Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
What do a Zippo lighter app and the School of Yelp Craft have in common? Cindy Mesaros. Once at the forefront of the mobile marketing movement, Mesaros has overseen some of the most successful and pioneering marketing campaigns for big brands as well as building corporate cultures for breakthrough companies.
During the course of her 20-plus-year career, Mesaros has worn many hats at once — and her situation today is no exception. As head of marketing and communications at Foresite Capital Management, and head of brand and people at Foresite Labs, Mesaros is bringing all of the lessons learned to her two most-current roles. Although they don’t appear to be complementary, Mesaros says there is a natural connection.
“I typically join a company for marketing, which is my first love and what I studied and what I’ve always done,” she says. “But I realized at a certain point in my career that if you don’t have a strong people and HR function, it’s really difficult to be an effective marketer. I think those two things hook together so strongly because the people form the culture and the culture forms the brand.”
With no fewer than eight technology startups under her belt, Mesaros is perfectly positioned within Foresite, a transformative healthcare investment firm, to assist with market positioning for early stage companies as well as communicating the power of culture.
“HR is very much like marketing for an early stage startup,” she says. “You’re trying to find the product market fit between the jobs that you have and the people that you’re filling those jobs with … you’re building the values of your company, whether you know it or not.”
In this week’s episode of our Woman of the Week podcast, Mesaro, who has always been ahead of her time — from developing a career matchmaking database that was a precursor to LinkedIn to creating ring tone apps pre-iPhone — explains her fascinating career journey, her keys to marketing success and the highpoints of her multi-faceted professional life.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice visits with Cindy Mesaros, head of marketing and communications, Foresite Capital and head of marketing and people, Foresite Labs.
Taren: Cindy, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Cindy: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you about myself – everyone’s favorite topic.
Taren: You’re going to be my favorite topic for the next half hour or so. So let’s dig in. You have a multi-faceted role. You’re head of marketing and communications for Foresite Capital Management. You’re also head of brand and people for Foresite Labs, a sister company. Can you share your areas of responsibility and how they tie into the overall strategy for the group?
Cindy: Yeah. It’s definitely unusual because I’m looking after two different functional areas that don’t generally go together and as well as looking after them for two very distinct companies. It evolved into a role, the role I have today. I initially started out as head of marketing and communications for Foresite Capital about five years ago, just coming up on my 5-year anniversary. And as we kind of get into it, I think it’ll be more clear that I typically join the company for marketing, which is my first love and what I studied and what I’ve always done. But I realized at a certain point in my career that if you don’t have a strong people and HR function, it’s really difficult to be an Effective marketer. I think those two things hooked together so strongly because the people form the culture and the culture forms the brand.
So when we spun off Foresite Labs, which would have been in 2019, we basically created a new entity with part of the Foresite Capital team to work on early stage ventures. And at that point, it was natural for me to take on HR as well, because it was a small company, a startup and it’s typical to do it. Wherever anybody has some expertise, bring it to the table, and that’s how you get things done. So I began to do the dual role there and then just about a month ago, I’ve started the dual role here at Foresite Capital as well.
Taren: That’s so funny. I love the fact that in a small company if you’ve got a hat that fits, you’re going to wear it, right?
Cindy: Or you’re going to make it, right. Sometimes you get in and you’re like, “wow, we need to find a new office and negotiate a lease and have no idea what I’m doing but I’m going to do it.” I think that’s the most fun part of being in any startup is it’s the variety. And learning to realize what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. And sometimes, my dad always told me – be careful what you are good at. There are times when I think that with HR, I’m like, “gosh, I really shouldn’t have been good at that. This is hard.” But yeah, you can’t get a better education at work than in a startup. It’s amazing.
Taren: Agreed. You touch on something really interesting there is that, that intersection of marketing and people. Can we explore that a little bit more? Because I’ve never heard it put quite that way. So tell me about that.
Cindy: Yeah, I mean, what I find and this is mostly…well, working at any early stage startup, you’re going to see there’s nobody looking after HR. It’s a function that generally doesn’t get brought in until you’re like, 50, 100 employees. It’s not considered very strategic, you’ll have outside recruiters bringing people in and you’ll think that you’re good enough. But if you look at it from a different lens, HR is very much like marketing for an early-stage startup. You’re trying to find product market fit between the jobs that you have and the people that you’re filling those jobs with. It’s almost a bit of a sales role. Recruiting is sales. It’s a difficult sales role in which the product you’re trying to sell might decide they don’t want to be sold and go away. That’s a really hard function.
And then as you’re hiring a team and bringing together a small team, you’re building the values of your company, whether you know it or not. And you’re building those values by deciding what people to hire and deciding at what behaviors lead to promotions and what behaviors get people terminated. And those, I would argue are all the core values of your firm and they exist. It’s not something a CEO comes in and waves the magic wand and says, “our value is integrity.” Well, da, like that’s just obvious to me. But if he’s promoting somebody and she’s doing a bunch of activities that are immoral or not at all, don’t have integrity, then it’s not true.
