As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa V. Sellers, Ph.D., CEO of Vector Laboratories.
Lisa V. Sellers, Ph.D., has a unique perspective on life sciences from molecules to management. Lisa brings over 20 years of experience in customer-centered innovation, life sciences leadership, and commercialization expertise to her role with Vector Laboratories. Prior to joining the company, Lisa served as Vice President of Marketing at 10x Genomics where she transformed the organization through people and processes.
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 didn’t start in the business track — I actually started in science and fell in love with chemistry at an early age. I pursued, not only an undergraduate, but a graduate degree in chemistry. At one of my first jobs at a small company reselling computer parts, I was exposed to the different disciplines within a business. It was really eye-opening to me to see what a business takes to run, even though it was a small ‘mom-and-pop’ business. It was my first job as a scientist, but I got more and more involved with the business side of things, and as I traveled to trade shows and to customer visits and what not, I really fell in love with this world of intersection of science and business. I then relocated to the San Francisco Bay area to go hunt for a role in biotech, where I could use my science background, but also really go pursue a business career.
That was my journey. It’s been about 20+ years in the sciences, and I’ve just progressively made my way into running different-sized businesses. I’ve taken roles in leading functions such as marketing and sales and landed back in my love of running a business — first as chief operating officer at Vector Labs, and then (backed by our Thompson Street Capital Partners) the chief executive officer at the same company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Taking the COO position during the pandemic was certainly an experience in itself. Pretty quickly after coming to Maravai Life Sciences (which was the owner of Vector Labs at the time), we decided to go public. So, you can imagine coming in and leading the business (which was private equity-backed during the time of COVID), recovering from the shutdown of COVID (which impacted all of us in the tools space), and then going public. Very quickly after that, we were being courted by other private equity-backed companies who wanted to potentially buy Vector and divest it out of Maravai.
All of this happened within less than a year of my joining. I think that for me, the most interesting part is the rate at which I went from interviewing and taking a position, to leading a business, going public as part of a larger entity, and then already starting to pitch the business and consider divesting — and that’s exactly where we ended. I think that’s probably the thing that stands out to me the most over this past year, is that incredible journey.
In all of that change, there was also COVID impacting our business and our employees and ourselves personally. At the center of all these changes in the business and changes in the circumstance, we had to stay true to our strategy to grow the business. I think of it like a tornado: in the center is this calmness which has to be your strategy and staying true to where you’re going with the business, regardless of what happens around and outside, spinning and changing. And that’s the value of not just having a vision — but a strategy as well to realize that vision. You have to have both.
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?
One thing that did happen when I just started as the COO was at an analyst presentation. Here, I was supposed to speak about the business even though I was just starting and still learning the business.
There was this introduction of me by my boss (the president and interim COO) basically just letting the analysts know that I’ll be presenting, but he is there to answer questions if needed.
I ended up speaking about the business and also about the fact that there had not been a focused leader in charge of the business, developing a strategy, and driving that strategy. Then I realized I was basically pointing to my boss that he was doing a bad job for the last five years running the company. Of course, that wasn’t really well-thought-out on my part, bringing it up in this forum…but at the end of the day, it didn’t cause any harm and it actually lightened the mood of the call and turned it from presentation to conversation. I don’t spend much time fretting on or dwelling on mistakes — I try to learn from them and move on.
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 honestly cannot point to one person. I would say there are two major factors to which I attribute success.
One factor is being in the right environment with the right opportunities — a very entrepreneurial environment with a mixture of established best practices and processes. As an example, I look at my first job as a product manager of a small company — we had revenue but we didn’t have profitability. So, there was this big hustle to constantly wear multiple hats, and we interacted with a lot with customers. That kind of entrepreneurial environment, we see it in a lot of startups. Then, I worked at bigger companies, where they had great best practices in leadership, in people management, and in business development and strategy. I had a lot of training in leadership and management in business and I had a chance to immediately apply it to the business. I’ve constantly had those opportunities at the intersection of both best practices and entrepreneurial spirit.
The other major factor is the people: Somebody that saw my unique value, to that organization and appreciated it and then became my advocate or sponsor, whether it was in a meeting, advocating for R&D dollars, or behind the scenes advocating for my promotion without me asking for it, or advocating for a role change. I think that the other element of success is being around people who recognize your strengths and your value in making a difference in the organization — they support you in your career advancement because they see your potential and they know that leveraging your talent is going to make the organization successful.
Those are the two elements that I’d like to highlight: the environment and the right kind of leaders that will step up and be sponsors and supporters.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
For me, stress is a psychological phenomenon; it’s in my head. The best thing that I can do is to take the thoughts from my head and write them down.
If I have a very important meeting — an analyst meeting or a board meeting, the first thing I do is sit down and think “what does success look like for me at this meeting? What do I want the outcome of this meeting to be? What should that look like? What are the three things that I’m trying to accomplish?” that thought process has been my guiding principle. Then I start to work through these guidelines and figure out “what do I need to do to achieve that outcome?” It’s the preparation that actually alleviates my stress because I know I’ll be prepared and that gives me clarity and confidence.
