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Power Women: Pelin Thorogood of Radicle Science On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Perhaps they see us powerful women as less feminine and more pushy, and they may prefer more feminine and less push. Perhaps they see us changing their easy social dynamics. It could be any or all of the above. The point is that powerful women are still not expected to charge into what’s still mostly a man’s world — and certainly not at a young age. Our very existence as equals — or even bosses to men — is still uncommon. The presence of women is still incongruent with manmade social constructs in business that have become the norm in “modern” society.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Pelin Thorogood.

Leading industry-disrupting, award-winning companies in male-dominated fields — all while raising two young kids and taking them on wilderness adventures around the world — Pelin Thorogood exemplifies the Power Woman.

With an unwavering focus on data and technology throughout her career, Pelin is currently re-imagining ways to achieve precision medicine as Co-founder and Executive Chair of Radicle Science, a transformative healthtech B-corp validating natural medicine effectiveness for the first time.

Previously, Pelin was a leader in creating the digital marketing space as CMO of WebSideStory (IPO in 2004, acquisition by Adobe/Omniture in 2008), the pioneer of web analytics, as well as CEO of Anametrix (acquired in 2015), an award-winning predictive analytics company serving clients including Chrysler, J&J, and Viacom.

Deeply committed to impact, education, and community, Pelin is the Co-founder and President of the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, Trustee and Treasurer of the UC San Diego Foundation, Executive Board member of the UC San Diego Basement start-up incubator, Co-Chair of the UC San Diego Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council, Executive-in-Residence for the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Industry Scholar for the Cornell Institute of Healthy Futures, and most importantly of all, a mentor to many. Pelin holds a B.S., M.Eng and MBA, all from Cornell.

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 childhood “backstory”?

I was born and raised in one of the oldest and most historical cities in the world, Istanbul, Turkey, by some incredible women. My mother is a self-described mustang, pretty unique for a Turkish woman in those days. She is strong, independent and adventurous — and has been an inspiration for me. My aunt was a professional race car driver, which likely says it all. My paternal grandma was a leading voice in the Democratic party in her day. And my maternal grandma was a natural storyteller, taking me on magical journeys every night as she vividly recounted her days growing up as an Ottoman elite, immersing me in family stories of our pre-Republic life.

When I was 11, I was admitted to Robert College, a 158-year-old independent American high school in Istanbul, with a gorgeous campus overlooking the Bosphorus. I give full credit to Robert College for arming me with a truly multifaceted educational and cultural foundation. It also became my first tribe, as I am still in close contact with most of my graduating class.

With my mother working for a Swiss firm and my father for NATO, I also had the good fortune to travel extensively across Europe throughout my teenage years.

Upon graduating from high school, I journeyed 5,000 miles across the ocean to Ithaca, New York to attend Cornell on a scholarship. Over the next six years, I went on to receive my BS and Masters in Engineering, as well as my MBA from Cornell — and even managed to sneak in a semester abroad in Paris! Although it was initially quite the culture shock going from cosmopolitan Istabul to a small college town in the finger lakes region of New York, I loved every moment of it! It turned out to be an incredible educational experience, as well as a whole new adventure, both in culture and nature. It was in Ithaca that I realized the great outdoors is my truly happy place.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

Until about six years ago, I was enjoying a great career in big data and analytics as a C-level executive in several public and private companies. I had been a key part of the digital marketing / digital analytics revolution of the 2000s and was proud of how my products enabled data-driven decisions in companies big and small nationally. I lived in sunny San Diego, had two amazing kids, and was galavanting around the world experiencing phenomenal remote locations. Honestly, I thought life was as good as it gets. Then the unexpected happened. In late 2015, my husband nearly died of a massive aortic rupture and dissection, requiring three separate open-heart surgeries to save his life. I watched the miracle of modern medical technology in action to save his life. However, what transformed me was realizing that the same medical technology was woefully inadequate when it came to addressing pain relief following the traumatic surgeries. With the encouragement of our long-term family friend Andy Noorda, I turned to alternative medicines for help — and they worked! When Andy recommended transdermal CBD patches for my husband’s pain, he had also told us how CBD was delivering absolutely remarkable improvements for his son Max, who was born with cerebral palsy. Given our positive experiences, I was more than intrigued. Following extensive conversations with dozens of people, I learned how so many were using cannabis products for many ailments, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to autism, sleep, and everyday chronic pain. The breadth of the potential benefits was honestly astounding to me — as was the lack of clinical data supporting its effectiveness.

