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Social Impact Heroes: How Hillary Theakston and The Clearity Foundation have become science-based partners for hundreds of women with ovarian cancer

In 2006, Clearity’s founder Dr. Shawver was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She quickly learned that the scientific innovations that were being applied to improve the treatment of other cancers were not benefiting patients with ovarian cancer. In fact, she found little had changed in over forty years for women with ovarian tumors. Driven by the desire to provide science-based support to any ovarian cancer patient who seeks it, Dr. Shawver established the Clearity Foundation as the only non-profit organization to offer support for treatment decision making to people impacted by ovarian cancer.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hillary Theakston, Executive Director of The Clearity Foundation.

Ms. Theakston began her career in the San Diego life science industry-leading investor relations and public relations for Diversa Corporation, a genomic discovery company that went public in the biotech boom of 2000, raising more than $200M, which was the largest biotech IPO at the time. She then joined ResMed, an international medical device manufacturer, to direct their investor relations program and ultimately went on to lead communications for the Americas. She has also provided communications consulting to San Diego based healthcare companies including Trius Therapeutics, Medipacs and Sorrento Therapeutics. In 2011, Ms. Theakston joined The Clearity Foundation as Executive Director, fulfilling her passion for bringing cutting edge technology to underserved areas of oncology and women’s health. To date, Clearity has provided hundreds of tumor profiles to patients and families and has supported thousands of others with resources, personalized information and, most of all, hope. Since its founding in 2008 by San Diego biotech entrepreneur and ovarian cancer survivor, Dr. Laura Shawver, Clearity has become a trusted, science-based partner for hundreds of women on the ovarian cancer journey. Clearity is an advocate for patients, a champion of personalized medicine, a promoter of science and a credible source of hope for the ovarian cancer community.

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

My maternal grandparents died of cancer when they were relatively young. Like many families, we experienced the holes that cancer leaves in our hearts, our families and in our communities. I spent most of my career in biotech and life sciences companies because I was inspired by the opportunity to use science and technology to improve human health. I hoped that at some point I would be able to work in the oncology space in a non-profit capacity and the opportunity to join Clearity was an opportunity to connect with a mission that I was personally passionate about and used my professional experiences.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Clearity has become a trusted, science-based partner for hundreds of women on the ovarian cancer journey. Clearity is an advocate for patients, a champion of personalized medicine, a promoter of science and a credible source of hope for the ovarian cancer community. To date, Clearity has provided hundreds of tumor profiles to patients and families and has supported thousands of others with resources, personalized information and, most of all, hope.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

In 2006, Clearity’s founder Dr. Shawver was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She quickly learned that the scientific innovations that were being applied to improve the treatment of other cancers were not benefiting patients with ovarian cancer. In fact, she found little had changed in over forty years for women with ovarian tumors.

Driven by the desire to provide science-based support to any ovarian cancer patient who seeks it, Dr. Shawver established the Clearity Foundation as the only non-profit organization to offer support for treatment decision making to people impacted by ovarian cancer.

How do you define “Leadership”?

The CEO is the keeper of the vision and the culture of the organization. Their ultimate responsibility across departments is vital to ensuring that the functions within the organization are coordinated and moving in the right direction. As a leader of other leaders, you are overseeing functions within the organization that are likely not areas of your expertise. Yet, it is important to be able to recognize high-level patterns and issues that could materialize into strategic opportunities or potential problems in the future. Importantly, in both overt and subtle ways, the CEO establishes and reinforces the culture of the organization.

What is the “top thing I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The observation that scarcity can be a gift. When I joined The Clearity Foundation we were a small non-profit with limited resources. We had to hire people (often part-time) who were willing to accept lower compensation than they were receiving in their corporate jobs, because they were personally committed to our mission. We recruited passionate board members who volunteered their time and contributed to our growth. Attracting people who have a genuine connection with your mission is a habit that can be borne of financial necessity, but will always yield greater performance from your team, no matter the size of your organization. In addition, when resources (time, money) are scarce, you have to be especially strategic, mindful and creative about setting your priorities and identifying the most critical areas to invest in. That is a discipline that is valuable even when you have more resources to work with. Since I joined Clearity, we have grown to around a $2M annual budget, but we have maintained our rigor around constantly asking how we can do the greatest service in our mission and create the greatest return on our donors’ philanthropic investment.

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

“Do or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

As with much timeless wisdom, there are undoubtedly many interpretations for this quote. For me, it is a call for mindfulness, full commitment and focus, which is important for a CEO managing competing priorities, but is also relevant timely in our over-committed, busy culture. It is so easy to assume a lengthy to-do list — an “I’ll try list” — and accept that perhaps not everything will get done. If a challenge arises with one project, it can be easier to move on to the next task on our seemingly endless list than to preserve and figure out how to overcome obstacles.

Conversely, you can ask yourself, what are the most important items I need to accomplish and commit to them fully — these are goals you believe are so important to achieve that excuses will not be acceptable to you. Having that level of commitment to fewer objectives may help you approach obstacles and challenges with more determination to succeed, with greater creativity to solve problems and overcome barriers to achieving what you have decided is important. I’ve used a thought exercise with junior team members on occasion, which is to ask “If I told you that you would receive $1M for accomplishing this goal, do you think you could overcome challenges and obstacles?” It’s interesting to observe that a shift in motivation level can produce a different way of thinking about a problem. So often excuses are just signs that we don’t care enough to overcome the obstacles and challenges that invariably arise.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love to have lunch with President Obama. In addition to selfishly recharging my hope during this apocalyptic political climate, he should know about the work of The Clearity Foundation which is rewriting the story of ovarian cancer. President Obama lost his mother too young to this disease that claims more than 14,000 bright lights every year in this country alone. Today’s 10-year ovarian cancer survival rate of 36% is closer to the 10-year survival rate for all cancer types in 1975 (33%) than it is to the 10-year survival rate for all cancer types in 2015 (61%). Progress isn’t coming fast enough for the 24,000 of our mothers, sisters and partners who are diagnosed every year and feel left behind in the wave of progress that will, one day, bring us to a cure for all cancers.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook @clearityfoundation

Twitter @ClearityFnd

Instagram clearity_foundation

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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