Asa part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Oludare Odumosu.
Oludare (“Dare”) Odumosu, MPH, PhD, is the CEO of a global cannabis formulation and research company Zelira Therapeutics (ASX: ZLD) (OTCQB: ZLDAF), which conducts groundbreaking cannabinoid research and licenses its proprietary formulations around the world. Zelira recently made history with the world’s first successful Phase 1/2a clinical trials for a cannabis-based insomnia medicine, and just announced its second world-first clinical trial, for sports-related chronic pain. As one of the few black CEOs of a publicly traded global cannabis company, Dr. Odumosu, at 37, is also the youngest, and one of the leaders of the new generation of young, multicultural leaders in cannabis.
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?
I was born and raised in Nigeria, and came to the US for college. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and earned my PhD in Biochemistry from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, and a Master’s in Public Health-Epidemiology and Biostatistics from the Loma Linda University School of Public Health.
Before pivoting into cannabis, my career was focused on drug development and commercialization in the pharmaceutical industry with a focus on development through FDA approvals and U.S. market commercialization. I also spearheaded implementation of the business development gate processes and expansion for Iroko’s SoluMatrix™ franchise products including ex-US licensing opportunities and negotiations.
Ironically, I first discovered medical cannabis as a patient myself, years before I devoted my career to developing cannabinoid-based medicines. While I was in school finishing my PhD, I began to suffer from debilitating insomnia. I tried to treat it with conventional sleep aids and homeopathic remedies, but nothing worked, and I became increasingly desperate. Fortunately, I was in California, where cannabis was readily accessible for medical use, and at a friend’s suggestion I received a medical recommendation and visited a dispensary for the first time. After experiencing cannabis’ therapeutic benefits firsthand, I became a believer in its medicinal and scientific potential.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was named CEO/Global MD in the midst of the pandemic shutdown, and Zelira is a multinational company. We were conducting some really groundbreaking research in Australia (where cannabis is medically legal nationwide), while consolidating our leadership in the US in Philadelphia. It was definitely a bit surreal to manage so many different aspects while not being able to travel back and forth. Fortunately for me, I was able to draw on my years in the pharma industry, where my footprint included managing assets, projects and deliverables in sometimes more than 90 different countries from a single location. So I took that experience and applied it to the restrictions of COVID-19, and I think it is one of the reasons why in 2020 Zelira had a remarkably productive year in terms of research and new product launches.
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?
Telling myself and my family, “It’s going to get easier!” That was a rookie CEO mistake. On a more serious note, my biggest mistake as a new CEO was going in with the assumption that everyone around me understood my vision. I’ve since learned that, just like in any new relationship, constant communication is really key to success.
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?
My Zelira Chairman, Osagie Imosogie. He was an early mentor of mine, both in terms of scientific curiosity and the journey to becoming a business leader. It was he who inspired me to step outside of my “comfort zone” of basic science research at the bench and expand my own horizons towards operations and leadership as well. Osagie is the man who ultimately persuaded me to walk away from a promising career in academia and dive into the deep end of the translational and pharmaceutical drug development business, and eventually cannabis, and moving to Philadelphia. He presented me with these challenging leadership positions, which taught me to have the confidence in my own leadership that every CEO needs.
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?
I’m a biologist by training, and at the fundamental level, our capacity to survive as a species has depended on our ability to evolve, which sometimes results from diversity in the gene pool. And that has proven to be vital to survival. I look at corporate survival through the same lens in this aspect — that without diversity of thoughts and ideas, which comes primarily from diversity of people and experiences, potential evolution instead becomes stasis, which means death.
So I view this reckoning on diversity and inclusion in business as long overdue and imminently needed as a matter of life and death — very importantly, let’s correct the wrong notion that it is merely a function of help or improvement. To the contrary; it is absolutely vital for a company’s survival. Biology has already shown us that such homogeny makes species targets for predators until they become extinct. It’s a brutal but apt metaphor.
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.
First, get comfortable with looking around the table and seeing and hearing people who don’t look and sound like you. We must become intentional about inviting the often labelled “minority” voices, opinions and people to the table. And not only inviting them to the table — but pulling out the chair, helping them get comfortable, and creating the thriving space to include them beyond the table.
Second, understand the difference between equality and equity, and when to use which. I explain it like this: let’s say I am eight feet tall, and you are four feet tall, and we are both trying to get over a wall that is 10 feet tall. I only need a stool that is two feet tall to make it. Equality would dictate that we both get a two-foot-tall stool. But you would still have no chance of getting over the wall. Equity would be to give you a stool that would be equal to my stool in its benefit, not its specifications, which for you would be a six-foot-tall stool. It’s about being given the appropriate tools to achieve the same goal, not being given the identical tools. This becomes even clearer the more you immerse yourself in a truly diverse culture.