Andy and I decided it was time to bring in private money for much-needed research funding. We co-founded the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, with the mission to explore the health benefits of cannabinoids with clinical and scientific research and then leverage this evidence-based data for education and advocacy. Our approach has been called Venture Philanthropy, which is a model that goes far beyond writing checks. We took a deep, long-term view into what it means to invest in cutting-edge cannabinoid research and education to improve public health and safety — and dove in.

The break I took to focus on my family during this massive health crisis — along with key realizations about how I could make a difference in the world of healthcare and wellness — ended up serving as a launching point for an entirely new career for me. Of course, that’s only the beginning of another story, as no path comes without its many twists and turns.

During the next five years, I drank from a fire hose (my favorite thing to do!) learning all about clinical trials and cannabinoid science, all while getting involved in revolutionary studies to explore the mechanisms of action and the personalized effects of cannabinoids. These were amazing times, though I must admit to being taken aback by the very slow speed of traditional clinical research. Also, due to federal regulations, the academic research institutes with whom we partnered were unable to study any of the thousands of cannabinoid products used by tens of millions of Americans. The small size of the trials and intention homogeneity of the participants were the other points of contention for me.

Being a data girl through and through, I knew the findings would not be at all applicable to the population at large, given the lack of diversity of demographics, behaviors and pre-existing conditions given the inclusion / exclusion criteria. I was feeling frustrated, and something deep within me knew there was much more I could do — needed to do — to drive the kind of impact I wanted. Then the pandemic hit.

On April 29, 2020, about a month into the pandemic, my good friend and like-spirited colleague Dr. Jeff Chen and I started talking about a new health tech venture. Jeff was the founder and executive director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. He had similar frustrations about the current clinical trial model and the way we studied consumer health products in general. We both had an innate belief there was a better way. Our conversations intensified as we plotted to start a Rebellion against the status quo of healthcare and a Movement towards democratized, personalized treatments that have the potential to deliver well-being for all future generations.

Radicle Science is the intersection of my passions — analytics and healthcare — and focuses my skills and operational experience into my passion. Starting a new endeavor in the midst of a global pandemic — and with a partner that I respected but didn’t deeply know — may sound a little crazy. Yet something inside me knew this was finally it. I took an absolute leap of faith because I believed in our mission and completely trusted my co-founder Jeff. And that’s how Radicle Science was born!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

This one is definitively interesting — though not a happy story. Early in my career, I was working for a publicly traded, high-flying tech company that became wrapped up in a major accounting scandal. I still remember reading about the initial allegations “above the fold” on my morning Wall Street Journal, before heading to work that Monday morning and seeing cop cars literally everywhere.

The tech company stock, which prior to the fraud becoming public had a multi-billion dollar market cap, plummeted to become literally the worst performing stock of Q2 2002. We laid off more than 80% of the team. (I was among the small team that stayed with the company during the turnaround, which was its own painful adventure.) More than a dozen people from the senior leadership team were found guilty of fraud. Many went to prison.

The entire event was a tragedy one hundred different ways, and I felt deep remorse for all of our employees and families of those involved. It was one of those crazy, surreal moments that made me realize how everything can change without a moment’s notice. It instilled in me to never ever assume anything about anyone or any situation. It was formative to be sure.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1- Persistence: I never, ever give up — or take no for an answer, as I have lived by this Calvin Coolidge quote:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Making a mistake is not failure; that’s called learning. The only failure is giving up.

2- Vulnerability: Perhaps the most important leadership trait is being vulnerable. As a woman in a man’s world, I show up in thick armor. But what I discovered is that I take my biggest leaps, create my deepest connections, and make the most progress in those moments when I take off my armor.

