In the latest installment of our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Leadership series, we spoke to Jennifer Petter, Founder & Chief Innovation Officer of Arrakis Therapeutics. Jennifer talks about her personal journey, and her experience of being a transgender woman in a male-dominated industry.
Coulter Partners: Please describe your journey from scientist to C-suite.
Jennifer Petter: I graduated from high school in Newton, MA in 1974, and by this point, my intentions to go into science were sealed. I was a big science fiction reader. I went to Dartmouth College, then went to Duke University and got a degree in chemistry. Then I went to Columbia University to do a postdoc, which in the mid-80s, was the best place in the world to do organic chemistry. I then went into academia and was on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. My research interests were principally what we called biomimetic chemistry at the time, which we now call bio-organic chemistry or chemical biology. I worked on making synthetically engineered receptor molecules which mimic the receptor-like properties that we find in biological materials. I also worked on various kinds of irreversible enzyme inhibitors. Unfortunately, I didn't get promoted, so I left there in 1991.
I moved into the industry with Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, first in the cardiovascular department, and later in immunology. That was a lot of fun. I worked on things like squalene synthase, an enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway for cholesterol. There was a lot of interest because the HMG CoA reductase inhibitors at that point were still new. Following the merger that led to Novartis, I moved to Boston to work at Biogen. Doing small molecules was new there, but I was also introduced to biologics. In my group, in addition to finding small-molecule ligands for the new targets emerging from the biology teams, we synthesized proteins chemically. It was a very exciting place at a very exciting time. The group grew substantially, but then Biogen had problems with TYSABRI, so I left in the 2005 lay-off. I was a bit disoriented at that point but landed at Mersana Therapeutics as Head of Research, working on polymeric prodrugs for cancer agents. This was great, but I got an opportunity to move to Avila Therapeutics, which was focused on the irreversible inhibitors of enzymes and receptors, an interest I developed at Pittsburgh. I spent five years at Avila, and shortly after we were purchased by Celgene, I became their VP of Chemistry. It was a great job, but involved a lot of travel, and I had young kids.
In June of 2015, I went to a Gordon Conference that had a session on RNA and small molecules, which was a revelation to me. I talked to an investor at Advent Life Sciences, one thing led to another, and we started Arrakis Therapeutics. In addition to Advent, Henri Termeer was a co-founder as well, so I got to know him before he passed away.
CP: What about your personal journey of identifying as a transgender woman, and why is giving visibility to the LGBTQ+ community so important to you?
Jennifer: People often ask me, when did you know? I can say, as early as five years old. But I didn’t know then what we now construe in a fairly complex and sophisticated way, what it means to be transgender. No one was out, there was no internet. There were very few examples out there and no one to talk about it. You quickly internalize the reality that talking about it is a nonstarter, so you don’t. You accept that these are the cards you have in your hand, and you play them as well as you can. I can’t say that my life was terrible, but internally, it was wrong. Then, in 2011, while I was at Avila Therapeutics, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s fine and we got through that, but I think you can’t have something like that happen to someone so close to you without it affecting you. It cracked the foundation of the enormous closet I had built.
Things began to develop internally for me, and I started HRT in December of 2016. In March 2018 I sat down with Mike Gilman, our CEO, and explained to him: “I’m trans, I’m going to transition, brace yourself”. In April, we had a meeting with the Board of Directors, and they were great about it. The following month, I came out at a work party, which was pretty terrifying. What’s interesting is that the younger team members said: “That’s it, that’s what this party is for? So, what’s your name? What are your pronouns?” The other terrifying part was showing up a month later as Jennifer, though that went fine as well because everyone seemed to have decided to make it a non-event.
A few weeks later, Mike put together a blog post about it and shared it on Twitter, which is actually what activated the world. I was on vacation and fielding texts and emails, all of which were wonderful. Many were people I knew well but also people I had never heard of before. I instantly got interviewed by a couple of biotech news outlets.
All of this was the outcome of an actual choice. There are some people who transition and literally want to disappear into their new identity and have the old one be non-existent. For me, that would have been very challenging because frankly, it can be difficult to be reliably read as a woman, at least initially. But for me, even if I had tried, it would have been almost like trading closets. Instead, I wanted to be out there, to be public, to maintain relationships with family and with friends as well as professional relationships. Being out there has been very good for me, and occasionally I get reports that it’s been good for other people, too.
CP: Arrakis clearly has a culture where one feels supported, and that fosters the right behaviors. Not all organizations are the same. What can we learn from your experiences?
Jennifer: I think the Arrakis leadership are the kind of people who cultivate a healthy “whatever” kind of approach to things. Are you doing a good job? Are you working hard? Well, then fine, it doesn’t matter what else you have going on. But there’s also an effort to be a little more embracing than that. There’s value in taking people at what they do, as much as what they are. Your work is ultimately a transaction. Problems emerge from viewing that transaction as being stretched to a level of ownership of an employee.