So just in my role coming in early in marketing, I see that, I see that happening a lot. And when I was consulting, I had a period where I consulted between full-time roles. I would get hired to do marketing. I would look around and say, “hey, would you mind if I interviewed your employees about how things work around here?” And I would invariably uncover some pretty deep-seated cultural issues and problems and some very unhappy employees. And then I would say to the CEO like, “you’re not going to build a good brand here because your employees are not believing in it. They’re super unhappy with these four things.” In some cases, I’d write up a presentation and then it would go all the way to the board. People would say, “wow, this is a problem.” And then, they would say, “can we hire you to fix that?” And that’s sort of how I fell into this dual marketing HR role. I don’t know anybody else that does this.
Taren: I think it’s quite unusual and it’s fascinating how you figured it out and then making those connections. So obviously, it sounds like you have a love of the startup. As you said, it’s the best training ground, but can you share with me a little bit about your career journey and then I’m going to ask you about some trends that you’re seeing.
Cindy: Sure. So I did not start out as a startup person, I’ve kind of resisted it actually. I worked for a couple of small companies. I went to Berkeley. I studied business administration. It was going to be pre-med and completely fled at the prospect of organic chemistry, which now, I wish I had because I feel like I need more science chops but there was just no way. I was like, “oh yeah, I no.” So I went to the business school because there were posters up looking for talent managers in Los Angeles, and I thought, “that’s it. There’s my career.” That didn’t really work out either, but I had a business…
Taren: It actually did. Sorry, it actually did. You are talent manager now, so.
Cindy: In some ways you could say that, yeah. And I did end up doing a lot of work in the entertainment industry. I mean, that’s one of my lessons to people it’s like – what makes you feel warm inside, like go read a bunch of job descriptions whether you’re qualified for them or not. And if it makes you feel warm and fuzzy, go figure out how you can get there, right? So it’s like that kid’s game it’s like – Am I getting warmer or am I getting colder? You can learn a lot that way.
So I took a couple of jobs out of business school that were really interesting. One was in sports marketing. I was running camps for the Yankees and the White Sox and I knew nothing about baseball. That’s another thing you’re going to see. I go take jobs where I know absolutely nothing about the subject matter. And it’s probably not how I would advise people to guide their career. I was trying to impress a guy who’s really into baseball. These are my terrible lessons, but it did work. We have been married for a very long time.
Taren: It is the same guy? Oh, good.
Cindy: And then I worked in non-profit for a while and quickly realized that’s not for me. That was a challenge, although it really allowed me to flex my creative chops. You have basically no money to do anything, so you’ve got to be super creative. And I brought my sports background back into it and I hired members of the San Francisco Giants to be spokespeople for this big very national nonprofit for the arm in San Francisco doing appearances in our retail stores, and it went really, really well. So maybe that’s another lesson there is right, everything is a thread that you can tie it to something else even if it feels really varied. The answers usually in front of you. It’s usually something you have.
So I went to business school. I don’t know what I was thinking I was going to do at that point, I was still a child. I went to business school at Northwestern which is a really great marketing program and had not expected business school to be like the biggest party on the planet. I really did not expect that. So I only went for one year, I did an accelerated program. I did some classes at the journalism school there too. And yeah, that was an amazing year in Chicago, super fun. Came out of there and thought that I wanted big company training. I thought I’d always worked for the nonprofits, the small firms. So I decided to go to Wells Fargo Bank. And I thought – here is my big chance to go work for a structured big company. Get a structured training program in and learn everything. Interesting job. I met great people. I lasted a year. That’s another thing you’ll see, I have a lot of short stints on my resume and that’s very difficult when you move over to the healthcare and life sciences space where people don’t have resumes that look like mine. So I give our CEO a lot of credit for seeing past that. And when I hire people now, who are in a certain age group who work at startups, it’s fully expected that, yes, you’ve bounced around quite a bit because that’s the nature of work in certain industries.
So yeah, I went from Wells Fargo to my very first startup and this will be in 1996. I’ve done something like eight since then and people ask me, “isn’t that exhausting? And I say, absolutely it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. Look at these wrinkles.” The first one was with a classmate from business school. It was a very early recruiting startup. So here’s where the HR starts to come in. We thought that had to be a better way than placing ads in the newspaper and people mail in their resumes and so we created a software program that would match people with open jobs and it was actually a really great product. And it was so far before it’s time. It was so far before it’s time that my job was to sell it into business schools and graduate schools to get their alumni and their students to use it and I got kicked out of school. I think it was the University of Chicago, like I literally got kicked out of the office. She said, “you’ve made a huge assumption here that is incorrect and this is not going to work because you are assuming everyone will be using email and that’s wrong.” I know, I mean, the good news is she called two weeks later, shame faced and asked for copies of our software, we were still delivering it on disk.
So that was a crash course in sales and traveling the country and believing in this little baby product we invented that was going way, way ahead of its time at the concept of matchmaking between open jobs and people, which obviously is a very big business now and that one did not make it. It got acquired but very small level. So, is this helpful? This is the kind of info you’re looking for?
Taren: Yes, I’m fascinated by that. So you were the precursor to LinkedIn?
