A Journey In Leadership And Innovation With Paula Soteropoulos
Leadership may seem unquantifiable, but it is an absolute must-have in a field as demanding and innovative as the biotech industry. In this episode, Tony Martignetti sits down for a conversation with biotech industry leader and CEO Paula Soteropoulos. Paula talks about what led her into the biotech industry and the struggles and opportunities in the field. She discusses innovation and leadership and why authenticity is important. Paula also shares lessons she learned in her life as a mother and wife. Listen in and be inspired by Paula's story as you create your own.
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A Journey In Leadership And Innovation With Paula Soteropoulos
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Paula Soteropoulos. Paula is a 30-year Biotech Veteran, leading global businesses with accomplishments ranging from launching innovative medicines in dozens of countries around the world to entrepreneurship launching, new company ventures. Paula spent many years at Genzyme before spending time at cutting-edge startups like Moderna and the Founding CEO of Akcea Therapeutics.
Paula now serves on multiple company boards, including as executive chairman at Ensoma, which was what she was instrumental in launching in 2021. Ensoma aims to democratize gene and cell therapy for all, which epitomizes Paula's deep sense of purpose in the value and hope that can be brought to patients and their families through biotech innovation. She focuses much of her energy on monitoring the next generation of biotech leaders. She lives in the Boston area with her husband Taki and her daughter, who is a medical student and her dog, Ouzo, which is a Coton. With her Greek heritage, Ouzo, is perfect. Paula, I want to welcome you to the show.
It's great to be here, Tony. Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to do this. We've known each other for a while back when we worked together at Genzyme and I'm thrilled to watch you retransform your career. I think this is a way to come back together and see where we both have been through our journeys. I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
One of the things that the show is about is sharing people's stories of transformation. When I look back at the story of your journey to getting to where you are and I know we're going to tap into this, I look at someone who has become a real amazing leader who has been through so many things. You are a real role model for those who are in the industry. I'm thrilled to be able to get into that but I want to make sure that we share what's truly on your mind and what you are called to share. With that, what we're going to do is we're going to share your story through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that have ignited your gifts into the world. When you're ready, we can start. Take it away, Paula.
As I was thinking about these flashpoints, I never heard of that. I love that notion because they are moments that do spark something in you. I don’t think any time in my life at those points that I’m thinking about how they are flashpoints. I consider them as flashpoints but it is on reflecting back. I do have to thank you because in thinking about that, I took a little more stock than I normally do on those points in my life that did make a difference. There were so many gems along the way but if someone didn’t order what got me to where I am, I have to say a lot of these flashpoints revolve around people.
It's okay to show up as who you are and not to put up tough fronts all the time.
They are people who’ve sparked something in me more so than an event. The first person for me was someone named Dr. Randall Schwartz. He was my graduate thesis advisor at Tufts. I was a Biochemical Engineer undergrad and graduate student there but I didn’t start that way. I had always wanted to be a doctor growing up. I was drawn to medicine, healing people, more wellness, that sort of thing. I had always wanted to do that when I got to test his undergrad. Financially, it was very difficult. I was paying a lot of it for myself through either financial aid, scholarships and working three jobs. I said, “I can’t be a doctor. There are so many years ahead.” I switched to, “I can be a dentist because you can get out of school faster and start a business earlier.”
At the end of the day, it wasn’t something that I was passionate about. I had a friend who was in graduate school doing a biochemical engineering degree whose thesis advisor was Randall Schwartz. I met him. I was floored by the passion for biotech. This was in the ’80s. Biotech was new. It was his passion for innovation, technology, what we could do to patients to transform their lives with this cutting-edge type of treatment. That is what drew me. I switched to Biochemical Engineering from being a Liberal Arts undergrad, not knowing what it is but it was the path before me. That probably was one of the more pivotal moments because if I didn’t, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.
