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Discover 3 Women Beating the Gender Odds in the Life Sciences

Photo: Courtesy of Theravance

With studies showing dramatic drop off in gender parity along the leadership pipeline, what can successful female leaders — and the companies that employ them — teach us about fortitude, passion and inclusion?

During his tenure at global biopharmaceutical company Theravance Biopharma, CEO Rick Winningham has overseen a dramatic shift towards gender inclusion. “The tone from the top matters,” he insists. “Building a diverse workforce is what’s going to make us a great company, not in and of itself, but through better decision making, better problem solving, better understanding of situations.”

Shehnaaz Suliman, SVP of Corporate Development & Strategy

Growing up in South Africa, Shehnaaz Suliman spent much of her youth campaigning against apartheid, and she became one of the first non-white graduates from the University of Cape Town Medical School. Suliman was introduced to biotech after pursuing development studies and business school at the University of Oxford. She explains, “I was compelled by the idea of working in an industry in which innovative science could lead to transformative therapeutics, changing the lives of thousands of patients.”

At Gilead Sciences, Suliman helped enable access to HIV drugs for nearly 10 million patients in developing nations. Suliman rose through the ranks at Genentech and the Roche Global Partnering Group, but was drawn to Theravance’s “open culture,” joining the executive team last summer. “Women at Theravance are supported at all stages of their careers,” she shares, “due to an enhanced mindfulness about the importance of developing talent, recognizing cognitive diversity as a competitive advantage and avoiding unconscious bias.”

Melanie Kleinschek, VP, Biology

Melanie Kleinschek grew up in Germany dreaming of becoming a veterinarian. But as she completed her degree, she recalls, “I noticed I was reading different books — not so much about treating disease symptoms, but more about how these diseases occur.” This led her to pursue doctoral work in the “exciting, young science” of immunology.

While still in grad school, Kleinschek came to the United States for the first time as a visiting scientist at DNAX Research Institute. Though initially intending to pursue a career in academia, she had the realization that “research in industry gives you a whole different range of opportunities to apply the knowledge that you’re generating.”

In 2014, after almost 10 years in ‘Big Pharma’, Kleinschek joined Theravance because she wanted to work for a “smaller, more nimble company and be even more impactful in what I’m doing.” Now, as vice president of biology, she heads a 16-person department. “None of this was really planned. I just followed my passion and it led me to where I am,” she shares. “It’s been a fantastic journey but there is so much more to accomplish.”

Renée Galá, SVP and CFO

Renée Galá developed her strong work ethic on her family’s farm. “When I was eight or nine,” she recalls, “I learned to drive the hay truck because we all had to do our part.”

After completing her MBA at Columbia University, Galá worked at Eli Lilly, where she “learned the ropes” of the industry before moving to the west coast to join Theravance. “I had recently given birth to triplets and needed to be in a role that didn’t require much travel, yet would allow me to pursue my passion for life sciences. Theravance provided me with that opportunity, as well as a flexible schedule at a time when it was very important to me. I’ve been with the company ever since, and in the CFO role since 2014.”

In her 12 years at Theravance, Galá has spearheaded multiple gender inclusion initiatives, including the Women’s Leadership Network, a development program designed to drive business success by attracting, developing and retaining a gender-diverse workforce.

“By making diversity a priority, we’ve been able to achieve gender parity as a whole,” she shares. “Equally important is the creation of a culture where each individual feels supported and empowered to bring their best, authentic self to work each day, to fully harness the power of diversity to develop transformational medicines.”

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