This article was originally posted on Forbes.com on July 1, 2013
Saundra Pelletier, 43, is a CEO with her feet in two seemingly different worlds. A former pharmaceutical executive at G.D. Searle, at age 34 she says she had “an early mid-life crisis.” She took five years off from work, wrote a book about women’s leadership called Saddle Up Your Own White Horse, and then, in 2009, founded a non-profit calledWomanCare Global (WCG) aimed at distributing contraceptives in the developing world.
Her business model for WCG is an unusual one: the organization makes money from product sales in developed markets like Turkey and Mexico and uses those funds to subsidize distribution in poor regions of the world like Peru, Chile, Senegal and Liberia. She’s still working toward her goal, taking in $5 million a year in revenue while generating overhead of $9.2 million. She runs a staff of 42 and does business in more than 100 countries. The plan was going well when a privately held San Diego biotech firm, Evofem, asked her to be CEO this year. Evofem developed Softcup, a reusable menstruation product. It is also working on Amphora, a vaginal contraceptive gel. Now Pelletier runs both WCG and Evofem in a hybrid arrangement that combines the for-profit with the non-profit.
I talked to Pelletier about the leadership lessons she learned moving from a for-profit drug company to running her own non-profit with a hybrid business model, and then partially moving back into the for-profit sector. Here are edited, condensed excerpts from our interview:
Who were your early mentors?
I grew up in Caribou, Maine, the northernmost city in the U.S. My mother had 12 brothers and sisters. She lived on a farm and had outdoor plumbing. Women had two choices there – who you were going to marry and how many children you were going to have. She only had two children and she really believed that learning domestic skills and taking a traditional role would not get me out of Caribou. She also said, if you get pregnant, that will never get you out of Caribou. When I was a young girl she took me to Planned Parenthood and said, it doesn’t matter if you’re having sex or not; you should be on birth control.
How did you build your career early on?
When I was in college, I really wanted to be a news broadcaster. Meantime, pharmaceutical companies would come to campuses and do interviews. The manager of G. D. Searle came and said they launched the first birth control pill ever in the U.S. That impressed me. So I became a pharmaceutical rep. That’s how I got started in women’s health care.
How did you move up from pharmaceutical rep?
Very very strategically. It was still very much a man’s world. When I went to a sales training I showed up wearing a very professional pantsuit. They sent me back to the hotel and said women can’t wear pants, they must wear skirts. I learned pretty quickly that it was results that mattered most. There was a slogan in my region: WACDAD, which meant “Words are cheap and deeds are dear.” My work ethic became almost fanatical. I worked seven days a week. I was willing to take every promotion no matter where it was. I ended up running a global franchise before I left. My portfolio was women’s health care products.
What leadership lessons did you learn as you were moving up the corporate ladder?
If you want top performers you can’t have bottom performers on your team. I went in and cut dead weight. That really sent a message to the people who I wanted to keep: If you’re here, you’re here to perform.
You worked for three smaller companies and then you had what you call an “early mid-life crisis.” What happened?
I also call it an organized mental breakdown. The feeling was, I’ve spent all these years moving up the corporate ladder. I was making a fantastic income but I felt soulless. I felt like it didn’t matter. I questioned, am I making a difference, am I bettering someone else’s life, am I bettering my own? It was about looking at my mortality and asking, what do I want to say at the other end? I was only 34 but I felt like 74.
How did you turn yourself around?
I decided I wanted to write a book to encourage women to create the life they wanted for themselves and not wait for a man to do it for them. The skills that women innately have make them good leaders.
Part of my crisis was I always felt like I was on an island. Never did I feel like I was in an environment of team players and women weren’t supporting women. On my own journey, it was women who went out of their way to create obstacles for me. I wanted to send the message to women that this should change.
What led you to found WomanCare Global?
I wanted to be able to prove a non-profit could be sustainable, that you could do good work and use good business practices at the same time. I wanted to show that private sector metrics work for a reason, that private sector practices were not evil and if you did them with benevolent intent, that could work.
What were your business models?
There was no exact model. I talked to consultants a lot. We called our model the Robin Hood approach. A lot of the feedback I got was that the big gap that existed was in the supply chain. There were too many poor-quality products being pushed into developing markets.
How did you decide to focus on contraceptives?
I had always been interested in global health. I knew all the stats: 200 million women have an unmet need for contraceptives. Women don’t want to have seven or eight children. They want a quality of life for the kids they want. They will risk their life not to bring an unwanted baby into the world.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Empowering, hands off, tough love. I hire phenomenal people and let them do their job. I say, I will never ask you to do anything that I would not do myself, whether it’s conference calls at 3 a.m. or three trips in a row. People will emulate the leader. I also believe respect is earned. You have to treat your organization and your people like they’re your family, period. It makes people feel committed, connected and loyal.
How do you balance running a non-profit with running a for-profit company?
Shockingly it’s a whole lot easier than I thought it was going to be. The private company develops products. They don’t sell, market or distribute them. They bring innovation and development of products to the table and we bring the global supply chain. Everyone who works at WCG comes from the private sector. We used to work for shareholders.
How do you balance your two roles as CEO of a for-profit company and CEO of a non-profit?
My workload is intense. But it is short term. We have a three-year arrangement. I also have a great team. The man who oversees sales and marketing at WCG now oversees sales and marketing at Evofem. We’ve done an overlay and added people to our divisions. I’m responsible for more people but for WCG it was just adding two products to our portfolio. For the people at Evofem, now they are coming to work serving a mission that will change the lives of women and girls. We were able to provide a purpose for them that was there but they didn’t talk about it that way.
What questions do you ask when you hire?
If money, time and talent were no obstacle and you could be anything you wanted to be, what would you be? I really want to disarm people and to understand them. I also ask about gaps in people’s résumés. I’m very keen to know what made people leave a job. I also ask, what are the things that are toxic for you in a corporate culture? What are the things that activate you to achieve at your highest level? I also tell them all the challenges and all the warts about the job. I say, this is going to be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done.
What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned in your career?
As a woman, emotional intelligence really is a trait that you should maximize. You should relate to people on their level and understand where they’re coming from. Know what their hopes and dreams are so you can understand what makes them happy. Maybe they want to make enough money to send their child to an Ivy League school or maybe they want to buy a fishing boat and move to the coast of Maine. Also complete transparency from the top is critical. Every week I have everyone from the highest to the lowest level get on a conference call and we talk for 10 minutes. I open the call and say, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly, and I talk about the financials and the challenges.