I’m going to pause for a moment here to say there’s an element of having some trust in other people and saying, “This is a big risk that you’re taking.” It’s a big risk. There’s also an element of your life that is long and you have many chances to pivot and change along the way but trusting in someone’s guidance and saying, “I’m going to believe that this person has my best interest in mind.” Especially given the fact that there was a nascent sector at that point that wasn’t thought through. I’m going to point to the elephant in the room. There weren’t a lot of women in that field at that point in time. You didn’t have a role model to necessarily say, “That’s the person I can see myself to be.”
Especially engineering, more so even. Not even biotech but engineering even and worse than that, it remained for many years, I would say. Maybe a couple of decades where it was very difficult to find a woman role model. I will take that and pivot. I don’t know if I’m doing the flashpoint but this is more so one of the things that you don’t do anything alone. In this case, Randall Schwartz helped me pivot. More importantly, my now-husband Taki, at the time, we were dating. He was the one person who also encouraged me at that point said, “If you don’t love what you’re setting out your undergrad major to be, you keep talking about this. Do what you love and let go of this notion of my upbringing, what I should do.” There was a lot of myself.
I still carry this forward many years later. I would say, "I should do this. What do other people think?" I was not being true to myself. That is where my husband Taki, in the first instance, helped me and said, “Go do it.” He did that all along the way. Interestingly, what emerged over time was that his mom was one of my greatest mentors because it shaped him. My mother-in-law was raised in a small Greek village in Greece. She had to stop school in third grade to raise her younger sister. She never finished education but at one point later in life, she asked her parents to allow her to go to Athens to learn a trade. That happened to be a tailor. She went but she was an amazing tailor dressmaker. She came back to her village, got married to my father-in-law. She was well-known.
In Greece, people would come from far away to have her make dresses. She had so much work that she was the primary breadwinner. She created a school in her home to educate young women. These women had later said, this was at her memorial, that she changed their lives to enable them, to empower them. The consequence for them would have been to get married and have a husband to support them but they could control their destiny. This is so many decades ago. I think she shaped so much of who my husband was.
I grew up in a very traditional Greek family where the women did serve the husband. That’s the way it was. That’s how I was raised. It was my husband who said, “You’re doing that for me. That’s not how I was raised,” and because of him, I had the career that I had. There’s a lot here but my mother-in-law is so inspiring to me. Someone who didn’t have all the things that we have could do that. She then came into the US later in life. At the age of 60, she opened her own business, barely speaking the language. She was truly amazing.
That touches me emotionally. I feel that when you tell the story. I'm coming from a family of immigrants who come from Italy and Lebanon. It's a feeling of this work-hard mentality that comes from so many people who come from nothing. You have the sense that there is an element of you do what you have to, you work hard and you figure out a way. At the end, when the work is done, you figure out that you're driven to make an impact on others. That hard work pays off in the way that you make other people feel. I think that's important. The word that comes to mind is that legacy piece, which in some ways is what maybe drives you too that you don't want to leave this world, not to be so dire, having done a job. You want to have made an impact and have a legacy that you can be proud of.
It’s something that I think over these various people. It has become a flashpoint. For me, there are people in my life that have shown me the importance of impacting other people. The one that’s so important that you and I probably share is the late Henri Temeer, the CEO of Genzyme for so many years. He was so much a mentor for me and everybody probably worked for Genzyme but I was very blessed to have many years worked very closely with him even when I first started because of the nature of the particular job I had.
Many times, it's the years of guidance but I know that the drive to impact patients and change lives stems from him and his vision and how we all grew up at Genzyme. I know I’ve taken that to my subsequent companies but one of the things is, as I look back at all those moments and having one-on-ones with Henri where he challenged me or helped guide me.
It is okay to listen and be human and to care about those connections with people.
One of the most important things would say he gave to me was recognizing I need to be authentic. He was an authentic leader, for sure. It wasn’t something I realized. He had said to me once in a one-on-one, “I’m going to be totally brutally honest with you. When you’re one-on-one with me, I see who you are. You’re authentic. I see your passion come through. When you do a presentation in front of, let’s say, senior leadership,” which includes him and others.