Leadership is about inspiring others and enrolling others in your vision so the movement can grow. To do that, people must be able to connect with you — and that happens through the heart. And the only way to connect with the heart is through vulnerability.

People may logically agree with what you say, but they must feel your words in their heart to believe. When we move up from the heart and head, it’s the most powerful way to enroll someone in the vision. Vulnerability engenders authentic connectivity. When your heart and head are aligned, then you can lead your company towards your vision with clarity and courage. Words alone don’t inspire, but words spoken from the heart do.

Roosevelt’s (wo)man in the arena has always resonated with me:

“It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Daring greatly is about showing up with heart and courage. At the end of the day, the only losers are the ones who don’t give it their all in the arena of life.

3- Fun and Playfulness: When you are on a mission, you don’t work a 9–5 job. You live and breathe the mission, as it excites and energizes you. You are always on…which is why it is so important to infuse a bit of fun and playfulness into work! When you explore together, laugh together, eat together, and get silly together, you create a deeper bond. It’s not just the mission that inspires, but the moment-to-moment joy everyone feels experiencing the mission together. This is something we excel at Radicle, from spinning tie dye shirts and enjoying beach picnics during our company retreats to camping under the stars and breaking bread on book club evenings. Blending work and play unites us rebels and have turned individual colleagues into a united tribe.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

Even as women move into corporate leadership positions, we are still perceived first and foremost as wives and mothers by society. That’s still the expectation — by both men and many women. While we regularly make thousands of cracks at that glass ceiling, the corporate world — especially in the C-suite and the board rooms — remain an “old boys club.” Perhaps the reason for this is men feel they can behave more like themselves, talk more openly (and perhaps less “gentlemanly”) without the presence of women.

Perhaps they see us powerful women as less feminine and more pushy, and they may prefer more feminine and less push. Perhaps they see us changing their easy social dynamics. It could be any or all of the above. The point is that powerful women are still not expected to charge into what’s still mostly a man’s world — and certainly not at a young age. Our very existence as equals — or even bosses to men — is still uncommon. The presence of women is still incongruent with manmade social constructs in business that have become the norm in “modern” society.

The good news is I’ve seen significant change over the last few decades, especially among the millennial generation. The gender gap is decreasing even quicker in academia, with women making up a majority of doctorate and master’s graduates these days. This is real progress.

As powerful and relatable women leaders of any kind become more common — across corporations, government and academia — I believe the discomfort and unease anyone feels about us will dissipate. Instead, they will feel awe and admiration for the generations of powerful women who fought so hard to change social norms and create a more equal society for all of us.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

In my very first job out of grad school, I was a female engineer in a sea of male engineers. Though I was hit on frequently at work, I kept my focus 100% on my job. I was really good at what I did and was promoted three times during my first 18 months. By age 24, I became, by far, the youngest project engineer in the company, a level many of my over-30 male colleagues had not yet reached.

My rapid rise unfortunately led to unfounded rumors about the ways I might be climbing the corporate ladder. These rumors were incredibly painful, and I felt, as I’m sure many other women in similar situations have felt, objectified, undervalued and dismissed. Any one who knew my work — both inside and outside of our company — knew I was damn good, but that didn’t matter. People simply felt envious and threatened by a strong, young woman who rocked at her job with seeming ease. What made matters worse was knowing full well no man moving up the ladder at my pace would have faced such slander. They would have been lauded and praised instead.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

Be your most authentic self. Be transparent. Be vulnerable. Be in touch. Be present. Honestly, just be real.

The goal is to connect authentically, breaking through all the discomfort to establish common ground. So, start by getting to know them. Ask why they may be uneasy. Explore the root cause of the discomfort in a non-threatening way. And whatever you do, do NOT be defensive.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

Who do we embrace as a society? Our heroes. What we need is more heroines. And, we need them in every shape and size. With diversity across all dimensions, not just demographically. We need real, relatable heroines on all kinds of meaningful missions across all sectors. At the end of the day, the more inclusive and connected we are, the more our heroines can connect to the little girls in every household, as well as the little boys who look at them and see their moms and sisters.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

Early in my career, and likely even starting at Cornell engineering, I became very good at being “one of the guys,” so I did not really experience those types of situations. My goal was to become so damn good at what I did, no one would notice I was a woman. I wore the mask, war paint and armor so that men would not be distracted by me as a woman. I could blend in and get the job done. I got so good at it that I forgot I was a woman! Instead, I became a gender-neutral leader — which is a somewhat ridiculous story in its own right.

