Ola is an enterprising and energetic scientist with +10 years’ experience in the field of biotechnology and synthetic biology. She has a MSc from Jagiellonian University, PhD from the University of Cambridge and is now working on getting her MBA at Warwick Business School. Currently, she is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Reflection Therapeutics and a cherished team member at WATT. For the next couple of months, Ola will be interviewing high-flying female scientists, businesswomen and entrepreneurs, and hearing about what has shaped them to date, how they’ve dealt with successes and failures, and where they are planning to go next.
Our first season is sponsored by Baringa Partners, a managing consultancy firm with diversity and inclusion at the heart of their business strategy. In 2020, Baringa Partners were awarded the Women of the Future award in the corporate category, where they were amongst incredibly strong finalists including Google, BBC, Coca-Cola and Imperial College London. Baringa goes beyond maintaining a gender balance in their hiring process; they have also established female leadership programmes and ensure there is female leadership representation – a purpose that is very close to WATT’s heart.
We have also partnered with the BioIndustry Association (BIA), the UK trade association for innovative life sciences, who has been a valued supporter of WATT activities from day 1.
Zaneta had an incredibly rich professional career. “I grew up in a hick town (in the middle of) nowhere in Poland, in a fairly uneducated family”, but “I’ve always liked science and I was that nerdy child that reads physics textbooks in sixth grade, you know, on vacation.”
Zaneta ended up with a PhD in gene regulation at the University of Manchester, a postdoc at Stanford University, where she studied epigenetic patterns in brain inflammation, followed by a consultant career at McKinsey and a Chief of Staff role at Philips Neuro.
When asked about what the focus of her studies was and whether she enjoyed lab work, Zaneta replied “I actually didn’t focus sufficiently. I feel my defining features are curiosity and the fact that I get bored easily, so I tried to learn everything. I love plant biotechnology, I love biophysics. I love medicine. I just wanted to know it all. (…) I loved the lab, I always felt like it was a playground, like I was being paid to play.” Lab work can be boring, “but once in a while, maybe twice a year, you actually discover something new. And it can be something tiny. But for those five minutes, you are the only person in the world that knows it. And that’s just mind blowing. And I lived for those five minutes.” Ola shared her own experience “I always kick myself for being so addicted to the buzz of finding something new”, she said.
Zaneta shared that the move from Poland to England for her PhD studies was a bit of a culture shock, particularly the language barrier and the food. “I feel like I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning.” However, the later move to California was a much smoother transition – “California is such a multicultural, cosmopolitan place, even in the Bay Area, which is more of a set of towns than a city really, unless you live in San Francisco. I don’t feel like there was a huge change of culture. Here everything goes, so you can really be whoever you want.”
Ola asked Zaneta why she decided to pursue a career in management consultancy after her postdoc and what aspects of that career appealed to her. “In science, you can do the same experiments 20 times and get 20 different answers and, especially in biology, there aren’t any real rules. There are some guidelines, but everything is a bit fluid.” In consultancy, “there was a clear structure for the problem solving, the answers are predictable. And at the same time, it felt like it was such a different stretch of my skills.”
When discussing what these companies are looking for in candidates, Zaneta mentioned “they’re looking for people who can solve problems in a way that isn’t obvious, people who think out of the box and who have a passion. (…) It is as much of a job as it is a mission – a mission of serving clients. You really have to believe that you’re making a difference, and that the work you’re doing is helping somebody. I mean, it’s not big secret that work in a consulting firm isn’t a nine to five job, right, you have to be flexible, you have to be willing to go the extra mile. And you have to be really excited about learning, because the speed of learning is probably five times faster than any other pace I’ve ever seen in other company.”
Ola questioned what skills of management consultancy are crucial for Zaneta’s current career in biotech/ medtech and Zaneta outlined (1) problem solving, (2) gap analysis (point out what’s not working well and what’s missing), and (3) influencing without power. On that last note, she said “influencing without power, that’s something you really have to learn as a consultant, because you often work with people who are a lot more senior than you, who have been doing it for 25 years. And they don’t want to hear their young upstart consultant tell them that they’re wrong. And this applies, word for word, for a career in biotech as a woman. And so, being able to influence softly and through various angle approaches is really a skill that can help you.”
Zaneta’s advice for PhD students or postdocs who want to move to consulting is “Be yourself, show them that you’re a well-rounded person. Thinking quickly, on your feet, being confident, and bringing something to the table that you think is unique is really the best advice I can give you.”
After two years at McKinsey, Zaneta was headhunted for a position of Chief of Staff at Philips Neuro, a position that appealed to her as it was an opportunity to get an insight into how a company works beyond strategy level. “I wanted to get that exposure to true operations (…) and, secondarily, it was a medtech company in neuro, and my postdoc was partially in neurology, and so I found the topic interesting as well.” When asked how her day to day looked like, she said “So let me preface this (by saying that) the role of chief of staff can be very varied, it really depends on the company culture. In my case, I was primarily responsible for strategy and BD (business development), and those are the two functions I led. I also did a lot of ad hoc projects in finance, which I found to be very interesting because I worked closely with the CFO (Chief Financial Officer), and I learned how to build a budget for a company, which is typically not a skill you learn right out of consulting. And then I also supported sales and product management.”
When Ola asked Zaneta on how it was to change from Medtech to Biotech and join Amunix Pharmaceuticals, she said “It was like coming home. Medtech was a great adventure, and I did want to try it because I was quite drawn to the short product lifecycle, to the fast change. But in the end, the science knowledge I have really wasn’t an asset for me in Medtech, and I did want to use it. But more than that, I just missed it. I missed reading papers and understanding how biology worked, and so it was definitely a good move for me, and I’m very happy. (…) And what convinced me to join was half and half the people and the science. People at Amunix are really humble. We have a policy of no egos, no jerks. And this is true, everybody’s very humble. Everybody does whatever work is necessary. And I like that.”
As a Director of Corporate Development in a start-up environment, Zaneta does everything that is necessary – “A large part of my job is BD, a lot of outreach, a lot of pitching, data room management. There is a lot of action, very repetitive, very tactical work in BD. There’s also a lot of strategy. I’m involved in CI, so competitive intelligence falls under our department. I am currently helping relocate the company, you know, sign the lease and manage the lab move. So, it’s all very nitty-gritty, very day to day. And then you have some ad hoc things, like for a while I helped with our IP (intellectual property) strategy. That was very interesting to learn, I read patents on a daily basis. So, it is a really variable and, I have to say, I’m never bored.”
The chat ended with Ola asking Zaneta if she thinks there are barriers for women in Biotech when it comes to the leadership positions. “Hmm, yes, there are definitely barriers. I mean, this is not news to anybody. I think the three big ones I would mention is there’s this invisible network that men have, that women are just not invited to. And this is not through any malice, but there is a shared life experience amongst men. And you know, they go to baseball games together, or they have the same sports team that they follow. And it’s not to say that women can’t do it, but women aren’t a part of that. And that invisible network is what meshes them together, and we just don’t have access. The second one is this credit of trust versus trial. Men, when faced with a big challenge or a new role, are often given a credit of trust: ‘Oh, he can do it! Oh, he’s going to be great at it.’ Women are tested: ‘I’m not sure if she’s ready. What has she done that makes her ready for this role? Let’s make sure that she’s really good at it.’ And then there’s the perception bias: men who ask for more are seen as assertive, as visionaries. Women are seen as bossy, demanding, dreamers, and potentially not rooted in reality. And again, I’m not saying anybody does these things on purpose, and women do it too. But that’s kind of what we’re fighting against in Biotech. And if I were to give women any advice (it would be to) stand your ground. You are going to hear you are not ready, you are going to hear you are bossy, just ignore it. Because if you ask for permission, if you follow what people are telling you, you will not succeed.”
Finally, Ola asked Zaneta if there is any book, podcast or movie that she recommends to our listeners “I have to say that The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins has shaped my worldview and continues to do so to this day.”
May 4, 2021
Written by Iris Batalha
Final Note: The WATT Podcast would not have been possible without the efforts and dedication of all our team members. On behalf of the leadership team, we would like to congratulate Ola for the initiative and hard work, and give a special thank you to the people who made it possible, from podcast hosting to website managing and marketing: Magda Zapadka, Elakiya Rangarajah, Roni Smith, Saba Shirvani, and Chamari Reid.