Cindy: You know, like it was so far in advance of social media that we didn’t even think along those lines. The way it worked is, we created a database where you filled out, on a floppy disk, you filled out a bunch of information about your background. We would get a search. We would do a match in our database and then we would send you an email saying, “hey, this job looks perfect for you. And if you were interested, you’d attach your resume and we would provide the hiring manager, a stack of qualified and interested in your job for a small flat fee.” So they were getting, it was a sourcing, it ended up being a sourcing tool for executive recruiters.
Taren: That’s [TALKING OVER] I was going to say, for the kids in the office, a floppy disk used to be this little thing that you would stick into your computer, so in case they don’t know.
Cindy: We mailed it through the US mail, like all of us lined up around the conference room table packaging and putting stamps on it and dropping it in the box, that’s how early it was. Those were some of the best days. Like side by side with the engineer and the CEO and someone hand me the packing tape gun. It’s great.
Taren: I love it.
Cindy: I love that. I was there, for what, two and a half years and I learned everything. I learned how to sell and that’s a skill I would say, I could never do. I’m not a sales person. But when it’s your baby, you get out there and you’re just evangelizing. You’re promoting it. It makes sense, it works. I got Stanford to work with us. Harvard, they put their little sticker on all my mailings. We shifted the whole thing to the web when that came along we’re like, “wow, there’s this internet thing, we don’t need to use these floppy disks.” Then people could enter it online and that was all wildly brand new at the time.
Taren: I love that story. That’s a great story. And then where did you go? So that’s just one of like eight. So now you have seven.
Cindy: Yeah. I’ll probably skip some of the ones. They’re just too painful to talk about. Yeah, from there, I did the most directed job search I’ve ever done. I hired a career coach which is something I strongly recommend and I worked with her closely to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was living in San Francisco. My husband travels extensively as a musician, so I had a lot of time to work this through and it became very clear that there was an opportunity to take my personal interests, which is music and combine it with my career interests and skills. Because there was a whole world coming up of digital music that hadn’t existed before. And I articulated with this coach – here is what I want to do, and it became very clear. It was down to everything. Like I want an office where I can wear like leopard print shoes and nobody would look at me weird because the bank was not that office and like a certain look and I wanted to be able to be myself at work.
And once I got so clear about that, I started telling people and one of my friends, I mentioned, “you should talk to my friend, Dave Williams. He’s doing that.” So I cold called like, literally before email, I called the guy. He was packing up his office to move to California and he said, “yeah, we’ve got this startup. It’s called listen.com.” Sounds cool. I interviewed with them just near the ballpark in San Francisco, and I got a job there. And my title was director of branding and evangelism, so it was that coolest job on the planet. That was initially was a directory to digital music online and a search engine to help people find this huge blossoming network of digital files as they were slowly being converted, pre-iPhone, pre-Napster. And I worked with record labels to catalog their music. I worked with artists. I did television print, radio ads. Worked with very big music trade shows like South by Southwest. That was the time of my life.
Taren: I was going to say, that had to be fun.
Cindy: It was the best and the friends I made at that job are all my closest friends today. We Are all really, really close because we were doing what we loved and with all musicians and amazing. Difficult business model. That’s something you don’t think about too often when you’re young and just starting out, you don’t look at the financial forecasts and poke holes in it and think about how the market might evolve.
Cindy: So I was there for a couple of years. The company went through a few different shifts ultimately transforming into what’s known as Rhapsody, which is a streaming music service kind of like Spotify, very early version. And then 2001 hit and pretty much like, everybody I knew lost their jobs the same day.
Taren: Oh my…
Cindy: Yeah, it was huge and having lived through two of those now, it’s like it doesn’t scare you as much, right? This is what happened. It wasn’t the worst time in the world. We were all out of work together. We would all meet up for pub quiz on Mondays and Thursday nights and help each other. We started something called Job Club, where we look out for each other. And those were really hard lean times. It was like, “oh no, we’ve all lost everything and the industry is a mess. What do we do?”
From there, this is like another stroke of particularly good luck, a woman that I worked with, Carolyn, she was my counterpart at listen.com. She and I used to take our mountain bikes and ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and honestly, we were very happy. We were happily unemployed. She got involved in a job search with a Japanese firm that wanted to bring their cellphone technology to the US. They had a chip that sat on the phone that would allow multiple sounds at the same time and they were licensing it to Qualcomm and they were looking for a team to help launch that in the US. And it seemed like the dumbest idea in the world because the economy was in freefall and launching a consumer facing service then just was the height of foolishness. And so, of course, we both said, yes, great and we start. There was also a huge language barrier. We had that 3-way translation, where like he could understand English, but he would speak only in Japanese. The translator would then translate to English, we would answer and it was crazy. Still to this day, I’m not sure who got the job, me or the translator because I would answer and he’d say something very simple, like “how many years were you at this job? And I would say, four and then the translator would speak for like eight minutes.” And he’d say, and I’m like, I don’t know what I just said.
The translator apparently lied and got me the job. We traveled to Japan to soak up the industry there and learn everything we could about cell phone and advanced cell phone culture. Right place, right time. We had a blast. Our company was called Moderati. We built little ringtone applications. This was pre-iPhone. They sat on like, Nokia phones, totally different technology. We did a deal with Verizon Wireless and became their top-selling ring tone app and we were making a ton of money because people were paying three dollars a pop for short clip of a song.