But I also try not to be overprepared. I try to take the perspective that every engagement is a dialogue, a two-way conversation, because all parties are giving and receiving value out of the interaction. I don’t like to memorize or go through anything the night before — I just try to get good rest because I recognize I’ve gotten everything off my mind, it’s all on paper. Overpreparing can give you more anxiety. The expectation should be to have a conversation, and it does not have to be perfect. We are not striving for perfection; we are striving for a good engagement/agreement and a successful exchange of information.
If you go into it with the right balanced approach and expectation, you can manage the stress more effectively and be more satisfied with the outcome — that builds confidence for the next time you have to do it.
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?
Diversity is what drew me into business — the bringing together of cross-functional teams/expertise and people of different backgrounds and knowledge. If you bring people from different ways of thinking and problem-solving, from different genders, countries, and cultures, you’re going to have a much better, more innovative outcome, and you may be quicker at solving a problem by bringing that diverse set of people together.
It’s not just the diversity of what we see on the surface of people. It’s really their diverse communication methods, their problem-solving techniques, their experiences — all of that is what I think makes a successful outcome, whether it’s in business, politics, or everyday life. That’s how I see diversity, equity, and inclusion — it should be a way of living.
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.
Creating an inclusive and diverse workplace environment is a fantastic way to harness all of the experiences employees from different backgrounds have, and it is one step towards building a representative and equitable society. Personally, if I want to get perspective on something, I usually bounce it off three people from different backgrounds, because then I’m getting three diverse perspectives to synthesize a solution.
It’s unfortunate that we have to still talk at the level of what we see externally with people, which is just representative of where people are from across the world, their languages, cultural differences, etc. But it goes much deeper than that — and that’s how we think about diversity at Vector Labs.
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?
The executives are the ones that, at the end of the day, are accountable for what the company is committing to its board of directors — meaning what we say we’re going to do, or the performance of the company, whether it’s on a monthly, a quarterly or an annual basis.
The executives have to ask the tough questions and really make the tough calls on whether we will take a certain risk or not. A very simple example is, when a company has a product quality issue. An executive has to make the call whether to recall that product or not. Either way, it’ll have a pretty significant impact to the business, and to the customers. This goes back again to that accountability, not only to the organization but, particularly, to the board of directors and our customers.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth I’d like to dispel, that applies to me, is the approachability. In some companies, the CEO is in a very different location or just 100% external-facing — but for myself, I try to be as approachable as possible …so much so that if you put me in a crowd of employees and there’s a bunch of new employees, the new ones won’t know who I am.
It’s easy enough to grab me in the kitchen and ask me how my weekend was, and actually people often do that when they see me. I’m open enough and share some of the things that I enjoy doing on the weekend and they share what they did on the weekend. I think that’s one thing that’s important for employees — when you have a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness, that usually translates into the CEO being approachable.
If the doors are open, employees can come in and talk. I have that happen often — certainly during COVID when people came in and talked about what they appreciated and just updates on their family, health, etc.
Here at Vector Labs, even though I’m in meetings a lot, we have town halls and lunches to sit with folks. There’s a number of things that I think we as CEOs can do to really show approachability and openness with employees at all levels of the organization.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’ve seen this assumption or sensitivity, particularly when you have a partner or dependents in your household, that you may not be able to keep appointments without checking with your partner — implying that you might have obligations in the house or to the children that may come first. I don’t see that dialogue with men. In fact, it’s unfair towards the men as well, because they don’t get the opportunity to prioritize family and partners, and it’s assumed that they don’t. For women, it’s assumed that they are the primary person to take this responsibility in their personal life.
That gender difference, these assumptions layered on, and how it then translates to the work environment is concerning. You worry about these assumptions and how they may prevent a conversation from happening. For example, how many conversations did not happen because they already assumed something of me related to my situation with my partner or my family life? And how many times did they then approach a male colleague who has a wife who’s a stay-at-home mom? I’ve seen it, unfortunately over the years where people are already making assumptions based on what they know about a woman’s personal situation, when in fact they don’t operate that way.
My expectation of leaders, is they should spend that extra effort to separate their knowledge of an employee’s personal background from where things need to go, clear and business wise. Assumptions about roles can bring in biases towards opportunities people have in the workplace.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’ve found that there’s a lot of change management involved with the job. I clearly enjoy driving change, working with team members to help them and the organization move through change, but what I think surprised me the most was, how much content creation I needed to do to facilitate the dialogue of change management and really give team members the context to where things were and why things are going someplace else.
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 think the one common trait that I see in successful executives is, the ability to do two things:
1) The ability to articulate not just a vision but a strategy to realize that vision. That’s how the organization and the people in it can understand their role in executing and realizing that strategy and vision. If an executive can’t do that, then you have people and groups sort of spinning on their own and it can be quite chaotic — and it doesn’t really move the needle in the direction that you, as an executive, need to navigate.
