As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Saundra Pelletier, CEO of Evofem Biosciences.
Saundra Pelletier is a mother, daughter, CEO and trailblazer. Undoubtedly and unapologetically, Saundra is one of the most dynamic women in today’s healthcare industry. She sits at the head of Evofem Biosciences, a female- forward company revolutionizing women’s healthcare with game-changing products, including Phexxi, the first — and highly anticipated — hormone-free, prescription, on-demand female contraceptive gel.
But her impact transcends her executive title and illustrious resumé.
At her core, Saundra is a passionate advocate for women’s wellness and empowerment. She is a leader in the boardroom and beyond, using her experience, voice and vision for real, progressive change for women. Saundra is a force of energy that blends substance and excitement with straight talk and strong opinions. Never mind being a breast cancer survivor who fought the illness as she remained solidly at the helm of Evofem, securing $400+ million and achieving FDA approval. All while raising a son as a single mother.
Once you meet Saundra Pelletier, you won’t forget her. You won’t want to.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in a very small town — Caribou, Maine — where my first job at 10-years old was picking potatoes. In Caribou, women’s choices in life were: who will you marry and how many kids will you have? My mother wanted me to get out of that town. She taught me no domestic skills and literally sent me to school every day wearing a suit, an actual suit, and carrying a briefcase. She wanted more for me and that meant leaving Caribou. And I did.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My role model was my mother. My mother taught me how to think for myself, she taught me how to think about others, and she taught me how to think about the world. Because of her I realized that my life’s mission was to be a warrior for women’s empowerment and say the dirty little secrets that were unsaid. I wanted to empower women to make their own choices and one key factor is controlling when, if, and how many children they have. And now I’ve successfully launched Phexxi® (lactic acid, citric acid and potassium bitartrate) which delivers on that goal as the first contraception innovation for women in decades.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was hired at my very first big job in the pharmaceutical industry as a sales rep and was sent to Chicago for six weeks of sales training. I took my one credit card, with a $3,000 limit and a 26 percent interest rate, and maxed it out on what I thought were “girl boss” clothes. I was like Elly May from the country arriving in the big city. My favorite outfit was my “power pantsuit.” On the first day, in front of five hundred new hires I was called out and asked to leave the training facility to be spoken to by another woman in front of the glass window so everyone could see what was going on. There was even a car waiting to take me back to my hotel because I was being “pant-shamed” and was told that ladies in pharma only wear dresses. I was humiliated and mortified, but I changed my outfit to keep my job. That moment was also Day One of me deciding that I was going to be the big boss one day so that I could stop this stupid oppression of women.
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?
Thomas Lynch was the chair of Evofem Biosciences until his death in April 2020. He was one of the only men in my career who understood, empowered, and supported me to be the leader I wanted and needed to be. And he let me be myself. I believe that we must inspect what we expect, I believe that emotional intelligence is critical to running successful organizations, and I believe that if you can create a culture of family, success is inevitable. Most men think in the opposite direction. When Thomas died, I realized I may never be supported like that again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Just when Evofem’s first commercial product, Phexxi, was getting ready to finish its clinical trial and submit to the FDA for approval, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. This was a complete shock as I have no family history of breast cancer and my mammogram the year earlier was completely clean. My oncologist indicated that my diagnosis was likely due to my twenty years of using hormonal birth control. Three weeks after my diagnosis I had a double mastectomy. I then underwent intensive chemo after which I had both my ovaries and uterus removed. Throughout all of my cancer treatment I kept working and we were able to raise $86 million in capital and finalize our phase 3 trial for Phexxi, the first and only on-demand, non-hormonal prescription contraceptive gel available in the U.S. market. It was a time of such uncertainty personally and professionally but I steeled myself and pushed through it all and it gave me such a unique perspective on who I was and what I wanted for this company.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When you attract the right people and build an organization that is truly different than anywhere you have ever worked it is desire, not responsibility, that becomes a magnet to draw you back. This force helped me conquer cancer along with the force of motherhood knowing that no other woman could raise my son to be the feminist and gentleman that I will ensure he becomes.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Fanatical focus and addictive passion are essential. Recently in an interview, Vice President Kamala Harris said that she ate “NO” for breakfast. Unfortunately, I was served NO three times a day. Realizing that women deserve innovation and knowing that no one would deliver it, except for another woman, broadened my shoulders and thickened my skin.