“It’s not you. It’s like you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to make sure everybody knows how smart you are. All the things you know, you’re downloading too much information. You’re not being you.” It was the first time someone said to me that, one, being authentic is important. What I have to say is that myself is valid and valued. It's like, "Stop trying so hard." It was huge for me.
It's a paradox. It's like the slowest fast. People often say that, "You work so hard. You go so fast,” and then you realize that, “If I slow down, I can be more powerful.”
Think about it. Take this forward to the leadership especially I have been a CEO. That phenotype of being a CEO and what people think about, what a CEO needs to be, you have to be tough and make decisions. You have to know how to handle adversity and you have to have resilience. It's huge but that authenticity, if I didn't have those lessons and didn't hear that straight from someone like Henri Termeer, I don't know what leader I would have been. I wouldn't have brought the compassion that I know I have.
For me, I've treated the companies that I've been a leader of a family, that people matter and spending the time to listen to my team. Listening to what they need for their development is huge. It isn't about only results and execution. Those are important. We have shareholders. You have to do that but being an authentic leader is something that I learned that it was okay to show up as who I am and not to put the tough fronts all the time.
There's a word that you said briefly but I'll emphasize it. It's listening. I think that was one thing that Henri did well. He listened to not with his ears. He listened with his heart and at a deeper level. He was seeing and hearing things that you didn't necessarily think he's picking up on but he was. That's what you are embodying here. You're saying that it's not only about what people are saying in these rooms. It's about what do they care about? What is at the deeper level? What is going on for them? When you are authentic about that then it comes through. People feel it.
I personally didn’t appreciate or recognize that in myself. This is a true flashpoint for me. It was when we were building Akcea. Akcea is a company that was spun out of another company and I was the first employee and brought someone along, Jeff Goldberg, who’s now the CEO of Immunitas, along with COO-ing and started the company together. We were at a point of 100 people and we said, “We’re going to do an offsite with all 100 people." We had people that were not only in Boston." We flew them in. "This is a size we will never be again. We will never have that connection.”
We knew every single person by name. I knew that I was not going to be able to do that as we got beyond 100 people. We brought patients and their families to that meeting who got on stage, who shared their journey. We’ve done this often but it was so different in this meeting because these patients knew we have an uphill battle to get a drug approved. They said, “Every day, it’s tough. If you’re thinking of giving up, remember me and what I’m going through and how tough this disease is for my family and me.” We walked out of the room and the family and the patients were leaving.
I went to thank them. They came, hugged me and said, “We thank you. We thank you for creating an environment that’s truly listening. We don’t feel this with every company in the same way.” I went into the bathroom and I cried for the first time ever. I was like, “This was real. We did this to create something very special.” That listening and that authenticity were all of it. For me, that was a huge point because it was the first time that I recognized, “This leadership style is okay.” It’s okay to listen, be human and to care about those connections with people.
Maybe we can talk about this in some of your examples that you want to go further into. The hardest part is when the chips are down. You're talking about this in the instance of a patient. Trust me, I feel that. I've been there. I've had my crying moments meeting CF patients and patients of different rare diseases. There are also the moments when companies aren't doing so hot. We have to navigate the challenging uncertain moments. Tell me about any moments you've had that you want to share or you're willing to share.
I’ve had some very important moments like that. I’ll give you an instance, specifically with Akcea, the first drug. We got two drugs approved but one of those had a tough time with the USFDA. We got what’s called a CRL. You have to go back to the FDA. It wasn’t enough to get approval. We had to lay off quite a bit of people because we had built out our salesforce. We thought every indication was that we were going to get approval and that was extremely hard.
It's hard building a career, especially the kind where you need to travel a lot.
It’s interesting because when I looked back and I said this to my management team, it was one of the most gratifying in the sense of the team, the close-knit team of how we did this. I hated doing it. It was horrible. These were people who we got to love. They were part of that 100 group of people that I said we would never have this connection with.
