Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid of stupid questions — until you know you are correct in your gut, ask.
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” we had the pleasure of interviewing Tanja Dowe.
Tanja is the CEO of Debiopharm Innovation Fund, the investment arm of Debiopharm based in Lausanne, Switzerland. With 150M under management, the fund invests in digital health and therapeutic platform start-ups that radically improve patient journeys and pharmaceutical R&D. Prior to joining Debiopharm, Tanja was the Managing Partner of Innomedica Ltd, a boutique strategy and transaction consulting company in life sciences, and a founder/CEO at BioSolutions INT. During her years in consulting and investment, Tanja has worked with more than 80 medical & healthcare companies globally, giving her a broad view into innovative product development, commercial strategies, and building winning teams. Tanja is an experienced board member and chairwoman with a track record of successful M&A exits. She holds an MSc in Applied Microbiology and Biochemistry from Helsinki University of Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, I was quite good at math and knew I wanted to combine that with medicine since my father was a surgeon. He used to tell us stories of his work which inspired me. By the time I started school, I already knew quite a bit about human medicine. I’m also somewhat of a rebel in the sense that I like to walk my own path. I decided to start my first company after graduating university.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I began working as an executive at my first company, I did a lot of learning. Initially, I thought I had to convince everyone around me that I had “earned” my position. I worked like crazy and was constantly explaining things to others or sharing an interesting story before someone even asked.
One night after a board meeting, a chairman who I highly respected pulled me aside and shared that the key to being an effective leader was to take a step back, relax, and listen. I took his advice seriously and started to skip over the stories, listen more, and focus on the people around me. This shift had a surprisingly direct effect on my success in winning business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made many mistakes in my career, especially early on. I took a lot of risks, but on the other hand had nothing to lose. When I started my first company, I sold my car to rent out an office space and buy equipment. Luckily business took off quickly and I was able to buy a car for myself again — very needed for visiting customers.
At that time, I knew nothing about financing a company or managing business on a large scale.
I took risks that if I had known better, I likely would not have. But what I realized, is that you can’t always prepare and analyze every decision with a high level of scrutiny. There must be a level of trust and belief in your own capabilities, and then you jump. This was a valuable lesson and eventually, paid off long-term in my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the people I’m most grateful for is my father who believed in me unconditionally. He taught me how to trust in my own capabilities. Another individual I’m grateful for is my friend, David, also a former entrepreneur and investment professional. He has a great gift for placing unconditional trust in good people. This quality really builds up others and it taught me to think like a leader.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I always try to make space between myself and a decision. Whether it is going for walk, going to the gym, reading something spiritual, or meditating. Stepping back helps you achieve a better perspective and navigate difficult decisions with clarity.
Something else that I like to do before any important speech or public announcement, is to take an empty piece of paper and write down what I really want to say or feel. This helps me get to the bottom of the topic and articulate what I hope to achieve.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Personal point — I refuse to think that only white males can have good ideas. Diversity creates out-of-box thinking. When meeting new people personally and professionally, I like to consider someone’s intelligence, kindness, and character. If your team is only white men, you’re only considering one point of view, which eventually will make your business irrelevant. You must embrace diversity in today’s world.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’d like to share three examples. First, start with your own team. It’s vital to build a team with people from a variety of backgrounds. Secondly, help people in junior roles find their paths. Typically, young people are working hard to define themselves and tend to be more inclusive and open-minded. Encourage these characteristics. Finally, you should assess your subcontractors and business partners before engaging. Tell them diversity is an integral criterion and don’t engage in business unless they share that value. This can apply to a variety of circumstances.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The biggest difference is that you are the last man standing. You are accountable to the board. If something doesn’t work, it is no one else’s fault but your own. In the end, you take responsibility for the decisions being made. It is certainly challenging and can be a lonely position at times. Also, the most important responsibility you have is to keep encouraging others, even when you’re under a lot of pressure and may feel isolated.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Assuming that people in leadership roles are immune to mistakes is certainly a myth. This is a job that requires someone to take on a high level of responsibility and it’s always a balancing act. We are all human and prone to mistakes — CEOs are always questioning themselves too.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women and minorities don’t traditionally occupy executive positions, so you must invent your own path. Every leader wants to find someone to look up to as an example. Women have less models to look to, but the lack of examples can also be a strength because it means you’re foraging your own path and hopefully, one for other women down the line.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s funny, having been an entrepreneur I had always created my own role. But when I joined Debiopharm I thought this role would come with a set structure to settle into. I learned that every CEO job, whether an entrepreneur or in an already established company requires a lot of creativity. Ultimately, you must create your own way of work and structures that are most effective for you and your team.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t necessarily think so, we are all different and should be. Our strength within a team structure is within our differences. Individuals who are a fit for executive roles will have a highly responsible nature and typically some form of perfectionism. If you love clarity or predictability — you may not enjoy this.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Creating a positive environment cannot be understated. The most important thing is ensuring your team has the assets they need to thrive. I would encourage leaders to create a culture of inclusivity, have pride in their team, learn together, and create excitement for a shared goal.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When I invest, I truly look for businesses that build the future of healthcare. I want the company to benefit patients in an ethical, sustainable way. I also like to take opportunities to mentor young women pursuing careers in business. If you are in the first steps of your leadership career, I always have time to chat and mentor.
Finally, I like to encourage young entrepreneurs. They are incredible risk takers. As an investor, I don’t have classic investor-entrepreneur relationship with clients because I am an ex-entrepreneur myself and understand what that entails. I always make time to participate in talks, start-up trainings, etc. and be helpful in any way that I can.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- The importance of planning your time. It is vital to make sure you are aligned with your vision and know your objectives for the day. Otherwise you end up reacting to external circumstances.
- Work on your self-awareness. During my early career as a CEO and entrepreneur, I was on the verge of burnout two times. I took time to reflect, talk to mentors and the supportive people around me. I realized I needed to fully accept myself, my strengths, as well as my faults to do this job. If you are pretending in your role or unsure of yourself, it is unsustainable.
- Take care of your own energy. It is not always what you say, it is how you are present. When you talk to someone, truly listen to them. It is not about knowing everything.
- Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid of stupid questions — until you know you are correct in your gut, ask.
- Work with good people. Life is too short to work with negative and unmotivated people — it doesn’t teach you anything. Find good, humble, intelligent people — they are looking for you too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Outside of investments in digital health, I am good at encouraging young people. I try to ensure I say one positive thing to a teenager, intern, or young parent every day. Positive feedback makes people thrive. They are building our future; we need to encourage and uplift them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Look for ultimate truth and live by it”. This quote changed my life. Forget all the fancy speeches and posturing, there is nothing as powerful as truth. As a CEO, you are so busy, if you waste time dwelling on things that aren’t real, you can’t handle everything in your work. This thought stripped down everything that is unnecessary.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
If I had the privilege to meet with someone, it would be former president Obama. I would want to ask him how he simultaneously managed the presidency, being there for his family, and growth as a human being.. I’d love to know if he could share some of his secrets on navigating the complexities, while maintaining a positive attitude.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.