After years of embodying the masculine, I lost touch with my feminine-side and acted more head-first. Now, at Radicle Science, I am finally balancing my head with heart. I am embracing my femininity as a creator, intuitive, connector, and mentor. I am claiming back my divine feminine because that is my authentic power.

Embracing our own femininity is not just bringing power back to us — but to everyone. Women and men have different strengths, and we are much stronger together. Being a woman can be so additive in a male-dominated field. If we behave like men, we are not only stripping away our own identity. We are actually robbing our community, our tribe of the tremendous value only women can bring.

The synergistic nature of this natural duality is so palpable in my partnership with Jeff. We understand and respect each other’s strengths and open the space for the other to be their best and highest self to forge forward at light speed. It is like a perfect Venn diagram, where our individual differences propel many aspects of the Radicle revolution, while our “intersection” manifests the magic of our rebel culture.

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

As women are empowered to become leaders, we also want to continue to embrace who we are as creators and nurturers — as we should! We want it all: family, children, and career. The challenge is that society still does not provide the right support structure for working moms to have it all.

Women are expected to be all of the above, and we want to be all of the above. I am guilty as charged. But then you get literally exhausted and collapse. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, it’s taxing to try to have it all.

The pandemic showcased plainly how sacrifices for women continue to be much greater than those of men for the foreseeable future. More women left the workforce or worked even harder while absorbing more childcare duties. It’s clear to me that a balanced life still is much more elusive for women than it is for men.

In the Old World — in Europe — we lived as part of a broader community, with larger families, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors. It indeed took a proverbial village to raise a child. Now we have tiny core families, and most of the time, family life is up to mom. It’s harder to raise a family now because we don’t have the support structure inherent in the old way of living. Now add on the fact that we are “empowered” to go to work and make money. But true empowerment is not just giving women a choice. It’s also providing the support structure to enable us to make these choices with ease.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

I feel incredibly fortunate I was in a position to take a break from being a C-suite executive at a public company to raise my two young children. Choosing consulting over executive life made it possible for me to be more present with my family. It’s unquestionably the most important job I’ve had. I love teaching my kids to be present, adventurous, playful, and persistent. I love experiencing the world through their curious eyes.

When I was recruited to return to be CEO, I had to set very clear ground rules about my family life before I signed. I wanted to be a good CEO, but wanted to be a good mother as well, so I negotiated flexibility into my contract. Being able to pick up my children from school meant so much to me that I was able to give more back to work over the many 80-hour work weeks.

I won’t pretend my situation to be representative. I was fortunate enough to have a consulting career for five years and still be able to return to the C-suite when I decided it was time. I also won’t pretend I didn’t make sacrifices as a start-up CEO; long work hours and arduous travel schedules took a major toll on my life. The result was practically no “me” time. There is no free lunch. However, those of us who are fortunate can, at least, have the opportunity to make the choices that are best suited to our individual situations at any given time. And by being trailblazers and pushing to change the conditions for working women, we can perhaps improve the opportunities for more women to get the benefits of leaning in when they opt to.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

When I was CEO of Anametrix, I was professionally burnt to a crisp. The only options were to die or remerge like a phoenix. It is what I call my crucible moment.

Disaster had struck at work on multiple fronts: I had to fire key employees, almost lost our largest client, and witnessed one of my best employees (and a very dear friend) have a major medical episode in the office that required EMTs to attend. I literally fell apart. I thought, “What am I doing? Clearly everything is crashing down, and I am failing.” It was an epic meltdown in every way.

This tipping point required me to take a step back, look at the overall situation, and approach things differently. I realized I needed to take care of myself first before I could take care of everyone else. Basically, I had to put on my own oxygen mask first before I could help others.