Our senior management team, the way we came together and said, “How we’re going to do this? How are we going to communicate? How are we going to be transparent? How do we work so hard together to make sure the way we communicated that was done?” It was appreciated, even by the laid-off, that they were thankful for the way we did it. I never felt such strong camaraderie with my management team at that point because through adversity, you know how people show up. Everybody was magnificent and cared so much and knew that it matters how you treat people in a time like that. They worked so hard to also get this drug approved and they were being let go. It was important. To me, it exhibited the resilience of that team and how well we worked together.
It embodies the path to being in this industry. It's like navigating the peaks and valleys of being on the top of drug approvals and winning, getting an IPO and such but then you look at the things that don't go so great. You know there are people behind you who are waiting for something to be approved for. It's lifesaving therapy. It's a challenge. I think that's why the industry is something that's important. It does great work. Leadership in this space has a lot riding on it.
There are a lot of ups and downs in this industry. For every success, there are probably far more failures especially in research and science. It could take decades to bring something to fruition. You only hear about those successes but it takes many years. I feel fortunate enough that I have had several transformative therapies that I've been able to bring to patients but I've had some failures too and had to do some tough things for the organizations. Not only that last significant one but even back in the days of Johnson as well. Not everything made its way to approval.
People will remember the wins. They don't remember the failures. The person who goes through it definitely remembers the failures and they learn from them and that's important. Before we move on to the next part of that, I wanted to see if there are any other flashpoints that you wanted to share as you move down your path? Maybe if there's one that goes further back, it's okay. You can go back in time.
I think one that’s important that's probably a big category is motherhood. There are many things that I have to say. I’ll probably pick out maybe a couple because it’s hard. It’s hard building a career especially the kind I had where I traveled a lot. I was on a plane all the time. It wasn’t only in the US. I had global responsibilities. I had Japan and the Asia Pacific responsibility for a period of time when my daughter was in single digits. It was hard leaving and I carried a lot of guilt with that. I always felt guilty that I was cutting both ends. Maybe I wasn’t doing as much as I could at work or at home. I couldn’t have done that without, of course, a supportive husband who did have to take up a lot of the co-parenting. I credit him for that because he also had to make sacrifices in his career.
We were both traveling at a point in time and there was a choice that we had to make, one or the other. That was when I had Japan and the Asia Pacific and he was going to India, China and Korea. We never traveled at the same time but it wasn’t working. It was like six months of barely seeing each other. It came down to having a conversation saying, “Biotech is more promising than software.” He’s in software. That’s how we decided. That one little moment could have changed everything. Kudos to him for not saying, “I’m the man. I have to be the breadwinner.” It wasn’t bad. It was which industry had more promise.
My career is ours. We did this together is the way I look at it. That was huge. The other thing I think on the other side is letting go of perfection. In all of this, I had to talk to a lot of mothers who are juggling their careers. I’ve given this counsel that you have to let go of perfection because we want to do it all especially when it comes to the kids. Nobody else can do it. If my daughter was sick, I was the one leaving work, running around to a meeting. One day, I had my phone off by mistake. I turned it on and there are all these messages and finally, the last one, my husband’s like, “She was sick. I picked her up from school and we went to the doctor. She has strep throat. No big deal.” I was like, “I could do this? I could let go and it doesn’t have to be me?” It started to be like, “Maybe you could do grocery shopping and maybe you don’t.” He always let me do it. “I don’t do the things you do and so what? It’s not perfect, Paula. Let it go.”
I had to have him say that to me so many times. Fast forward. As a manager, as a leader, I had to take that forward in how I manage people. I see this with new leaders. As you gain responsibility, you can’t let go that you were this great awesome individual contributor. The people that are reporting to you may take longer to get there, to do it differently but you have to be okay with it. I will say since that part of motherhood, letting go of perfection helped me as a manager and as a leader because I had to be okay with someone making mistakes, taking longer to get there. It’s okay.
I love that you share this because this is such a powerful insight. It's hard because there are so many people out there who are at least self-professed perfectionists in whatever they do. The hardest thing is letting go but when you do, you realize that there's something beautiful on the other side of it. You realize that's how life begins to make sense.