Cindy: Yeah. And so my job was to license the music and figure out what songs would make sense as ringtones and figure out what portion of that song I would use and hire a team of musicians to create them and recreate them as ringtones. Again, those are all my best friends in my life, these people, we work side-by-side and we built a really big business.
Taren: Very cool.
Cindy: About seven years there. Sold the company. We pivoted and started the iPhone came along, which killed our business. We just had no margins. We had to pay the record labels half, and we had to pay the wireless carrier the other half, so like I’m maybe not that good at math, but I know that math doesn’t work. So we began to create apps for brands, called Zippo, because I knew kids like tolling lighter apps up, lighter pictures up, and they gave me some money to develop a virtual Zippo lighter app and that blew up. We had like 20 million downloads. Kids everywhere were holding them up at Rock shows and they were interactive. You could blow on them. It was just silly, silly, silly fun. We had celebrities recording ringtones for us. I could talk about that forever because it was so fun and so creative.
Taren: I love this journey that you’ve been on and not just kids have that app. I have that Zippo app on my phone.
Cindy: That’s so great. I travelled to Bradford, Pennsylvania to meet with them. It was like the middle February I think, just completely snowed in. I’m a girl from Santa Cruz, California. I don’t know how to do snow, so I rented a 4-wheel drive and I’m like, “I got this.” And then, I’m sliding all over the place and I can’t figure this out. It turns out, you actually have to put the car into 4-wheel drive, “well, no one told me that.” And all the streetlights were Zippo lighters. It was amazing. It was so fun. We sold that company to another Japanese firm around 2009 I want to say. And so that was great. It was a modest success, but I think way more importantly to me we started that company with like $1.5 million loan which we quickly paid back and we became profitable. And people got married and they bought houses and they had children. And it was just a great culture and a great family.
Taren: That’s fascinating. I’m loving your journey. Tell me more.
Cindy: I feel like healthcare sort of out there in the horizon.
Taren: We’re going to get there, right. But there are so many lessons learned along the way. It’s about taking calculated risks and figuring out what the business model is. So all of this ties together in terms of your journey as an executive.
Taren: I’m fascinated.
Cindy: Great. All right. So I left Moderati and it was very hard departure. It was one of those jobs where you feel like a family and you feel like you’re getting a divorced when you walk away. And from there, a little bit of consulting. But I landed something very unusual. I saw Yelp with a posting for a head of HR, vice president of HR specifically, looking for someone who had never done it before. Which seemed very odd, but I thought, “wow, that’s me. I’ve never done it before. I’m qualified.” I’ve been very exposed to HR in my prior job because we were a typical startup, nobody looked after it. So I tend to be very, very good working with people. And so I was always the one to take care of any issues that came up and make sure that our employees were happy. So I threw my hat in the ring there. It was a very difficult interview. The entire time I did it I thought I was just going to meet some interesting people, maybe position myself well for another role that might come up there, and marketing did not think I was going to get this job. There were case studies, grills with their general counsel, a lot of like scenarios – what would you do if this happened? What would you do if that happened? It was tough. It was really tough. A lot of written information submitted. I had fun with it. I just rolled with it. They asked me like, “who do you think is a really good leader?” And I said, “well, Albus Dumbledore, of course.” Because I was really into Harry Potter. I think with their culture that works. I was just being myself. And they’re like, “okay, weird. But okay, tell me why?”
So I got that job and I went in full time as the head of HR with zero formal experience. I had a team. I leaned on them a lot. We did some really great work in terms of figuring out what the employees needed. A lot of them were straight out of school, and they wanted to continue their learning and education. So we’ve launched a school within Yelp, called the School of Yelp Craft. And we brought in professors from Stanford and Berkeley, and they were teaching things like intro to finance for the salespeople who didn’t know that. They were teaching improv classes because I firmly believe improv is the way forward for being a better communicator and being a better collaborator and public speaking. And then Twitter ended up adopting that same improv program with the same teacher.
After that, we did leadership classes and amazing professor from Stanford taught his full graduate leadership program. We all learned a ton from him. That ultimately, though, led me to think, I don’t want to do HR full-time. There are a lot of issues. They’re structurally around, you might imagine you have a bunch of very young employees working together with managers who haven’t been well-trained and what’s expected of them as a manager, heavy drinking environment. It just there was a lot of terminations and getting on an airplane and terminating somebody and then coming right back home when it starts to become easy for you. I just had to look inside and say, this isn’t who I want to be. I’m forever grateful for that experience. Leaving was a really bad financial move on my part, but it wasn’t right for me.
Taren: It reminds me of that movie with George Clooney, where he had to go around the country.
Cindy: The air, right, yeah. And when people say, “oh, I have to fire someone, I’m scared. I was like, of course, you’re scared. It’s bad if you’re not, this is a really hard thing to do.” And I mean, that’s another lesson. I could talk about terminating people all day. But a lot of the times people are scared, it’s because they’ve never even had a single conversation with the person and it’s going to be a horrible shock. And it should never be a horrible shock. It should be clearly documented every week for the past six months that this is where we’re going, unless we can fix this, this, and this. But that’s human nature to want avoid those difficult conversations and then just rip the Band-Aid one day, and then everybody’s traumatized.