If you read the HR playbooks at that time, they recommend that the standard operating procedure was for the person who is transitioning to absent themselves, take the day off, while the supervisor would gather the team together to explain what’s about to happen. Then the person transitioning would show up as their transitioned self the following day or week. However, since at that point I’d hired almost everybody in the company, that approach seemed lame to me. I thought for this to work, I had to get out there and own it. That’s when we had the party and I just got up and told my own story.
It’s really just two syllables. I’m trans. When I was making the announcement, one of the women who work with us kind of laughed because she thought I was pulling everyone’s leg and that there was really something else going on. I said: “No, the funny part is that it’s true.” You’re going to get those kinds of reactions and you just have to deal with them.
I did worry to some extent: in a small company particularly, what you are presenting to investors is not just a scientific or technical proposition, you are also presenting the team. Even though everyone wants to be open and accepting, sometimes when people think about their investments, they can be worried. Everyone was really good about it though and our CBO at the time said: “Whatever, people just have to deal with it, tough” which I found to be very supportive.
All the support that I experienced at Arrakis was very much appreciated but it’s hard to know what of that is portable to other companies. Other things to think about are, what are the actual benefits that the company affords to people and what are the policies? Does the insurance cover procedures that are likely to ensue, for example?
CP: There’s a lot to be said about transparency and fostering D, E & I at the top. Do you think that your team feel that they can be themselves, because they see these behaviors in the senior leadership?
Jennifer: I think so, and some of them will even say so. I want everyone to be well and feel welcome. In our various internal surveys on these issues, we tend to get good marks. This has even been reflected in recruiting where people who have said, being LQBTQ themselves, that my prominent transition made us look like a welcoming environment. In our stated corporate values, being human is one of those values. Our website is pretty, shiny, and clean, but we try to present a more human rather than synthetic front.
CP: How did it feel bringing your whole self to work? 4 1/2 years in, do you feel like you’re better at what you do because you’re not leaving some of yourself behind?
Jennifer: I think we’re better as an organization for it; I don’t know if I’m any better at it. It depends on what you think of human nature and what really drives us. As an organization, you have no choice but to embrace different dimensions of diversity.
It takes a long time to reposition yourself in the minds of other people. You can get people to use your new pronouns, but to reach inside their mind and have them look at you and see Jennifer, not the person who was there before, is a different matter. When you’re at conferences or pitching to investors and you’re read as being trans, you’re sort of seen as a unicorn. Whereas in situations, which are not as frequent as I’d like, where you are read as just female, no one is quite as impressed. I bring a singular perspective as a crossover experiment and I have had the very classic experience of there being three of you at a table and even though you’re asking the questions, the guy across the table from you continues to answer the questions by addressing his answers to the guy next to you. How you show up and how you are perceived are both elements of this whole process.
CP: Life Sciences could do better in terms of diversity metrics as an industry. We are often asked by clients for a female candidate, say for a niche role in R&D. Sometimes the talent doesn’t exist in that form. What can our industry do to educate clients, and encourage candidates to be transparent?
Jennifer: I don’t know if they have to be, but it would certainly be helpful. The question that arises is, how do we gather the data? I’m on the board of OUTBio, which is a really great group. LGBTQ data is very limited. Organizations have to be comfortable with questions on the survey that relate to gender and sexual identity. Some people are very open, and some people are not. I understand that. We usually think we know who’s male and female, and who’s black, white, or Hispanic. We’ve all accepted that these are reasonable questions to put on a survey.
Sometimes there are roles where they are explicitly looking for a woman. Some women would respond to that and say: “I don’t want to be brought in under that pretext,” a reluctance I understand and support. However, I would be willing to walk into that situation if part of the job is to be the “chip in the cookie”. It’s a way to normalize such a choice, and I’m willing to be the person who deals with that if it’s helpful. But I really understand that some people have been in that situation too often and it undermines the value of the job.
CP: Have there been any close personal interactions that have been helpful to you in terms of your confidence in making the decisions you’ve made and continuing to do that?
Jennifer: Since my very public transition, I’ve walked into so many rooms where people know me, and I have no idea who they are. It’s a little microcosm of the biotech community where I’m famous-ish. You have to warm up to the idea that you’re going to be out there, and then if something positive accrues because of that, that’s fantastic. You are a prominent example of a particular category, so for the person in your organization who might feel that this would affect them positively, they don’t get to enjoy it if you’re not forward about it. These are things you genuinely have to think about and at some point, answer for yourself in a way that makes sense. You have to recognize that people have different forms of diversity. Some of those force certain choices and circumstances on you and others leave you with some optionality. What is your optionality and how do you want to deal with it?
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