Female Disruptors: Joanna Williams of Lexitas Pharma Services On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry


“You don’t have to be right, but you can’t be wrong.” When I first heard this (from Steve Dunn while prepping for an important pitch to get our CEO to fund a project) I didn’t really understand it. But it’s been a guiding mantra for me ever since. It’s important that everything you say or present is believable. It may be an estimate, but if it’s exaggerated or incorrect it calls into question everything else you say.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, we had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Williams.

Joanna Williams is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Lexitas Pharma Services, an ophthalmology-focused CRO based in Durham, NC. As a core member of the executive team, she is responsible for operational delivery, business growth and service expansion, with a particular focus on ensuring exceptional service for clients. Joanna is a serial founder in the life sciences industry, first co-founding a clinical technology company which was subsequently acquired by a large company in the space, before becoming a Co-Founder at Lexitas.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

I’ve always enjoyed science and as a Genetics major in college, thought I would either become a doctor or pursue a PhD. The summer before my senior year, I got a summer job at a clinic conducting clinical trials and it was my first exposure to clinical research. I loved it. My experience in the clinic was transformative for me. I came to enjoy operating at the intersection of science, medicine and business. I knew at that point that this was something I wanted to learn more about and pursue as a career.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Even from my very first experience in clinical research I could see things that could be done more efficiently. This was in the mid-90’s and everything was still heavily paper-based. New technologies were slowly emerging to automate some of the core clinical research processes. Seeing an opportunity to do things better, a co-worker and I started a clinical technology company that would improve speed of completion and reduce costs for conduct of clinical trials. We ultimately sold the technology to a large company in the space and went on to build this tech service for them over the next decade. While this technology was quite novel at the time, it’s become standard of trial conduct now.

Lexitas Pharma Services is my second stint as an entrepreneur. After 15 years working in the clinical research organization (CRO) space, we set out to build a different kind of CRO here at Lexitas. We wanted to defy the old CRO reputation and show that there is a different way in which companies can interact with clients and employees. I feel that we’ve been able to stay true to that vision because we keep our core values at the center of all of our decision-making. In fact, there have been instances where we turned down opportunities because we felt that our values did not align with the prospective customer. As a result of this approach, we’ve retained a reputation for great client experiences, very low employee turnover and a track record of successful trial execution.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I was fortunate to have many strong supporters and role models along my career development, but one person who I would consider a true mentor. Steve Dunn started out as a consultant I hired to help with a large-scale process re-engineering project, but became a teacher, mentor and trusted advisor to me over the years. He taught me what it meant to be a leader and the impact of management behavior on an organization. He had a huge impact on my development as a manager and leader. Sadly, he passed away suddenly in 2012, but I think he would be proud of me today. I still hear his voice in my head quite often when trying to make decisions.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The first thing that came to mind is social media. I think back to the early days of the social media revolution when it held such promise and began with great intentions to connect people and ideas. It has changed so much of the way our world works — in many ways for the positive. I think it’s clear, however, that it has also had a ‘not so positive’ impact on the world. The negative, unintended consequences are vast and still have us navigating uncharted territory with legislation, corporate responsibility, free speech debate, etc.

In the world of ophthalmology research, we have the opportunity and privilege to be a part of positive disruption with some of the novel therapies and innovative drug delivery mechanisms being studied. The potential to slow down, reverse or prevent ophthalmic diseases or to treat the eye with less invasive drug delivery methods has a direct and positive impact on potentially millions of patients around the world.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

There are three distinct bits of advice I’ve received along my career journey that I still live by and often repeat.

“You don’t have to be right, but you can’t be wrong.” When I first heard this (from Steve Dunn while prepping for an important pitch to get our CEO to fund a project) I didn’t really understand it. But it’s been a guiding mantra for me ever since. It’s important that everything you say or present is believable. It may be an estimate, but if it’s exaggerated or incorrect it calls into question everything else you say.

Another piece of management advice I live by is, “The kids know the difference.” I think this came from a silly commercial many years ago and stuck as a phrase amongst a management team I was a part of. You aren’t fooling anyone. People know when you don’t practice what you preach. Don’t stand up in front of your staff and tout values or behaviors that you don’t live by. It’s the quickest way to lose respect and loyalty from your employees.

My favorite quote that immediately made an impact on me and how I determine how much energy to spend on unsolicited advice or criticism: “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Brene Brown

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Lexitas was recently acquired by QHP Capital and I am excited about staying here to see Lexitas reach its full potential as a premier player in the ophthalmology space. I also foresee taking on advisory and board member roles to help other small companies succeed. Having done this twice now, I feel I have some experience and hard learned lessons to share, particularly for companies led by first-time women founders.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I’m not sure where to start with this one! There is no question that there is a subconscious (or conscious) bias that men already belong at the table and women need to prove that they belong at the table. There has been much written on this topic, but I’d say from my experience women have a harder time getting their ideas heard and accepted. They are more quickly dismissed.

As an industry, there has been progress, but we still have a long way to go. Clinical research is dominated by women, with over 70% of employees being female. But at the executive and board levels, this representation is heavily lacking. We have to do more to make things representative.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Two books come to mind that have had a significant impact on the way I think and show up as a leader. The first one was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I want every college-age girl to read this book… and then read it again at 30 and again at 40. I was at an executive level at a very young age and imposter syndrome is real! This book helped me to see things differently and take my seat at the table with more confidence.

Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, made a huge impact on me and especially the way I thought about showing up as a leader. This should be a must-read for everyone on a leadership position — of any gender. After years of “never let them see you sweat” and other walls and facades we’ve built up to appear as though we have it all together, the idea of showing vulnerability as a leader and seeing it as strength is a challenge. Dare to Lead gives us a new paradigm, which encourages showing vulnerability in leadership and emphasizes how important authenticity is in connecting with your team and building trust and loyalty.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Women shouldn’t feel they have to choose between having a family and having a career. Also let’s stop looking at maternity leave as a “benefit” or handled like a disability. Many countries are doing much, much better than the US in this area. A minimum of 3 months paid leave should be standard. I’ve heard business owners and leaders make comments about how they would go broke if they offered 3 months paid. Lexitas is more than 80% female, and we’ve yet to go broke with 3 month paid maternity leave.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As cliche as it may sound, “don’t sweat the small stuff” is really the way I try to live and it applies in every aspect of life from business, to parenting to relationships. I’d rather stay focused on the things that really matter in life and the things that really move the needle in business. When you look back, you rarely remember the details anyway.

How can our readers follow you online?

Linkedin is a great way to connect with me. www.linkedin.com/in/joannalwilliams/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!