2) The ability to effectively empower and delegate within an organization. When people are very good at what they do, they become very strong, individual contributors, doing the job themselves and doing it extremely well. But there becomes a point in your career, where you have to learn how to delegate. If you can delegate well, you can effectively empower somebody to bring value and contribute to the business. But you have to be able to articulate what success looks like for that person, and make sure they’re set up for success with the right communication. This is not micromanaging, but really understanding the talents of the employees and delegating projects to the right talent, so that you are using their strengths, but also challenging them to stretch those strengths.
I think these are pivotal points, and the more you hone these abilities, not only do people want to go work for you, but they do a lot more for the business.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
We have many women leaders here at Vector Labs, and the advice I’d give is to really trust and stretch your team — understand what they’re good at and trust them with something that challenges them. I’ve observed that a lot of women managers and leaders will push themselves and take risks, but they’re more protective of their team members and don’t expect the same commitment and determination or potential from their team members as they do of themselves.
That’s my biggest advice: Take the same expectations you have on yourself, put them on your team because they will deliver — it’ll amaze and impress you, and they’ll be transformed into a much stronger team than what you have today. There’s no need to over-analyze it, bring in any emotion, or be protective when you are putting expectations on your team.
That’s been my consistent advice to the women leaders here.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Back in 2007, when I was at a company called Applied Biosystems, they needed help pitching internships at the company. It got me thinking ‘how do I share with other people who have scientific backgrounds, this wonderful opportunity of merging science and business?’ So, I went to universities and spoke about product management and my journey from studying chemistry at high school to running a business. I wanted to impress upon them that it’s an opportunity and journey they too can consider.
Yes, you can go down the traditional route in academia or become a researcher. But you could also go into business and it opens up a whole new world. That has been a passion for me, ever since 2007, working with San Jose State University and being a board member for their master’s program. I’ve loved helping the students there understand the world of opportunity they have with the merging of science and business. I help students with their resumes and interviewing; I lead courses on that every year.
More recently, I’ve been helping high school and elementary schools that are in my community — helping students understand that traditional science classes like chemistry can translate into amazing careers in innovative biotech in the San Francisco Bay area. You don’t have to be a straight-A student, but if you love science and you are creative, you can find your way to a fulfilling career that ultimately impacts human beings and human health. Having a job is not about stress and money. I believe it’s about fulfillment and contribution to society.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 things that helped me become a CEO:
1. Relationships matter even in business, and the best place to influence that is in culture…whether it is in your team, your function or in your business. It’s important to take immediate action in driving the culture. Don’t wait. It’s like steering a big ship, it takes time to move it into the direction you want.
2. I’ve always had a love for understanding and contributing to many aspects of a business. As a CEO it’s only amplified, so buckle up!
3. Don’t underestimate the value and utility of your network. If you worked with someone 10–15 years ago and they were, and continued to be, great at what they do, don’t be surprised at how responsive they may be when you reach out. It’s important to access this external network to challenge and diversify your thinking.
4. Don’t be discouraged if too few have walked down your path. For me it’s not just being a CEO, but also a woman executive, a third-generation immigrant and working in a STEM-based industry. You may not have one or two people you aspire to be like, but instead, you may have to piece together from other role models and examples to find encouragement.
5. Many say it’s lonely at the top, it’s actually not when you have an extremely supportive partner in life.
URL to Lisa’s “5 things” video on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHEd4UYNvbU
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.
As I mentioned above, it is my passion to inspire and help young people achieve fulfilling careers in the intersection of science and business, that may not be totally conventional, but will have great impact on human health and the society at large.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Relationships matter.’ This is the motto or life lesson I live by, and I bring it into work.
For example, a couple of weeks ago, the Head of Facilities at Vector Labs helped me out in my personal life, with an important decision regarding buying a house. I really valued his input here and thanked him with a card and a bottle of wine. Another example, recently, I spent an hour and a half with this young woman that I worked with years back because she wanted advice on a job she was considering.
For me, it’s those moments where people choose to help somebody else that really sticks with me.
So, that is my life quote, if you will — relationships matter and it’s just something that is part of my everyday mantra. It’s what I teach my children, what I bring to work, and how I operate even with customers.
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.
I’d love to meet Oprah Winfrey. She’s a great business lady. You can see that relationships matter to her, and she gives to the community. But what resonates with me is how she shares advice. There’s so much that’s been going on in our world, not just with COVID, but everything… politics, economics, etc. And in light of all that, having positive guidance from someone like Oprah can be life-changing.
Oprah shares with people advice to forgive yourself for mistakes, to forgive yourself for regrets, or to move forward with relationships in a positive way — whether it’s yourself or with people. For example, things like ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’ or ‘know that you’re great at what you do.’ I try to weave those in when I coach and mentor people, or when I work with people. Oprah is amazing in that she’s doing a lot to really get the word out there for people to hopefully take a positive trajectory in their life with these little nuggets of advice.