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?
I consider my primary role as CEO to be the custodian of my company’s value proposition to the world and the vision for what it wants to do and be.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That being CEO means that you’re the boss when the role of a successful CEO is actually more of a “steward-leader.” In other words, the CEO is the clear communicator of the mission at hand, the visionary in chief, so to speak, who leads an effective force made of different battalions led by other trusted steward-leaders.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
At my essence, I am a scientist and researcher first and foremost, and I love to spend time in my lab conducting and overseeing really exciting research like what we are doing at Zelira. At the same time, we have successfully taken Zelira from a quintessential research company only to a commercial and revenue generating company in addition to expanding our research and development footprints. Keeping our company grounded in research while expanding our global commercialization is new and exciting. But it also comes with its unique challenges.
Do you think everyone is 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 think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Ben Horowitz (and Michael Corleone) said it best: you’re either a Wartime CEO or Peacetime CEO. The most important element of success as a leader is to know yourself and to know the task at hand. A CEO must wake up every day with the same clarity of the company mission and the task at hand to achieve it.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
In one word: Listen. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you speak. If I was to add another word I’d say courage: the ability to lead, even and especially when it may not be popular. The boldest voices will always be heard, but there are other human resources that may only express themselves in whispers. It’s the responsibility of the leader to hear the whispers through the shouts. For example, once during a brainstorming session, good but familiar ideas kept coming to the forefront. I turned to a team member who had been silent and asked them, “If you were sitting in my chair, how would YOU approach this problem?” And the floodgates opened; before you knew it we had a different and unique look at the problem and a better solution. So it’s not only creating the space, but making room for the quiet voices to be heard. As the leader, if I am speaking more than I feel I am listening, that usually means there is a problem.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I don’t measure success on a personal level but in terms of my mission for Zelira in continuing to drive breakthroughs in cannabinoid-based treatments. Having been a cannabis patient myself, I understand the life-changing benefits people can experience with safe, effective, and legally accessible medicine. I connect my own success to impacting people’s quality of life through the work I’m doing.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being CEO means you’re the leader, but that doesn’t make you a boss. Your main responsibility is to help shepherd the other leaders throughout functional areas and your whole team. And you have to carve out the best path to achieve that.
- Be receptive to new or changing information. In science, clinical work is conducted in highly controlled environments in order to get reliable outcomes, but that’s not possible in the role of CEO. The world outside a particular data set is always changing, and a CEO needs to be in tune with those changes and have the courage to pivot.
- You can, and often must, be in two places at once. I learned that while becoming global CEO during the pandemic and having to simultaneously manage operations in Philly and oversee operations on the other side of the world in Australia.
- Keep an open mind and be able to adapt according to new data. At Zelira we utilize a “Launch Learn and Develop” in our product development as a way to continue to learn even after our products are on the market, and we are constantly getting feedback from our patients on their own experiences.
- Keep evolving — always and in every way possible. Take a cue from nature to ensure your company’s growth and put a priority and premium on measurable evolution. Zelira is doing this now with our focus on what we call the OTC (over the counter) side of our business — new CBD product lines — one of the hottest growth categories in consumer health, beauty and wellness.
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.
I already feel like I’m a humble part of such a movement that’s been going on for decades: the struggle for cannabis acceptance as a legitimate medicine and for legalization that will allow us to research and create efficacious and clinically validated medicines that can scale up to traditional standards of the pharmaceutical industry. For generations cannabis prohibition has negatively impacted so many lives and led to devastating medical and judicial outcomes. At the least, I hope my life inspires people to
work together to leave this world better than we found it or better than it was handed to us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you know better, you do better.” This was especially relevant in my personal life when I was struggling with insomnia. As soon as I tried cannabis for the very first time, I knew better — despite a traditional upbringing that viewed cannabis as a harmful drug to avoid, and not a legitimate medication. It changed my way of thinking and was the first step that put me on the path to leading one of the world’s most exciting cannabinoid and biopharmaceutical companies today. “This is the way we’ve always done it” isn’t always the right answer. So in life, you have to constantly ask yourself, “Is there a better way?” Research may point you in a different direction. And nowhere is that more relevant right now than in the cannabis industry.
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
President Barack Obama, because he inspired me to affirm the “I am and I can” spirit that lives inside me. Today, I can tell you that when I hear the word “impossible,” what I really hear in my inner voice are the words “soon to be accomplished”. If you need more proof of “I can” beyond that, just take a look at me — a true American success story.