Taren: Right. Oh my gosh, I mean, through all of this and we can keep going is, you really have been really quite a visionary. You’ve been ahead of your time. You’ve been able to capitalize or identify really early adoption in some of these great industries between the apps and the pre-LinkedIn and even to Yelp, I mean, Yelp for Yelp right?
Cindy: Yeah, about 200 people, yeah. And I’d like to say, its visionary genius and I see around corners, but I’m not going to say that. I think a lot of this is lack. I really do. A lot of the decisions I make are around people, like I go to work with people that I like and respect because if I knew that the next thing is going to be, whatever, when Crypto is coming around, I was like, I don’t know anybody that I like and respect in that space. I’m not going to do it. Like, I’d rather go put an orange vest on and pick some garbage off the side of the freeway with this person who makes me laugh like crazy. Like, your days are going to be miserable unless you’re around people that you respect. And now, it’s about being around people who are smarter than me. I don’t want to be the smartest one. I don’t want to be the one that has all the answers. I want to find those people and work with them. And that’s what I have now, I mean, I am literally like the least educated person in the room. It’s like when I was in chemistry in college, freshman year, chemistry 1A at Berkeley which is really hard. And I knew that the only way I was going to get through is if I find a genius and I become his or her lab partner. And I’m still doing that. I’m still doing that and the funny story there is, I must have been like snoozing when they assigned lab partners, I missed my chance. Everyone’s gone. They’re all taken. Open my eyes and there’s one guy left and he’s wearing this long leather coat going to the floor with a Pink Floyd t-shirt under it and he’s this Indian-American guy with super long hair and I’m like, “I’m screwed. I’m getting an F.” He’s going to laugh because he tells the story too now, he’s now a renowned pathologist who goes around and speaks to schools and tells everybody about how I completely disregarded him. Thought I was going to get a terrible grade because of his Pink Floyd t-shirt. He ended up being the smartest person in the room and we’re really great friends.
Taren: Another life lesson – don’t judge the book by the leather coat going to the floor.
Cindy: Yeah, exactly. If someone’s wearing a leather duster, okay, he might be a little weird, he still wears a leather duster just to warn you. He’s coming over Saturday. I’m having a pool party and I’m like, “I know you’re going to be in a leather duster.”
Taren: Interesting ensemble but you probably pull it off. There you go.
Cindy: Absolutely. So where were we before?
Taren: We’re still in startup land. So now that you are in startup land, so tell me about that, so Foresite Capital, tell me about what you all do in terms of startups and what you look for.
Cindy: So Foresite Capital is a multi-stage investment firm, meaning we invest anywhere from seed-stage through to public companies. We have about three billion in assets under management. So very successful firm. Founded in 2011, by Jim Tananbaum, who is our founder and managing director. And we’ve built up to about say 70 employees at this point, and it’s a really interesting firm, really smart people. I keep talking about wanting to be the dumbest in the room. And we have people, are a lot of MD, PhDs, the ability to do a lot of very deep diligence on investment opportunities. Our team partners with entrepreneurs and helps shepherd them through the process of, for example, bringing a new drug to market it’s really hard. So I got involved here, I had it was between roles, I was doing a lot of consulting. I started getting into the healthcare space by consulting for a firm based out of Switzerland that was doing neuro rehab with virtual reality, so whole different area. But that gave me a taste of it and I started to realize, “wow, all this tech work we’ve been doing.” The technology is adapting so fast that it has tons of applications and healthcare touches everybody.
As an example, I have another friend that I knew from listen.com who went into VR himself and was head of VR for Sony PlayStation and I was able to hook him up with a job opportunity with a company that trains surgeons using virtual reality, which you can imagine so much easier way to train than how are you going to train a surgeon to do brain surgery, right? So, all of us, many of us, with strong tech chops and understanding of how to run a tech company started coming over toward healthcare. It wasn’t like a land rush the way you saw like with cannabis or I’m trying to think of other trends, VR, crypto. This was more of kind of a quiet wave of realizing my skills could really be in demand. Data scientist, huge need for data scientists in our field.
Cindy: We’re reinventing how drugs are discovered and we now have the ability to sequence a person’s genome and figure out what’s going to work on them specifically. So yeah, none of this was really on my mind. I had started looking at healthcare of like, “wow, here’s the new thing.” But when this opportunity came around with Foresite Capital, I met with Jim. I was very clear. I don’t have a finance background. I’ve never worked on the venture side and I don’t have a life science background. So I’m like, two strikes and he had been referred to me by my PR firm from multiple other companies. That’s another common thread. I’ve worked with a firm called VSC Consulting and Vijay had been hired as Jim’s rep, and he strongly recommended bringing someone in like me.
