Meet RTP’s Growing Class of Women Leaders

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Women historically have been underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), especially at the leadership level. That hasn’t stopped these determined and successful women who are part of a growing class of women leaders in Research Triangle Park. The four women below share their accomplishments, the hurdles they have overcome and their outlook for women in STEM in the future. They hold in common the desire to make a difference and to encourage more women to follow in their path.

women in STEM – Tamara Terry
Photo by John Michael Simpson

By Brandee Gruener

Tamara Terry

Research Survey Scientist; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council Domestic Outreach Chair; and University Collaborations HBCU Relationship Manager at RTI International

Tamara Terry conducted phone interviews for RTI International to earn cash to pay for an apartment when she was a college student at N.C. Central University. She unexpectedly found her calling. After graduating, Terry was hired as a project supervisor for RTI’s World Trade Center health registry, which tracked the health and well-being of thousands of New Yorkers exposed to the 9/11 disaster.

“I quickly realized that this company that I had stumbled upon was really amazing and making significant impacts to the lives of everyday people, and I realized that RTI was a company that aligned well with my love for humanity and my core values that include giving back to my community and doing my part to help change the world,” Terry said. “When I go to work, I think about how my work impacts the life of a human being, and that kind of centers me.”

A decade ago, Terry often was the only Black woman or Black person in the room at meetings. There were times in life where she held back from voicing an opinion, afraid that she would be perceived as overly emotional or as an angry Black woman. But she was inspired by the strong women she saw working at RTI, including the CEO at the time. Terry was motivated to pursue leadership opportunities at RTI, which today has a staff comprising 67% women in the U.S. and 42% internationally.

“This is phenomenal and validates RTI’s commitment to being equitable, diverse and inclusive,” she said. “I am proud of the work and steps that RTI has taken to be leaders and influential in this space.” 

Terry said she’s seen a similar transformation in STEM. “We’ve been in this space for a very long time, but I truly believe the tide is turning [and] that women are being seen as the high-level leaders that we’ve always been.”

Terry furthers RTI’s work to diversify as the domestic outreach chair of the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Council and as their University Collaborations Office’s relationship manager with NCCU and other historically Black colleges and universities. Terry was especially proud of RTI’s collaboration with NCCU, which is expanding to support the Advanced Center for COVID-19 Related Disparities (ACCORD). ACCORD will conduct research to study the public health and economic impact of COVID-19 in underserved communities in North Carolina. 

Terry also co-chairs RTP’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Collective and is the first chair of the Inclusion and Equity Committee for the American Association for Public Opinion Research. All of these relationships help to draw a more diverse group of young people into STEM fields, something Terry aspires to do as an NCCU alumna.

“I always say if God gives me the ability to have a higher level platform, I will use it for good and give back to my community,” she said.

Laura Helms Reece

Chief Executive Officer at Rho Inc.

women in STEM – Laura Helms-Reece

Laura Helms Reece never expected she would one day lead her family’s company, managing clinical trials for pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Her parents started Rho as a side business for UNC faculty and graduate students, and she would check data to earn allowance money. When she began her studies at UNC, Helms Reece intended to get a degree in finance and become a professor. She picked up a master’s degree in biostatistics along the way, changed course and pursued a doctorate in public health. 

“On a good day in biostatistics, you make somebody healthy, and on a good day in finance, you make somebody rich,” Helms Reece said. “And I decided that healthy was the way that I wanted to go.” 

Helms Reece worked for AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline before returning to Rho and eventually moving into the CEO role in 2011. This year the 365-employee company was growing like gangbusters, adding 30 people a month. COVID-19 made an already hot market for clinical research trials even hotter. Rho is currently coordinating a study for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that will help determine the rate of coronavirus infections in children and their family members in the U.S. 

Ask Helms Reece her ambitions for the future of the company, and she simply says she wants to continue growing and providing great jobs for North Carolinians. Offering family-friendly flexibility is a big part of that. 

“I love being a mom, and I love my job,” Helms Reece said. “And I want to provide jobs to North Carolinians that allow people to do work that they love and have lives that they love as well. That’s part of my mission in life.”

Though women historically have been highly represented in public health and Helms Reece “never felt like the only woman at the table,” allowing mothers to have flexibility in work hours was not the norm when she started her career. Men didn’t even think to ask for it.

“My mother had teenagers when she started the business, and so naturally she thought about the flexibility that a working mom needs,” Helms Reece said. “Rho tends to have a lot of parents because of our flexibility, both men and women who utilize that flexibility to take care of kids, to take care of parents, to do the things we all have to do.”

As a parent and as a board member of the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Helms Reece also wants to encourage the next generation of women to pursue STEM careers. While the public health field might attract many women, technology and engineering have a long way to go. Helms Reece said girls need to be encouraged to maintain and grow an interest in math and science all the way back to middle school.

