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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Cheryl R Blanchard of Anika Therapeutics On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Stay curious and listen — Don’t stop learning and being involved in the fundamentals of the business or whatever it is you do. Having an interest in a STEM field will make this natural. Ask hard questions. Science and technology can do great things, but having important and sometimes difficult debate should be part of a healthy culture to ensure problems are solved and progress is made.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl R. Blanchard, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Anika Therapeutics, Inc.

Cheryl R. Blanchard, Ph.D. is the President and Chief Executive Officer at Anika Therapeutics, Inc. (NASDAQ: ANIK), a global joint preservation company focused on early intervention orthopedics. Prior to her work as CEO of Anika, she served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Microchips Biotech, Inc., a venture-backed biotechnology company developing regenerative medicine and drug delivery products from 2014 until its sale to Daré Bioscience, Inc. in 2019. From 2000 to 2012, she served in multiple officer positions of Zimmer, Inc. (now Zimmer Biomet), a medical device company focused on musculoskeletal products, including as the Senior Vice President, Chief Scientific Officer, and General Manager of Zimmer Biologics. Dr. Blanchard was also a member of Zimmer’s executive committee and founded, built, and led Zimmer’s Joint Preservation/Regenerative Medicine business. She is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

At first, I was going down the path of becoming a musician, but one day my music teacher of 15 years said to me, “I don’t have a lot of students that could go do anything — you should really think about that and if music is really the life you want.” That was a clarifying moment for me that triggered my decision to shift toward my love of math and science and attend engineering school.

After working as an engineer for some years, I realized that as much as I loved science and technology, the engineering career path alone was not going to satisfy me and allow me to make a broad impact on strategy and company culture or provide me an opportunity to build a business. To do so, I would need to be in a leadership position. This is what drove me to develop and move into management and business leadership roles, which are historically less traditional for engineers. I focused on learning as much as I could and surrounding myself with mentors and a network that could help me steer and develop my career path in that direction. That said, my STEM interests and training have always been and continue to be a significant factor in my ability to successfully lead companies whose growth engine is technology driven. I draw on that knowledge and natural curiosity each day to help guide Anika.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at Anika?

I came into this position as CEO of Anika following the unexpected death of the incumbent CEO and two significant acquisitions. The organization had experienced a lot of disruption with all of that and had a need for some real work on the culture. Shortly after I started, COVID hit. For my first 6 months on the job, my main focus necessarily involved managing through COVID and addressing all of the normal turmoil and work of integrating the acquisitions, but I also didn’t wait on doing real work to morph the company culture and engage employees. I spent a lot of time working with my team developing and communicating our mission and values and motivating our employees towards our new, shared vision of a “One Anika.”

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?

When I was in college, I studied abroad in Switzerland at a French speaking engineering school, The EPFL in Lausanne. This university had yet to accept women into the program and enrolled me as an exchange student not knowing I was female. I lived in a boarding house with 15 male students, and the woman who was running the house. It was quite awkward when I arrived at the house and the school.

I was also still learning how to speak French, and I made two major language gaffes at the dinner table on my very first night. First, I tried to refuse more food by saying I was full. I used a direct translation in my mind, but not knowing any familiar phrases, I instead proclaimed, “I am pregnant.” Then, there was a fireplace behind the table, and it was very warm. As I was taking my sweater off to cool down, I thought I said, “It’s hot in here,” but what I really said was “I’m hot.” So, during my first meal with 15 new male housemates I confidently told them I was pregnant and hot, making for an unusually awkward situation. At the end of the day, they all became like brothers to me, and those stories have lived on always bringing a laugh to a conversation. But what I learned that night was to ensure you know what you’re saying before you confidently say it.

This is a lesson I’ve continued to apply in my work life. I think people who have a lot of technical education are trained to know all the answers and be very confident in those answers. But I have learned throughout my career that often it is better to stop talking and listen, because you probably have more to learn than you have to contribute.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Anika, we’re focused on joint preservation which to us means creating and delivering meaningful advancements in early intervention orthopedic care that will restore active living for people globally. Research shows that the population, while ageing, is becoming increasingly active and health conscious and those suffering from arthritis and joint pain are in turn searching for treatments to allow them to remain active and pain free as they have orthopedic issues arise. In addition, patients prefer to feel better with as little intervention as possible. Patients want to stay active and keep doing the things they love like running, hiking, weightlifting and gardening to name a few. It’s their demand that’s driving orthopedic surgeons to use our joint preservation solutions to keep them moving while avoiding an invasive total hip, total knee replacement or other type of traditional total joint replacement.

We’re in a great space with a demographic that’s really clamoring for the products we’re focused on developing and one of the things that makes Anika stand out is its people. We have a team that is very passionate about joint preservation and is excited to be at a high-growth company with a great culture deploying innovative technologies to keep people active without pain. There is a huge opportunity to serve patients by improving their quality of life while also growing the organization and serving our shareholders well.

For a company of our size and revenue level, we also have a very strong balance sheet and provide an excellent opportunity to invest in a growth company, which makes us a bit of an unusual public company med tech story. People really gravitate toward a great team and invest themselves in building something that’s going to serve patients well and be aligned with building shareholder value.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have a robust product pipeline that spans osteoarthritis (OA) pain management, regenerative solutions, sports medicine soft tissue repair and bone preserving joint technologies which comprise a comprehensive portfolio and continuum of care in early intervention orthopedic solutions that are used to treat orthopedic issues in all joints.

We currently have a product in a U.S. clinical trial called Cingal®, that we believe has the opportunity to be the best OA pain management product on the market. Cingal is currently sold outside of the U.S. by our international team and benefits patients in over 30 countries with a non-opioid method of treating their OA pain.

We also have an exciting cartilage repair product, Hyalofast®, that is sold in over 30 countries outside the US and is also in a clinical trial to obtain U.S. approval. Currently in the U.S., the market leader in cartilage repair requires two surgeries and is extremely expensive. Our product, Hyalofast, is a minimally invasive, off-the-shelf cartilage repair product that is already clinically proven and we’ll be thrilled to add it to our existing joint preservation portfolio in the U.S. once we receive FDA approval.

Additionally, we have a regenerative solution for repairing a rotator cuff in the pipeline and we recently launched an injectable bone substitute to strengthen weak bone and encourage bone growth to treat insufficiency fractures called Tactoset® that is gaining real traction. Additionally, Tactoset just received expanded clearance for hardware augmentation which expands the capability of Tactoset for augmenting suture anchor fixation in sports medicine surgeries. Furthermore, we have a number of other product development activities in the sports medicine soft tissue repair area as well as in the bone preserving joint technologies space, including a new total wrist product that was launched in June 2021 called the WristMotion® Total Wrist Arthroplasty (TWA) System.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am absolutely not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM and I don’t know of anyone who is. There are a couple of forces at play with this issue. First, I don’t think that girls and young women are told frequently enough or at a young enough age that STEM options are open to them. In addition, I don’t think that they are encouraged enough to pursue STEM careers, which are often the most lucrative jobs. Don’t get me wrong, exposure, encouragement and opportunities are much better today than when I was a young woman, but we need more exposure, and more mentors and thought leaders as visible role models. As it is said, you can’t be what you can’t see. In fact, The Geena Davis Institute first identified “The Scully Effect” — from the eponymous character on the X-Files who, based on their data, inspired over 60% of those surveyed to pursue STEM careers — showing that representation and role models matter!

The other major factor is on the negative side of the equation. Young women are inundated with negative messaging around what they should look like, act like, wear, etc.., especially today with so many social media platforms, “influencers,” and filters used to skew appearances and promote unhealthy and, frankly, unrealistic and unattainable female body images and other supposed “norms”. I fear that this takes up so much of our promising young women’s mindshare that it becomes difficult for them to pay attention to the meaty, substantive opportunities that would give them an amazing and exciting life, especially during such a formative and vulnerable period of their personal development. I, of course, am speaking in broad strokes here and that is not to negate the significant progress that I have seen during my 35-year career, but we have a long way to go before, for example, 50% of management teams are women, 50% of the CEOs are women, and 50% of directors on boards are women. I would make the same statement about all other measures of diversity including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, among other attributes, not just gender. Companies, universities, and the government simply need true diversity in leadership positions across the board. It matters to outcomes for all stakeholders.

I have spent much of my volunteer time outside of work trying to create and present STEM opportunities to women and underrepresented minorities. But I’ve come to understand that those efforts are up against pervasive negative messages and it’s a tough thing to battle. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a young woman walk up to me after speaking at her school and say, “I didn’t know a scientist or an engineer or a CEO could look like you.”

I’m a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) which was a huge and unexpected honor for me. When I was inducted just a few years ago, about 2.5% of NAE members were women. I’ve learned that the problem surrounding women in STEM is typically not access and opportunities, it’s actually that girls won’t even consider a STEM career because they don’t think that an engineer, scientist, PhD or a CEO can be someone that looks, acts or dresses a certain way and they think that they have to focus more on how they look than who they are and the massive value they can bring to the world. This needs to change and it likely won’t be fast because these images are so firmly embedded in our toxic media and social media driven culture. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article deemed Instagram toxic for teenage girls citing data from Instagram’s own research. The Geena Davis Institute is also working to improve the quality and visibility of how women are represented in entertainment and the media. Thank you for your leadership Ms. Davis, this is what it will take to address the issue and much more!

There are also significant issues that women who enter STEM fields face once they are there, but I wanted to focus my thoughts on the pipeline. Those other dynamics are real and continue to exist and it is upon all of us who are in leadership and decision-making positions to ensure progress continues to be made. For example, I applaud the #MeToo movement and the many women and men using their platforms to address systemic issues with sexual abuse and harassment. It was greatly needed. #MeToo

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I am going to focus my comments on what we, as women, can do to put ourselves in better positions to thrive. Make no mistake, there continue to be systemic issues and individual bad actors that make it more difficult for women to reach their goals.

In general, and the research shows this, men tend to be better than women at promoting themselves and sometimes I think at certain points in my career I was almost punished for putting my head down, working hard and delivering results because I wasn’t thinking about how to represent myself. I also think women must get better at building non-traditional relationships within and outside the organization. We must be better networkers and step up and do things that are outside our comfort zone.

Additionally, I think (and research shows) women tend to think they’re not ready for the next step before they have “all” the right skills and experience to do the next job, whereas men can generally tend to feel more comfortable stepping up with less experience or skills. I mentor a lot of young women and I’ll hear them say things like, “I don’t think I’m ready for that, I think I need to do this, this and this first.” But their male counterparts already said they’re ready to do it, even if they haven’t trained or done it before. This can result in real lost opportunities that get compounded over the course of a career.

Some years ago, I remember reading a paper describing a study performed with both female and male surgeons. They were asked questions like: Do you think you’re good at what you do; do you think you need more training? Then they analyzed competency by looking at their outcomes and surgical results to provide a quantitative measure of how good the surgeon actually was. The data were striking. The women thought they had much more to learn and experience to be a good surgeon, but their outcomes were significantly better than their male counterparts, who didn’t think they needed anymore training. These same data have been studied in other fields including science and business. Much has been written on this topic in recent years describing this “imposter” syndrome and the confidence gap between men and women and how it limits the ultimate success of well trained and high performing women. The studies have revealed that confidence is just as important as competence, if not more so, in measures of success. These elements that women face more often than men are likely both genetic and social and will take a very different approach to how we raise our children to change this dynamic. Even just making men and women aware of the data so there is sensitivity around it can make us all better self-advocates and leaders.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the myths is that you can’t be “feminine”, if that is what you want, and compete on an even playing field. Another myth is you can’t have a family or fully live the personal life you want. I mentioned earlier that often when I speak at schools about STEM, a lot of young women will say, “I didn’t know you could be a scientist or engineer or a CEO and look like that.” Young women often make decisions about what careers to pursue and what not to pursue based on how they think the outside world will perceive and accept them. Social media only augments this thinking by proliferating unrealistic physical ideals and linking them to some idea of happiness and success. But I am here to say, it turns out you can be feminine, stylish, have a wonderful life partner, have children, live an interesting life, do meaningful work, make a great living, contribute to the world, and excel in a STEM industry — if that is what you want!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Stay curious and listen — Don’t stop learning and being involved in the fundamentals of the business or whatever it is you do. Having an interest in a STEM field will make this natural. Ask hard questions. Science and technology can do great things, but having important and sometimes difficult debate should be part of a healthy culture to ensure problems are solved and progress is made.
  2. Be a servant leader — Get in the trenches, know your employees and customers, what they do, how they do it, and what they need to succeed, then lead by example with empathy and integrity. For me, leading a technology-based company, being able to talk tech with employees is a great asset. I have been told that people appreciate that I understand what they do and the problems they are trying to solve.
  3. Focus on people and culture — Hire the right people, develop them, and focus your team’s actions on building a healthy culture so people will feel engaged, thrive, and perform.
  4. Be genuine, transparent, and ethical — Build trust and be approachable so people will communicate with you so you can stay curious and listen. Include other’s perspectives to ensure your decision making is inclusive and not harmful to any stakeholder.
  5. Communicate — Be informative, decisive, and give feedback to drive accountability and alignment, and express thanks and gratitude. People choose a STEM field knowing it takes dedication and work to pursue, but they are very purpose driven and want to know their contributions are recognized and appreciated.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be genuine, approachable, real, and true to yourself. Use your heart as much as your head and trust your instincts and what you know about how to lead. Know when it’s time to listen, when it’s time to be decisive, and when it’s time to talk. I think that women do those things with a different mix of those elements than men tend to, and when we’re true to ourselves and listen to our gut about how to go about those things, we find out we can be pretty darn effective at leading teams to thrive.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

  1. Hire the right people and empower them: This is the leadership team that will implement the strategy and set cultural tone with the company.
  2. Build deep relationships: Deep relationships across the team will enhance the efficacy of communications, build trust, enable transparency, and result in a high performing organization.
  3. Seek out, listen and be responsive to feedback: The larger organization will model this critical tone at the top leadership success factor. Team members will know you are genuine and sincere, reciprocate, and model that behavior with their teams.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate: Communicate with all levels of the organization. Communicate vision, mission and values, cascade clear goals and objectives by which to measure performance and communicate key information about the business to ensure alignment. Use these elements in your language repetitively and link back to successes and learnings.
  5. Be clear and decisive on direction and delegate effectively: You can’t do it all yourself, but make clear decisions so people don’t waste time with ambiguity. Delegate, then go to #1 and repeat.