Show up to your team as a leader and let them know who you are.
People grow with that. One of the things I will tell you that I am proud of is the fact that there have been five direct reports of mine that are CEOs, that have been CEOs of their own company. Part of that is like, “It was letting go, letting them take on more and not feeling that I have had to do it.” I didn’t have to do every investor conference, which typically the CEO but let them learn. They may answer a question differently than I did but that’s okay. I do think that it was a huge piece of my evolution as a leader. The thing that I love most is mentoring and bringing on those next sets of leaders. That’s important to me. I think that came from that letting go and watching other people blossom.
This was such a beautiful insight because motherhood is always something that challenges people. It’s like you want to be the person who can be there for your child but to have your husband be able to step up and be that person who’s going to have that conversation and say, “I want to be there for my daughter and my son or whoever it is,” that’s important. It takes courage for the two of you to see that this is not a solo venture. It’s a collaboration. I think that one of my mottos is an inspiration through honest conversation. A lot of people don’t have those honest conversations about what truly is real. What do you value in your life? If you don’t sit down and do that then you start to go on autopilot then you start regretting the things that you made decisions on.
It doesn't mean I don't regret or wishing I had more time with her when she was little but it's a juggle.
I know we've covered a lot of ground but I wanted to maybe give you a moment to think back on your journey. Are there any lessons that you haven't shared about your life that you want to share as you reflect back?
I feel so lucky in this journey that I’ve had because I didn’t plan any of it. When I was little, I planned it all and I don’t know if that was partly again my immigrant upbringing. I know my parents came to the US to make a better life for their kids and worked very hard. I said, “I’ve got to do X, Y, Z.” I think in that, I felt like I always had to prove myself and work too hard to prove myself. Along the way, learning to let go of that, learning to find out what inspired me, learning to be authentic and know that I can do something that’s impactful and make a difference in the world was so important.
I feel so lucky that I didn’t go through life in a job. Especially what I do now, I started a new company called Ensoma. It has such incredible potential and meaning. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do next after founding and starting Akcea, this was something that went beyond still in the same industry. Being entrepreneurial with a startup but a company that has the promise of changing the accessibility of this very innovative gene and cell therapies to patients anywhere around the world. It meant so much more to me than delivering a new medicine but patients can access it.
That’s one of the difficulties we have in our industry. I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to get here. For the rest of what I do, I’m on boards and a lot of mentoring. It is what I love to do. It's talking to young enough up-and-coming entrepreneurs or leaders, how they think about leadership and being able to share. I’m having fun doing that to me. It’s not a job. I’m enjoying it.
I think that’s that to me is the reason why it’s so important that you’ve gone on the journey and you’ve seen that it’s possible to live a life that is full of purpose and impact. It’s been coming from the combination of all the things, the steps you’ve taken, the letting go, the not being perfect. That’s why it’s important to have these chances, the opportunity is to share that lesson. I have a few additional small questions that I’d like to ask. One of them is what is one message you want to send to that person who is sitting there and saying, “What do I need to know to get past that step if I’m that person who needs a little bit of mentoring along the path of becoming the next biotech leader?” What do they need to hear? What’s the message you want to share with them around becoming the person?
Authenticity is probably one of the biggest ones because I do think you can even become a CEO and try to be somebody else. At some point in time, you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be in alignment with who you are. It’s not going to work right. Being authentic is absolutely important. Also, even when you’re in a situation, you get to a point and because you thought you’d checked that box if it’s not sitting right with you, there are things that don’t make sense. Maybe the people you’re working with because that’s so important or what the mission is then to move. Change. I do think that authenticity is huge. Show up to your team as a leader who you are and let them know who you are. I had to be tough.
I had to make the decisions that were hard. Sometimes they were not popular but you have to do it and that’s okay. I’m not saying, “Be soft and let’s make sure there’s a kumbaya.” That’s not what I’m talking about when I say be authentic. It’s being true to who you are but when you’re listening or people are hearing from you, it’s coming from your voice, not because it’s what you think you should say as a leader. That’s probably the biggest thing that I would say, that authenticity.