“You have to follow upstream to where girls fall out of the math and science programs,” she said. “How do we make math and science cool?” 

women in STEM – Sheila Mikhail
AskBio Director of Research and Development Lester Suarez and CEO Sheila Mikhail at the gene therapy company’s RTP headquarters. Photo by John Michael Simpson

Sheila Mikhail

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at AskBio

Sheila Mikhail had just started‌ ‌a law firm specializing in life sciences when she met Jude Samulski, then-director of the Gene Therapy Center at UNC, during a talk she was giving at the university. Samulski was looking for someone with the expertise to help him launch a company. He had invented a gene therapy technology using adeno-associated viruses to deliver DNA to cells to repair genetic defects.

At the time, Samulski told Mikhail, who has a law degree from Northwestern University and a master’s in business administration from University of Chicago, that he probably couldn’t pay her. Gene therapy was considered science fiction, even dangerous, by investors and the public. But Mikhail couldn’t pass up the chance to co-found Asklepios BioPharmaceutical (AskBio) in 2001. 

“There’s a lot of different careers you can do, but I think you fundamentally go into the life sciences area because you want to help people,” Mikhail said. “It’s a one-time treatment with curative effects. That’s pretty amazing.”

No longer science fiction, AskBio has a track record of developing therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, hemophilia and giant axonal neuropathy. The company is working on doing the same for Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Pompe diseases, among many other conditions. AskBio has 350 employees in four countries, with plans to expand to 500 in the next two years.

The road to get here was long and arduous. The founders were unable to attract venture capital until 2019, relying on grants, funding from parents of children with genetic defects, licensing and selling spinoffs to major drug companies.

Mikhail can’t say for certain why they weren’t funded, but statistics show that venture capitalists don’t invest in women-led companies. RateMyInvestor released a report indicating that companies with women founders received 10% of venture capital in 2019. The figures were even lower for women of color, and Mikhail faced a “double glass ceiling” as a Mexican-American woman. 

Mikhail relies on a sense of humor and a determination not to let other people’s issues become her limitations. “You’ve got to be super tough, tough as nails,” she said. “You’ve got to be one of those people that they can throw anything at you and you just keep coming back.”

On the plus side, Mikhail has had great success in attracting women to both research and leadership positions.

“It’s not that white males have a disproportionate number of smart, capable people,” she said. “There are smart, capable people in all different genders and racial groups. It’s just that they don’t have the opportunity, the same access to opportunity. I truly believe that.”

AskBio finally got its big opportunity in December 2020, when Bayer acquired the company in a deal worth $4 billion. AskBio will continue to operate independently while gaining access to Bayer’s financial resources, global clinical trials network and distribution channels. That will help them deliver therapies for more genetic conditions and with more speed.

“We want to help as many patients as we can as quickly as we can,” Mikhail said.

Kelly Pfrommer

Chief Executive Officer and Founder at Cloud Giants

women in STEM – Kelly Pfrommer

Kelly Pfrommer’s company was born not long after her children were. She had put in years with Red Hat and loved the work but wanted more time to focus on parenting. She couldn’t get management approval to work part time. So in 2014, she quit and became her own boss, a decision that sparked the beginning of Cloud Giants, a Salesforce consulting partner that now employs 22 people.

“No one gets to tell me what to do, and I love it,” Pfrommer laughed. “It has been the best experience of my life.”

Cloud Giants’ experts assist clients with Salesforce, the cloud-based software that allows businesses to manage customer relationships, automated marketing and analytics. The company is bootstrapped – Pfrommer says she had difficulty getting funding because she was labeled a “lifestyle business” – and was profitable from the start. Pfrommer began by having a part-time intern meet her at home and eventually grew into the RTP offices they occupy today.

She recently spun off a new endeavor, RevdUp, which provides sales performance and commission management within the Salesforce platform. The RevdUp app launched on the AppExchange in March.

Pfrommer was inspired by her mother, a true trailblazer as a computer programmer in New Jersey during the time of punch cards. Because of her, Pfrommer was introduced to the concept of traveling consultants implementing software solutions. Pfrommer attended N.C. State University for a bachelor’s in communications (and later a master’s in business administration). She remembers tough years early in her career, when she was a road warrior for a supply chain software company and often the only woman in the room. She dealt with a culture that today would be considered toxic. Those experiences influenced the kind of company she leads.

“I care more about creating an incredible place to work, the kind of place that I would have wanted to work, than anything else,” Pfrommer said.

She’s had employees switch to part time and offers unlimited vacation and flexible hours, encouraging staff to make up the time when they can. Pfrommer was especially proud of growing to the point that she could pay for 12 weeks of maternity leave, even during a pandemic. Cloud Giant’s policies could explain how her staff has historically been more than 50% women, reaching 80% at one time. 

It’s been harder to maintain the gender balance since COVID-19 with more women dropping out of the workforce, but Pfrommer believes that companies have an obligation to do better however they can.

“I care very much to maintain a well-balanced organization and improve our diversity,” Pfrommer said. “We hold ourselves – I hold myself – to a very high standard, and we’re going to do what we can to make the world a better place.” 

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