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?

I would count a few people as mentors that really helped me along the way. One professor in school stands out. I was really struggling with his class and he looked at me and said, “You’re better than you think you are, and you just have to keep going,” which got me through some of the rocky spots in college. In my first job, I had a great mentor who helped me overcome a bad manager for the first few years of my career. Eventually he became my boss, and he was the first person to promote me into management. Just having somebody believe in you is incredibly powerful and being entrusted with a significant responsibility and succeeding at it is extremely motivating.

Years later I worked for a CEO who early in my tenure with him said, “You’re going to be a CEO someday.” I thought that was the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard because that wasn’t a career path that had even crossed my mind, but he taught me a lot, and I learned on the job what it took to lead an organization and build a business. I feel lucky to have had great mentors. They entrusted me with responsibility, but they also gave me feedback. And if you’re willing to listen to that feedback (even if it’s not easy to truly hear) and respond positively, it can make all the difference in how you move ahead.

I’ve also had great board chairs who mentored and helped me understand what it really meant to be a CEO, what it means to have and manage a board, to have and manage investors, and to stay focused on driving the value proposition. My first board chair said, “Nothing happens at this company unless you make it happen and bad things will happen at this company if you let them happen.” I think about that almost every day because it’s true. The leadership and tone at the top determine company culture and whether it promotes a healthy atmosphere and motivates employees to get their jobs done. With the right strategy, employees getting their jobs done is what drives value. More so, if they are happy, challenged and trusted in those jobs, they will step up in ways that are meaningful and game changing to the company’s success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have always worked at companies that are in the medical field and to me, that is a big motivator. Anika’s products do great things to relieve pain and help people stay active. It feels good to bring that kind of goodness to the world while adding value to the economic ecosystem in which we all must live.

In my first job after college, I had top secret clearance doing government work that wasn’t necessarily helping people every day. After doing that for a couple of years, I thought to myself, this is not why I became an engineer and after that revelation, I shifted gears and got into the biomedical space. To me, one of the most exciting things is when your work on a therapy or product finally reaches a patient and you can see the direct benefit that your hard work provided to people. I love the fact that I can combine bringing goodness to the world with what I do for a living. I am grateful as I know not everyone gets to do that. I would like more women to realize that there are many, many STEM careers available to them that feed our innate desire to make the world a better place for the generations to follow and to do work that gives them pride.

Outside of work I strongly believe that it’s upon all of us to support STEM education and philanthropic activities that improve the community in which our employees live and work. You have to pay it forward.

You are a person of enormous 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?

I would start the #youarebetterthanyouthinkyouare movement. I have seen in myself and so many smart, talented, hard-working and capable people, the struggle to move ahead because of self-doubt planted by today’s toxic media and social media environment and sometimes from negative people in their lives. The “you’re better than you think you are movement” would encourage people to remember what they have always known deep down inside — that they have so much to offer and are so valuable, even when they are doubting themselves. Media and social media have done so much damage to so many, not just women, by showing unrealistic images of what people should look like, what they should achieve, and who they should be, that people allow it to negatively influence their lives. Add that to the fact that we have all had people in our lives who were a negative influence and sometimes we all need to be reminded that we are better than we think we are to give us that confidence boost to just keep going, and eventually go do great things. #youarebetterthanyouthinkyouare!

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

“Rise above it” — a.k.a. don’t let the turkeys get you down. I have met with significant obstacles and difficult events in my career that often made me question if I should keep working so hard to achieve my goals. At each crossroad I realized I had to trust my instincts, stay true to myself and not let those outside factors trying to bring me down (usually insecure people with personal agendas) get in the way of doing the meaningful work that I love. Rising above it and pushing forward requires massive grit and mental fortitude and feels ungratifying in the moment but will yield great and sustained results.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 :-)

Melinda French Gates, because of her significant, persistent, and meaningful philanthropy in the chronically underfunded areas of women’s health, women’s and girl’s rights, and supporting female founders. Prior to Anika, I was CEO of a women’s health company that would not have been able to advance its key asset — a game changing long-acting reversible contraceptive — without her support and funding from the Gates Foundation. She is doing bold things that are not easy but make a difference in the lives of so many women and girls around the world and she puts the needed financial power behind making them actually happen.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.