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Phexxi was approved by the FDA in May 2020 in the midst of the largest public health crisis in modern history. Knowing telemedicine could be part of the solution, I oversaw the development and implementation of the “Phexxi Concierge Experience.” This allows women who qualify for a Phexxi prescription to book an appointment through one of our brand’s telemedicine providers to see if Phexxi is right for them and order a prescription virtually. I am constantly focused on one thing — empowering women to take the driver’s seat when it comes to their sexual healthcare. To-date, 43 percent of women who qualified booked an appointment, and 75 percent of women who engaged with the platform requested to see a healthcare provider virtually for a Phexxi prescription.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is important to have your own self-talk and internal dialogue as your compass because you can always depend on yourself. You have to be able to count on you always. I consistently remind everyone that someone has to be the best so why shouldn’t it be you? There is no reason that we cannot be the best in our respective roles. Average begets average. Excellence begets excellence.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I constantly seek opportunities to lift other women up and I strongly believe that empowered women empower women. It’s why I wrote a book “Saddle Up Your Own White Horse” to provide pragmatic tools, tips, and techniques for other women to succeed in life on their own terms. I also regularly participate in events with organizations like the GUILD, a global community for women entrepreneurs to meet with women and share my expertise. I’m very deliberate in my hiring practices to make sure women have a seat at the table. Women in biotech and pharma are often overlooked or undervalued within the industry, yet their leadership skills and business intelligence are uniquely positioned to help a company, especially one focused on women’s unmet needs, succeed.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be bold and clear in asking for what you want. As an example, when a newopportunity opened up that was perfect for me in a previous job, I assumed that I would get it because I knew my boss thought I was qualified and ready to advance. I trusted he would advocate for me. When I did not get the job, I asked my boss why I was not chosen. He responded that he didn’t even know that I was interested in the opportunity because I didn’t ask to be considered. Only my male colleagues asked specifically for a chance to be promoted. The hard lesson I learned from this is that women are intuitive by nature and men are very literal. A man cannot read your mind, so you have to be very careful to always spell out exactly what you want and make it very clear in an approachable, non-aggressive way.
- What you resist persists. Do the hardest part of your job first. Get it over with. Even if that’s simply getting through your to-do list that day. If I need to have a hard conversation with an investor, I do it first thing so that it isn’t on my mind and distracting me from the rest of my work.
- Focus on the positive. Women’s wellness is a billion-dollar industry and is fear-based (don’t age, don’t get fat, don’t get pregnant!). I believe it’s possible and a good thing if we flip that script and create marketing that celebrates women instead of admonishes them. It’s why our company tagline is “Science with a Soul.”
- Be kind. Empathy goes a long way. People call me a badass but I’m a kind badass. You don’t have to trample people to get to the top. Someone once told my brother it must be hard to be the sibling of a powerhouse bitch and my brother scoffed realizing the person had no idea what I’m like and informed him that I’m actually the nicest person. His colleague couldn’t believe that a powerful leader like myself could actually be a nice person.
- Know your audience. I secured over $400 million in funding for Phexxi from a male-dominated investor community — those who were not necessarily aware of or informed about women’s sexual health issues and the effects of hormonal birth control on women’s bodies. I was able to educate them about women’s sexual health and the unmet need for a non-hormonal, take-only-when-needed birth control option for women. Know your audience and how to win them over.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
As one of the few female leaders in my industry, I realize I am in a unique position to elevate female voices in a decidedly male-centric pharmaceutical industry where today women make up only 13 percent of healthcare CEOs. As I mentioned earlier, 68 percent of Evofem employees are female and that is a deliberate choice. But beyond that I’ve pushed for inclusive representation in Evofem’s boardroom and on its leadership team knowing that diversity of thought, background and experience is essential to growing and expanding the business. Long before NASDAQ’s proposed board-diversity rule, Evofem’s board of directors met its proposed requirement with four women and three men as well as representation from BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities governing and representing shareholders’ interests.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Learning by doing is essential, there’s no doubt about it. And every life experience you have contributes to how you are as a leader. Battling breast cancer while running Evofem forced me to trust others and let my team make decisions that normally I would have been heavily involved in. Before cancer, I would not have been able to let go in the same way. And now I see that. Yes, we should all create a cavalry of smart, creative thinkers who bring their diverse perspectives to the table. But it’s how you implement those learnings that make the difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am highly passionate about addressing the significant inequalities women face around the world and want to harness my power to promote gender equity outside and within my company. Our reality is that men are still the key decision makers — politically, financially, globally. My movement would be to identify the influential good men to educate, influence and use masculine bullying tactics if necessary, to show men that when women rise, men rise higher.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit www.EvofemBiosciences.com or follow me on social: