Calculating Entrepreneurship and the Value of Experience in Derisking Your Venture
CEO & Co-Founder of Genomic Expression
Co-Founder of Female Equity
Angel Investor, Pipeline Angels
Winner of Lyfebulb
Winner of EU Top50 Award
Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering
Bachelor's Degree in International Trade
Wife and Mother of 2
Gitte Pedersen is equal parts a scientist and a businesswoman. Having known early in her life that she wanted to be her own boss, she’s had an entrepreneurial spirit and inquisitive mind since before she began her university studies. Starting her scientist career at Novo Nordisk, she spent the first ten years of her professional life growing, learning and absorbing invaluable lessons from the corporate world of pharmaceuticals. Now, on her own, she’s raised $8M as she embarks on a mission to cure cancer. After five years of research, Genomic Expression’s platform, OneRNA™, finds the best drugs for the patient and the best patient for the drug by sequencing RNA and will launch sometime in 2019. Our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, chatted with Pedersen about her journey across the Atlantic, moving from Denmark to NYC, and building Genomic Expression.
Looking back at your early career choices and academic pursuits – was becoming an entrepreneur part of your plan?
I knew early on that I would not be an employee for my whole life. As a child I was exposed to entrepreneurship and small business ownership from my parents who were both entrepreneurs. Coming from Brazil to Denmark, my mother’s educational background was really on how to become a homemaker. In a new country she earned a degree in accounting because she wanted to do more with her life than be a homemaker. After graduating she created a new style of nursery school in Denmark. A comparable example here in the States is Montessori school. This was an amazing example for me especially as it related to finding a pain point and creating a solution for that pain point. It was a completely new way for having nursery, play and learn at the same time. I deliberately chose this path because having a job was never the end game, for me. Also, I knew before my career really began that I wanted to travel, work in science and more specifically the biomedical.
What defining moments in your experience have challenged you as a leader? How have those experiences shaped your approach to leadership?
In high school, I contacted Novo Nordisk and asked them what it took to work at their company. The representative on the phone responded, “30% of our employees are all engineers.” I thought, perfect! The scientist I knew were mostly engineers, my high school grades were amazing, and they only improved in university. So, I felt my skill set and my interests converged. At Novo Nordisk I was in a management training program where I got hands on experience with everything from R&D to production, sales and marketing and ended up as marketing manager with global responsibility for a $3B digital product portfolio. I left Novo to start my first company that also moved me across the Atlantic to NYC from Denmark. I founded a consulting company that helped early stage biotech companies bring their products to the US. In my first 6-months I made more than I had in one-year at Novo Nordisk. Two major factors of this success were: 1) managing my fear of failure – and 2) doing the leg work – I sent 400 letters to CEOs, made phone calls and I had a 25% response rate. This was unusual for direct marketing tactics, but I leveraged the skills I had learned at Novo Nordisk, which is another key to my overall success. I wasn’t starting a company right after out of university – not that people can’t be successful if they do – but I truly value the lessons I gained while working at Novo Nordisk. As entrepreneurs, we’re all bound to make countless mistakes starting the first, second or third venture but, in my opinion, more experience is a safer route. Deploying my practical skills effectively and building connections within in the biomedical industry over the years have really helped me build Genomic Expressions.
As a leader of a highly technical company, what lessons have you learned about being a good leader? Are leaders born or shaped?
First, I think it’s ridiculous to say people are born leaders. I don’t think people are born to be leaders, instead, they rise to the occasion. It is a response to circumstances or a desire to effect change in the world that goes beyond your self-interests and benefits. That [rising to the occasion] and willpower are key ingredients, but I believe every single person has the potential to be an amazing leader. During my tenure at Novo Nordisk, I exercised informal leadership and got people moving that were not reporting to me. We have the wrong idea of what leadership truly is. Asserting power in a bullish or abrasive manner to get your will through has nothing to do with effective leadership in a corporation. It’s not how I lead or how I want to be led. One of the most important questions I ask potential candidates during interviews is, “why do you want to work for me.” I want to recruit people who are inspired by the mission of the company and can convey that inspiration when they answer the question. It also allows me to identify individuals with a startup mindset. Meaning, they are willing to do things that are not in the job description in order to get us over the next milestone. They aren’t just looking for a gig to pay rent, which wouldn’t be a good fit with our company culture.
Being a CEO has taught me a lot about investing and pitching. I have raised $8M to develop and clinically validate our OneRNA™ platform. From that research we have created a precision medicine solution that provides cancer patients with better care because their physicians are able to navigate and choose the best drug treatment based on their genetics. We analyze the RNA which is the proxy of proteins and proteins are the targets for drugs, not DNA which is the same in all cells and static. When we raised our first seed round, all we had was a patent and an idea, but investors were willing to part with their money because they believed in our team and our venture addressed a very big pain point and solving it would change people’s lives.
What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health and tech industries?
I knew early on that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it had to be a big problem and worthwhile my time. It was also important to me that there was a certain percentage of probability of success – that number will never be 100% – but I had a threshold. And to achieve success, you should know that startup life is not an 8am-4pm exercise. Regarding actionable steps for women to take as leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Prepare yourself, not with a dozen degrees, but you can do something in your community. Leadership is a muscle that you should exercise, whether leading a group of 5 or 100;
- Get the right experience and surround yourself with likeminded people. It’s better to not fail, but it’s more important to try, that way success or failure are options;
- Find a good support system. The idea that you can’t have a family and be successful is ridiculous. You need a partner that is willing to support you and share responsibilities in the home. When we started Genomic Expression, I was traveling a lot and my husband was staying at home taking care of our family. Support from your spouse is imperative;
- Find good mentors. Ask yourself, who in your network has some of this kind of experience and reach out to them;
A light and fun question, what is one interesting fact about you we couldn’t learn by googling you?
I’m a nerd. I try to hide it but I’m a social nerd. I was and am fueled by my passion for science and to this day I still read massive amounts of scientific literature on a regular basis, and I have to own it. But I believe we should always be learning new skills and this year I decided to join a rock band. I’m a background singer and playing the drums [for the first time]. We entered in an amateur rock band competition and we’ll be playing in front of a live audience. I think it’s fun and going through rehearsal is interesting, some people already know how to play an instrument and others were learning for the first time. Our brains are wired to learn, and continuous learning makes us better at everything. I never understood the concept of being bored, there is always something to do. Ten years ago, I learned how to surf and this year I want to try kite surfing and I still want to learn to speak Spanish.
Lecky’s Final ThoughtsFear: To be afraid of, be fearful of, be scared or be apprehensive of. Fear is a vital response to the emotional psyche and can be too powerful to use as a motivator because it also can paralyze. Our featured woman, who is crushing it, offers critical guidance on having the support mechanisms to conquer fear and to be successful as an entrepreneur. Awe-inspiring!
Rather than fear, let’s prefer to motivate someone by eliminating doubt as doubt destroys motivation!
If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.
Sharon Mwale Program Manager [email protected]