One last question before the last question because I usually ask the book question. This question has to do with what do you think is on the horizon? What is the thing that the industry needs to focus on next? It's a tough question.
There are a lot of things that we have to focus on. I will have to say first that biotech is an amazing industry and there’s an amazing group of people. I think it’s greatly misunderstood because if people think, “Pharma wanting to make money and that’s what it's all about.” There is an element you have to make money for your shareholders. Shareholders and investors are putting millions of dollars into scientific ideas and they have to have a return. That piece of it has to be. That alone is amazing that they have that conviction but we are not going to be able to have those breakthroughs, disease and science without what’s going on in biotech. It is an amazing industry.
We’re seeing a lot of the evolution is in increased precision and specificity. In oncology, for example, I think we’re going to be in an era where we forget chemotherapy where you’re affecting the whole body and the people are sick but real true specificity to the tumor type. I hope they know I’m part of that. With Ensoma, the company that I’m working with now and being a very targeted specific genetic and cellular therapy company but it’s more. It's that increased targeting and precision across many diseases. We’ll see more of that with the new tools that are being developed.
I love that you shared that because this is such an important aspect of where we're headed. Everything is tailored to the individual and more specific and reducing toxicity each other, parts of the body, what do we need for this one picture of the thing and get there. I love the insight. Thank you so much. Last question, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?
One for sure is Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. In so many ways, even the title, The Power of Now. I was a person who thought that I was successful in multitasking. I was proud of how much I could multitask. I will tell you especially moms do that a lot where it’s a kid on one hip, bag on another hip. You got the phone in the ear talking in a meeting time at the same time. You lose true listening when you do that. I can take it in every area of my life as a parent or a spouse. Putting the phone down, taking that time for the real conversation and listening even if it’s a short period of time or taking more time to take a walk in nature and being in awe of there’s some incredible beauty out there. Taking that moment of stillness to recharge, refresh your brain.
I went for years, some of them constantly moving. Even on vacation, I was working and never appreciated that I was more effective when I started taking a step to take those moments whether it be like almost a meditation or to have a real conversation without all the distraction. I think that was hugely important for me whether that be family or work. You’ve probably been in meetings. Everybody’s got their laptop open. Now you have to because you’re on Zoom but I meant when we were in person and not paying attention. It took me a long time to say, “No laptop.” Even if I have to shorten the meeting, “I only have fifteen minutes for you because I’ve got a million things to do.” Giving that full undivided attention and truly living, it took me decades to get there. I’m not perfect at it still but that book was incredibly important for that.
First of all, this book was mentioned before but I think the way you shared it in your own unique way is what makes it special. I thank you for bringing that context. It's so very cool. Thank you. Paula, I don't even know where to begin to thank you, first of all, for sharing your story and your insights. This has been an amazing time to spend with you.
Tony, thank you. It was helpful to us to think about these things. I never thought about them in this way. They all happened. It's been nice to take a few moments to reflect on myself. I appreciate that. It's also nice to connect again with you. It's been a long time.
Before we let you go, I want to make sure people know where to find you if they wanted to reach out. Where are you hanging out these days?
I'm hanging out mostly still in my living room, like everybody else. I'm still doing lots of virtual calls. The easiest way to contact us is through LinkedIn. It’s probably the easiest thing.
We're going to keep an eye out for Ensoma, your company. I know you are going to be doing amazing things in the world. I can't thank you enough for coming on the show. Thanks to the audience for reading this amazing show we've been bringing to you so thank you.
Thank you, Tony.
About Paula Soteropoulos
Paula is an executive leader with more than 30 years of biopharma industry experience in strategic and operational leadership areas including drug development, global commercialization, manufacturing, new company formation and company building. In addition to a strong focus on rare diseases, her career spans a broad range of therapeutic areas including cardiovascular and metabolism, neurology, infectious disease, renal, and transplant and oncology.
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