I reprioritized and achieved a new semblance of balance, which led to significantly better results both personally and professionally.

It’s important to remember there is no such thing as static balance. It is always dynamic. It’s time and place sensitive. We need a different kind of balance at different times in our life. It’s that keen sensitivity to the ever-changing nature of life and our individual needs that ensures we stay in equilibrium.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

I used to see beauty as superficial, but not any more. I still don’t really know how to put on makeup, as I stick to one kind of eyeliner and a basic blush. I have probably put on lipstick less than 20 times in my life. Since I live in San Diego, where it is perpetually 72 and sunny, my daily uniform still consists of shorts and tank tops. But the fact that I am now rocking cute dresses and mini skirts shows I’m embracing my femininity in external ways as well. After all, how I dress and how I feel are far more interlinked than I ever thought — and that is such a powerful realization! Why have I been embodying somebody else when I can embrace and embody my own self?

I now confidently own my feminine power, which is intuition, compassion and creativity. Beauty is not superficial, but rather a way to live and breathe: to show up as exactly who we are in every way.

How is this similar or different for men?

It’s easier for men because their attire has been narrowed down into one standardized look. Their requirements are simple because most don’t care about wardrobe. They just change their tie and their outfit looks different, whereas women often change everything from head to toe.

Men do not judge other men on clothes, but women unfortunately do. We are our own worst enemies. We don’t dress for men, but for other women. Funny enough, most men don’t notice what we are wearing, but women often evaluate (judge!) each other’s outfits and brands from head to toe. Somehow, we’ve become competitive with each other, instead of being supportive and appreciative.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Audacity — Be bold, be confident, dare to shoot for the moon! I believe a big idea, boldly executed, is the best way to transform the world. I’ve been quite audacious my whole life, but co-founding a company to drive precision medicine for natural health products with Radicle Science may be my most audacious venture yet. It is also by far the most exciting!
  2. Collaboration — I’ve tried being a lone wolf. Not surprisingly, it is pretty lonely. Worse, as good as I am, it results in a much smaller game. I’ve now learned that cooperation, rooted in aligned goals, is fundamental to both business success and societal progress. It starts with having the right partner and extends to the entire team and the broader partnership landscape. I even look for collaboration opportunities with the competition. Believe me: it exists and is powerful when ignited. At the end of the day, we are stronger together.
  3. Playfulness — Infusing a healthy dose of play to the workday makes any company a much more satisfying place to work. Play adds joy, vitality, and resilience to relationships, increases our connections to one another, and brings us closer. Perhaps most importantly, it brings out our inner child, and with it, boosts our creativity, trust and fearlessness. It unites us, bringing out our very best. Blending work and play has been an essential part of our “rebel with a cause” culture at Radicle Science.
  4. Transparency — Open, clear, and factual communication is essential for trust and credibility. This is true in business and life. It is transparency that helped me through so many difficult times… and kept my team with me through thick and thin as they trusted me and took me at my word. It is non-negotiable.
  5. Conviction. Believing and risking everything because you have so much conviction is key to authentic leadership. Conviction manifests its own magic. It’s not about putting your toe in the water, but diving in 100%. For if you don’t believe all the way, how can you expect others to?

Conviction is head and heart alignment — demonstrating great courage with the heart, articulated with the head. This way, you are not just jumping off a cliff, but taking a true leap of faith for the greater purpose in which you truly believe. That’s how you create a movement. That’s how you start a revolution.

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.

The person I’ve always wanted to see is Sir Richard Branson. He embodies the perfect “rebel with a cause” for me. I love how he appears to blend work and play. I love his “take no prisoners approach” and his audacious way of shooting for his dreams! He’s not worried about how people will judge him. He does what he believes in.

It’s amazing to see him inspire and create incredible goodness — all with style and fun. To me, he represents such a cool blend of magic, rebelliousness, and joy. There’s a lot of spirit in Virgin because it embodies his spirit.

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

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Ming S. Zhao

Ming S. Zhao

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.