So, at that point, I had two other offers on the table. I was pretty sure one from the Switzerland client and one from a company in Palo Alto. Pretty sure I was going to take the Palo Alto one and ruin my life with the world’s worst commute, but we were negotiating. And then Jim is, as Jim does, he’s competitive and he’s decisive. And he’s like, “nope, come work with me.” And I was like, “what am I going to do? I’m confused. What does one do at this firm?” I took a leap of faith and I joined the team and quickly got quite busy refreshing our website and working on branding for the firm itself, running our annual investor meeting. And then, of course, taking on a little HR as well by talking to all of our employees to try to uncover what our values were and how we wanted to approach hiring.
So, that was fun. What made it more fun is, we spun off this incubator called Foresite Labs, and then that gave me the opportunity to get in really deeply with new companies as they were being formed and that’s my sweet spot. So, that’s where I’m really happy is working with a newly incubated company. I get involved from the point of we need a name, here’s this idea. We need a name for it. And then once the name is developed, we need to put a visual identity around it, plan for a website launch, plan for a public relations launched, and I run all of that. I also helped very closely the early stage portfolio companies at Foresite Capital. I’m working with one on a revised visual identity right now to launch her third company, I believe.
And that tied everything together. That brought me back to, okay, I am an operator. I am hands on and a startup person through and through. And I’m able to do that at a variety of different companies. And yes, I’m not a rocket scientist or a molecular biologist, but I’m good at what I do and people here are very respectful about that.
Taren: It’s fascinating. It sounds like as you said, this is the perfect place for you to be. When you start working with some of these startups and obviously, you’re working with the entrepreneurs or the owners of these companies who have these great ideas. What is some of the advice you provide to them, in terms of as you said, creating that visual or that identity? What’s the hardest part of that? And is it working with the entrepreneur who might have an idea? Tell me about that.
Cindy: Yeah. It is a challenging process. Mainly because this is an area that’s entirely subjective. There is no right answer. And then you’re working with an audience, this generally a scientist, and they want to plug it into a formula and have the right answer come out. So it can be hard. I think the CEO ultimately has to love it. I try not, I will give my opinion, but if they’re like, nope, I’m going this way. I want this. That’s okay. I’m not going to override them. So it’s a bit of a relationship management process. Sometimes they want certain colors. I’ve got two right now, they’re like – this is the color. It must be this color and it might be because that was their colleges color and they loved it or might be, like this color. If I don’t like the color, oh well, right. It’s not my choice. So what I try to do is in business school, I took an advertising class and the teacher was just absolutely adamant, you begin every creative project with a creative brief and you nail down exactly what it needs to accomplish to which audience and what the requirements are.
And to this day, I do that, every single time. I write a brief and I say – it has to do these five things. And try to be so specific in that way you’re giving a yardstick to the person to measure it against. It’s not, I like it and you don’t like it, which you’ll never win that argument until somebody says, “well, I’m the boss of you.” This allows you to say – its on strategy, except for this third thing here, we said we wanted it to be appeal slightly more to females than males. And if you look at it, it’s pretty harsh edged and his name, magnitude was the name … It’s just pretty manly here. And you said you didn’t want it to be. So then you have something to stand on. Ultimately, it comes down to what people like, but I think there’s ways to be flexible.
Taren: Yeah. That’s great advice. Starting with that foundations you said and then you have a yard stick to measure, I guess. That’s really great advice, so thank you for that.
Cindy: It does not work otherwise. Everyone hates me when I come at them with my creative brief.
Taren: You’ve done so many cool things throughout your career. I have lost track of them all. Can you even put your finger on some of your favorite marketing or branding campaigns or is that possible?
Cindy: Do you mean ones that I’ve worked on specifically?
Cindy: Yeah, I would say when we launched that virtual Zippo lighter, we had a lot of other companies launching similar products and they would go out in a typical way with a press release all about them. Bob so-and-so launches this incredible product and he’s the best. And it’s just boring, it’s fine. I do see a lot of life science companies following the same playbook just being very boring, right? Just putting out what is expected to put out and not to think about the end audience and why this interesting and not telling a story. So when we did this product, we chose instead to go out with a press release that said – what are the top 10 songs that one would hold a lighter up to at a concert. And we developed a list after a lot of arguments. That took off, because that was really fun and we got half of a page in Entertainment Weekly magazine, which is unheard of for an app launch. Mainly with them disagreeing with our choices and picking their own choices. It just was a fun funny thing to grab onto for what was a really a ridiculous product, a fake lighter. So that was one of the favorite things that I worked on.
Taren: I love that. So what was number one, because I have to weigh in? Was Freebird ever on that list?
Cindy: Freebird was on the list, yeah. But it was also a lot of thematic ones. So Cheap Trick had a song called The Flame, so does the Bangles – Eternal Flame. It’s probably like Richard Marx – I’ll Be Waiting, because that’s just what, I mean, people that’s what they do. These cheesy songs and then some hair metal, yes. Some hair metal in there as well. It was very of the moment which was very tall, 2004 to 2005. Yeah, it was really, really fun. We were all musicians and I wasn’t at the time. The funny thing is my whole career I’ve been drawn to musicians my whole life and now during quarantine, I’m like, “you know what, maybe I’m going to be a musician. I don’t commute two hours a day anymore. I’m Bart, so I’m learning the guitar.
