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Zack Abbott: “Dig deeply into your opposition and empathize with their views”

By being a thought leader, you have the opportunity to present ideas, rather than react to someone else’s. This can be an extremely powerful tool for a business because if your product or company is associated with new, exciting, and fresh ideas you can be at the center of a movement and debate. People are […]

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By being a thought leader, you have the opportunity to present ideas, rather than react to someone else’s. This can be an extremely powerful tool for a business because if your product or company is associated with new, exciting, and fresh ideas you can be at the center of a movement and debate. People are passionate about ideas — often much more so than about a product — and if they connect their passion for those ideas to your company, it will transfer to your company as well.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zack Abbott.Zack sets the vision for ZBiotics. Zack has a PhD in microbiology & immunology from the University of Michigan, where he enjoyed his research untangling complex and elegant webs of bacterial gene regulation. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, where he double-majored in immunology and classical art & archaeology, paid his rent in tips from bartending at the Bear’s Lair, and was on a national championship-winning Cal rugby team. Prior to starting ZBiotics, Zack worked in clinical trial design as well as researching HIV vaccines and pursuing novel antibiotics in both academia and industry. Zack was born and raised in Sacramento, CA, and he is hella proud of his Norcal roots.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in Sacramento, CA and always had a fascination with science. However, I followed a somewhat winding path before settling on a career as a scientist. I double majored in molecular and cell biology, and classical history at UC Berkeley, where I also played rugby and was a bartender (amongst other college pursuits)! I worked a handful of different jobs out of college before finally working as a research associate in an HIV research lab at UC Davis, which is what set me on a career trajectory as a microbiologist. I subsequently got a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of Michigan, and then worked for a year after grad school at a contract research organization designing clinical trials for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. I left that job to start my own company, ZBiotics, building the first-ever genetically engineered probiotics with the mission of demonstrating the value of genetic engineering to consumers and elevating the conversation around GMOs to something beyond the unproductive binary debate it currently is today.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

Thought leadership is not about having an idea and just shouting it from the rooftops. It’s about understanding not only the topic, but also the various viewpoints within that topic. And even more than that, it’s deeply empathizing with the concerns that run beneath those viewpoints. My authority on thought leadership stems from my deep understanding of the topic, my empathy for the various views on that topic, and having spent a great deal of time listening to many people’s perspectives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

By far the most interesting thing that’s happened to me has been attending focus groups to hear people’s perspectives on GMOs. I had all of these preconceived notions about people’s anti-GMO sentiments, but then hearing people speak about why they held their beliefs and where they were coming from opened my eyes in a way I probably never would have done had I not had that opportunity to listen. It’s amazing how much you think you understand your opposition, but it’s very humbling to discover that your assumptions are often based on a reality you created, rather than one your opposition is actually in.

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?

When I started ZBiotics, I genuinely believed I would be able to complete all the R&D on the product, get all testing and regulatory paperwork filed, and manufacture and deliver products to consumers in 6 months. It ended up taking six-times longer than that (3 years, haha). In hindsight, I laugh at how naïve I was! I learned that no problem is ever as simple as you think it is, and that everything takes longer than you think it will!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is someone who effectively communicates ideas. It is important to distinguish that they are not someone who necessarily convinces people to think a certain way (that might be more of the definition of an influencer), but they are merely someone who can effectively express an idea that stimulates real thoughts from people, whether or not they necessarily agree or disagree. While a typical leader moves people to committed action, a thought leader moves people to committed thought! An example would be a philosophy professor at a university. They effectively present an idea or concept that gets their students thinking. While those students may not accept the philosophical principle presented, they will have formed an opinion based on the concept and forever have changed the lens by which they view the world in one direction or another. Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary in 2016, but 3 years later the entire Democratic party is debating his ideas. That’s thought leadership.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

To me, thought leadership is the only way to advance human thought. It is critical to humanity to continually debate and refresh ideas, or there can be no progress. Even if an idea is determined to be terrible, the exercise of thinking about it and debating it, advances us all and moves us forward. It is by far the most powerful and important thing a person can do to effect change. Getting people to think about a topic is the first step in activating and inspiring people to act.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

By being a thought leader, you have the opportunity to present ideas, rather than react to someone else’s. This can be an extremely powerful tool for a business because if your product or company is associated with new, exciting, and fresh ideas you can be at the center of a movement and debate. People are passionate about ideas — often much more so than about a product — and if they connect their passion for those ideas to your company, it will transfer to your company as well.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Educate yourself deeply on the topic — I spent 6 years training as a microbiologist and using the technology I now advocate for. I would not be a very good thought leader if I didn’t understand deeply how genetic engineering works and why it’s used.
  2. Dig deeply into your opposition and empathize with their views — probably the most powerful experience I had in my journey to be a thought leader on genetic engineering and GMOs was a focus group where I heard from people as to why they were anti-GMO. It was incredibly eye-opening and completely shifted my ideas and approach to thought leadership.
  3. Clearly formulate your ideas in concrete words — I find that often the ideas are very clear in my head, but I am surprised to find that it can be difficult to articulate those ideas. It takes a lot of practice and concerted effort to find the words that effectively convey your ideas. Don’t just trust they’ll come to you, I found that writing down my thoughts and then editing them into blog posts was extremely helpful for me.
  4. Practice presenting your ideas to people as much as possible — Along with participating in numerous conferences, speaking engagements and discussion panels, I’ve presented my ideas to my friends and family, as well as people I encounter in social settings. I was amazed at how many poignant questions my friends asked me that really helped flesh out my explanations and think more completely about my ideas. The more I talked about my ideas, and the more people I spoke to, the better and more complete the ideas became.
  5. Broadcast those ideas as widely as possible outside your own echo chamber — Posting blogs, writing articles, doing interviews, recording podcasts, etc. were the best ways to get people to hear my ideas and start evaluating them. The more people that heard them, the more interest I received and in turn I was provided with more opportunities to present my ideas to an increasingly diverse audience.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Neil Degrasse Tyson. He manages to communicate complex science in a way that not only is digestible, but is also captivating and exciting. He inspires people and captures their imagination, which is such an incredible way to present ideas and be a thought leader!

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

As with anything, the term will get overused. What was once applied to remarkable and unique people nowadays gets applied further and further down the totem pole until it has no meaning anymore. However, I don’t think avoiding the term just because it is overused makes sense either. “Thought leader” still has meaning, and context can support the use of the term. Just because people use it incorrectly or cavalierly, doesn’t negate its correct and impactful use.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Thought leadership is only possible when you are passionate about what you do. In my experience, maintaining that passion is critical, and keeping focus on what you are trying to achieve helps feed that fire. Also, thought leadership almost by definition necessitates opposition. Don’t put pressure on yourself to “convert” your opposition, instead engage thoughtfully and respectfully. By relieving the pressure, you will prevent burning out under the weight of your opposition’s take on a subject.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

A movement to better engage with science. Scientists are often extremely poor communicators, and new technology can often be met with fear and opposition due to ineffective dialogue and misunderstandings. The problem is not that people are just too stubborn to accept the new technology; the problem is that there is a lack of effective communication. When technology is presented to people in a way that allows for a rational and reasonable assessment, huge progress can be made!

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

“If half the world loves you and half the world hates you, you know you’re doing something right.” When you dedicate yourself to thought leadership, you have to accept that people will oppose your ideas. This quote has helped me keep the perspective that opposition is a good thing. It’s a necessary way to get people to truly engage with and think about your ideas.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Bill Nye! An amazing communicator and thought leader, and one of my early inspirations for falling in love with science!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @ZBioticsCompany

Facebook/Instagram: @ZBiotics

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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