follows:
- Confidence — Confidence may look different from person to person, but you must be confident in yourself
- Determination — There will always be setbacks, but if you remain steadfast in what you want you have a better chance of realizing your goals.
- Vulnerability — Women are often unfairly told to hide pieces of themselves at work. I believe it’s important to show vulnerability as a leader and be your authentic self.
- Courage — Speak up for yourself and what you want.
- Passion — Doing what you’re passionate about makes the most challenging days easier and the rewards more rewarding.
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.
It would be such an honor to have a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. I believe she is the ultimate example of a powerful woman.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.