Taren: There you go, I love that. So it’s come full circle.
Cindy: Kind of has, yeah. It’s fun. So that campaign was really fun and I think that’s the overriding lesson is you want to be happy in your careers find something that really means something to you. Find what makes you warmer. If you’re looking at different jobs – am I getting warmer, am I getting colder? Because when you have that fire inside you you’re going to bring way more of your own creativity to your role. Example with Foresite Capital, we invested in firms that had a new type of migraine treatment and I’m a lifelong migraine sufferer. So just to be on the inside and to be looking at this and that directly changed my life. Jim, our CEO was able to give me advice on what to do. I had to switch doctors. It took me years and I have no problems anymore. Something that was disabling to me six days of every month is completely gone and that’s because that’s what our firm and our portfolio companies are able to do. It’s amazing.
Taren: It’s fascinating.
Cindy: So when you’re working with these like early-stage companies, you get to see so much, you have so much insight into like, what’s going to come down the pike?
Taren: Can you share without giving away proprietary secrets? What do you see is like the next wave? What should we be looking for?
Cindy: Yeah. It’s hard because I’m not an investor. So I’m not looking at the pitches coming in. But I know what gets us really excited are all of the products that are at the intersection of data science and the explosion in data of the human body that are coming out, so the concept of precision medicine and being able to deliver the right treatment to the right target is just going to change everything. It’s not one-size-fits all anymore. There’s so much we’re learning about ourselves. So this idea of being very personalized and knowing your own body and don’t take the same thing that everybody else takes. It’s not a big broad club anymore, but a narrow target.
I think consumerization of medicine was largely forced by COVID and by quarantine and people starting to become comfortable with virtual care where that was just going to take a long time before that. But suddenly, like, my husband’s taken his doctor calls over Zoom, which would have been unheard of, kind of a technophobe. But that is going to change a lot of things as well. Home testing for stuff. We got very comfortable with home testing for COVID. There’s a lot of things that that can change there as well. So those are just a few of them.
Taren: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for sharing that little bit of intel with us. Obviously, you’ve worked in big companies, small companies, but how would you describe your leadership style other than being absolutely authentic because I see that coming through, what else?
Cindy: One thing I really need to work on and I tell all leaders to work on, is your listening skills because I think you want to talk a lot. When you talk your voice carries a lot more weight because you have a certain level, like if our CEO walked by and said, “oh, that plant needs water” and kept walking, they’d be like four people like completely rearranging their day so that they could fix the plant. There’s no such thing as like a throwaway line. Everybody’s looking at what you say. For me, I think it’s the listening skills and really hearing people and making sure they know that they’re heard. We try when we put people in a management position to give them coaching and make sure they’re doing weekly one-on-ones, maybe that’s just a walk around the block if we’re in-person. We tried to do, we call them performance conversations, so you’re having a conversation about how things are going at least twice a year. I prefer quarterly and they should be really easy, like no more than an hour. Instead of that old school once a year, they sit you down and say, “gee, back in January 2018, you did this thing that bothered me.” A lot of that is completely broken. I think performance assessments completely broken because no one’s going to be honest if they think their raise depends on what they say and then you ask them, “okay, what could you improve on? Like, I’m not going to tell you.” So that’s something we work on.
I think hiring is totally broken. I just hired somebody and I’m like, “really,” 30 minutes on a Zoom call with her and I’m making a decision practically to move in together. Like how is that right and I don’t have an answer for how to make that better. I wish that I could work with someone for three months as a consultant and then hire them, but that doesn’t work. Nobody’s going to agree to that. So, listen carefully. Do your homework. Check your references when you’re hiring somebody and really listen. Don’t ask a lot of questions, but listen to what they’re saying, often you can read a lot between the lines. Use it all as a data input. And if something’s going wrong, I’ve seen this over and over again, people don’t say anything and they come to me and they say, “I really need help. This person has to be terminated,” and it’s been a year, and I’ll go through records and every review was positive. And I’m like, “I’ve got nothing to work with here. You’ve never once told her she wasn’t performing, it’s not fair.” So get comfortable with that.
Easy, open conversation in the moment – “hey, you know what, you could have handled that a lot better. Let me talk to you about it. Let me show you how I would have handled it. Can we work on that together over the next week?” That’s not easy. I’m a people pleaser and fighting against that tendency in all aspects of my life, I think I finally nailed it here because I had to. You’re not doing anyone any favors by being nice to them when they actually could really use feedback. Your job is to be firm and to be clear, and if this isn’t the right role for them, help them find the right role.
Taren: That is excellent advice. Thank you so much for sharing that because I think there’s a tendency for a lot of women to be people pleasers and we fall into that trap.
Cindy: Right, we are raised that way and then we’re like a bitch if we act assertive or I mean, yeah the whole diversity thing and the women in leadership, I would talk for like two hours. You’d hang up on me, but it’s a big issue. I have a soft voice when I speak up in meetings. I get spoken over. I once said that it’d be real nice if I had a male translator and just be a guy who followed me around and said exactly what I just said, because they don’t hear me. Like I’ll say something like, “hey, why don’t we do it this way.” And everyone will nod and then five minutes later, another guy will go, “hey, why don’t we do it this way” and repeat exactly what I said and everyone will go, “oh my God, that’s amazing. Done.” And that can really get you down.
Taren: That’s new business opportunity for you, a male translator.
Cindy: Right. Say what I said, but in a male voice. I don’t know if you want to get into it, but diversity and inclusion is another area that I’m working on at both companies and we’ve done some really interesting work.
Taren: Tell me, it’s a hot topic right now. So for lot of our like listener, so I’d love to hear what you’re doing.
Cindy: It’s not being done very well in our industry and Venture Capital in general. I belong to a group of peers, we all do life science, VC, communications. So about a summer ago, we were talking about this during the summer when it was top of mind for everyone and we were discussing whether we should put statements on our website, black lives matter or what have you. And we all kind of felt like gosh, that’s disingenuous. We put this statement and anybody could go look at our team page and see that we were full of it. It’s like, “okay, really, here’s a bunch of guys, white guys.” So we were disappointed and we realized we didn’t have much power especially as communications people are not investors. And then I, silly me, open my mouth and said, “well, what if we did something together? We have more power as a group,” and everybody went, “yeah, great idea. You’re in-charge.” So I found myself in-charge of this loose collective of about 10 other firms and we quickly decided we would tackle the easy things first, which is access to employment in Venture Capital for people from underrepresented backgrounds. And we decided to focus on scholarships and mentorships and internships first.
We did a lot of homework. We met monthly. We landed on this idea of partnering with the National Venture Capital Association. They’ve got an online program called VC University. We created a new track within VC University for life science VCs and we, together pooled our money and underwrote scholarships, full scholarships for people from underrepresented backgrounds to attend this online program. And then it also matched them up with one of our managing directors who had office hours and just was a mentor to each of them through the program. And wow, it was really great. Like we’ve done about 60 people so far. We just hired one of them full time. If you look at, they put a slideshow out that NBC tweets out a slideshow every time they launch a new cohort. They’re really talented people. They’re amazing backgrounds. They’re scientists. They’re in grad school. They’re working already at a VC firm, and they’re all people of color, women, LGBTQ, anybody who identifies as underrepresented. And it’s going really, really well.
Cindy: Thank you. I’ve got Johnson and Johnson joined, Salesforce Ventures joined along with our other partner firms to support this. So really honestly, I’m really proud of that.
Taren: Yes. And it’s such an important work that you’re doing. So again, thank you for raising your hand. So somebody needs to do it, it’s a tough job. And so, they put the right woman in charge.
Cindy: I don’t think of myself as a natural leader, but if there’s a vacuum there, you put your hand in the air and figure it out later, right?
Taren: I get it. I mean, this has been a fascinating conversation and I could talk to you for another hour, but sadly, our time together for now is going to be soon over because I’m going to ask you the question we ask all of our WoW episode participants. And that is, can you pick, and I don’t know how you’re going to choose, one wow moment that either change the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you. I have counted now, you’ve said nine times at least fun, great job, fabulous opportunity. So I don’t know how you’re going to choose.
Cindy: So the question specifically is, what wow moment made me realize.
Taren: Yeah. Do have a wow moment?
Cindy: Yeah, there really is, there is. And it came through working with a career coach, who had me do things like, go to the magazine rack and tell me which three magazines you’re going to choose. So you just sort of identifying what it is in you that gets you jazz, what gets you excited. And at that time for me it was music and I ended up as a straight line from that into the digital music startup which, in the past I would have just looked at job ads and picked one I thought I was qualified for. That’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is what excites me, what specifically makes me want to get out of bed in the morning? How would I spend my time if it was up to me and then find a role that ties some elements of that and it doesn’t have to be all of them and you don’t have to be fully qualified. I got the Yelp job with zero experience. Just bring your passion to work, and that’s where you’re going to be happy. It’s also probably going to be hardest. It’s probably going to ruin that passion for you to some extent. You might hate music after a while, but it’s really exciting. And I think everyone at Foresite Capital and Foresite Labs they’re passionate about this healthcare problem they’re trying to fix. It’s super meaningful. I sometimes laugh that I wasted a lot of my career doing like fart sound ringtones or whatever stuff that was totally trivial that the kids loved. But now our companies are working on trying to address cancer. It’s unbelievable. Like talk about wanting to get out of bed in the morning and having some meaning in your life. So I recommend to everybody, if you’re unsure, invest a little bit in a coach. Really think about what it is that’s going to make you excited and don’t be afraid to try something brand new. Especially for women, we tend to think that we have to meet all 10 qualifications in order to apply for something and men will look at it and say, “yeah, you got three of these. I’m in.” We are our own worst enemy. We hold ourselves back and we have to stop that.
Taren: Agreed. Cindy, I can’t thank you enough for your time and for sharing so much of yourself with us and our listeners. It’s been a fascinating conversation and I do look forward to speaking with you again. Thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Cindy: Thank you so much. This was a really fun talk and I can’t wait to hear it and have any follow-up conversations that might come up.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.