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.
Being able to order a blood or urine sample the same way you can one-click home delivery of your favorite snacks would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. For researchers, iSpecimen is the Amazon-like resource that brings research materials to their front door. Today, this global marketplace, the brainchild of two pathologists and a technologist, contains millions of research samples that address an unmet need in the market — “81% of researchers say their research is limited due to a lack of biospecimens.”
Jill Mullan, chief operating officer, co-founder and director, says iSpecimen was formed to help accelerate medical research by making it easy for researchers to find patient samples and data they need for their research. And in the future, Mullan says, the collection won’t stop with samples — the company may someday point to actual patients who can be tapped for clinical trials.
“I always tell people, even though we say we are the Amazon for human biospecimens, iSpecimen is much more like what Kayak did for the travel industry,” Mullan says of the platform that allows multiple specimen contributors to connect with scientists.
Throughout her self-described nonlinear career, Mullan has made bold and difficult choices and defined for herself what “having it all” means. When the chance arose to combine her technological and entrepreneurial talents with doing something altruistic in nature, she jumped right in.
“This was the opportunity I was looking for, which is to do something meaningful, do something challenging, and it turns out, do something with people I really like,” Mullan says.
It hasn’t all been easy, and she’s learned a lot about herself as a leader, how important it is to be agile and how to think outside the box.
“I say this all the time: ‘All progress requires change, and all change is painful to someone,’” she says. “You have to change to make progress … and we have to just work through it.”
In this week’s WoW podcast, Mullan shares lessons learned throughout her multifaceted career and how she mastered the art of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
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, meets with Jill Mullan, Chief Operating Officer, Co-founder, Director, iSpecimen
Taren: Jill, welcome to our WoW podcast program.
Jill: Well, thanks. Thanks so much for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m actually really honored to be here as well.
Taren: Well, we’re honored to have you with us. Jill, can you briefly share a bit about what iSpecimen does and how it fits into the medical research continuum?
Jill: Absolutely. iSpecimen was formed to help accelerate medical research by making it really easy for researchers to find patient samples and data they need for their research. And we decided to approach it by developing an online biospecimen marketplace. And for those who don’t know, biospecimen, a human biospecimen in particular, is nothing more than a piece of a person. And so it could be a biofluid, like blood, plasma, serum, or urine. It could be a piece of tissue that comes out of the body during biopsies or resections or other surgical procedures, or it could be cells like immune cells or stem cells. So it’s basically anything that comes out of a human body that medical researchers want to study. Prior to iSpecimen, there was no real easy way for researchers to gain access to those samples. So we decided to create, like I said, this online marketplace and you can kind of think of it as an Amazon for human biospecimens where researchers can go and they can look for samples. They can type in, okay, I’m looking for a 40 to 50-year-old female who has breast cancer. Who has triple negative breast cancer and I need a piece of tissue and a matching serum sample from that patient. And our platform will give them results to say, here are all the samples that meet your requirements that we have access to. And in the future, not only here are all the samples that we have access to that meet your requirements, but here are patients who you can access to get a prospective collection from them. And so, I always like to tell people, even though we say Amazon for human biospecimens, it’s much more like what Kayak did for the travel industry. Now, I’m old enough to remember that in the early days of travel, if you want to travel, you have to go get a guidebook from AAA. You have to go call airlines. You have to go call hotels. You have to call rental car companies. You have to kind of cobble together, this whole travel itinerary making phone calls back and forth to land on the trip that you want. Kayak came along and other travel websites came along and they said, “why don’t we suck information out of the airline’s database and out of the hotel’s database and put it in a simple website where people can come and search for what they want.” And so we said, you know what, let’s do the same thing for human biospecimens by tapping into healthcare data and getting a view into what samples are going through clinical labs. What samples may exist in bio banks which are repositories of samples. What patients may be flowing through the healthcare system and let’s create this really easy to use place where researchers can come. And like I said, just search for the samples they need for their research programs.
Taren: So that’s fascinating. So first of all, how do you engage people in providing you with samples? Because it’s not like they’re walking down the street and you’re going up to them with a syringe.
Jill: Yeah, that’s a great question. And in fact, in our early days when we were creating this business model and going out and talking to potential investors with angel investors and venture community. They all said to us, “okay, when we’ve done our diligence that customer side is there.” Like everybody says, it’s hard to get biospecimens and there is a need for a platform like this. But what we have concerns is, can you convince healthcare providers who are notoriously slow moving organizations? Can you convince them to give us access to your data? And when we started the company, it was roughly 2010 when we first started going out to talk to healthcare providers. And we went out to them with the story of, “hey, we want to tap into your electronic medical records, and we want to take this data and put it up into the cloud, so we can use it to search for patient samples and annotation data that might meet research requirements.” And the first response we got back was, “you want to take my data where?” Like, “what’s cloud?” And when we told them they were like, “are you kidding me?” Like, “absolutely not. This is never going to get through. Like how could you come up with an idea like that?” And so, in the very early days of developing our technology, we knew that that was going to be a big obstacle. And so, we purposely developed it with I would say compliance in mind and compliance everything, from one of the initial decisions was to leave all the protected health information. The stuff that HIPAA says, you need to protect, leave that behind at the healthcare provider and then assigned new re-identifiers. So, basically they identify all the information before we bring it into our data center. And that was a huge relief to those healthcare providers who now said, “okay, you’re not taking in this protected health information. I feel better about giving you data to go up into the cloud.” And then we also did things like, we actually, as an organization or HIPAA compliant, we went through all of the 80-something policies and procedures we put in place. We had somebody come in and do a gap analysis. We hired ethical hackers. We did a lot of privacy and security testing on our software, so that we could go to healthcare providers and say, “okay, we know you’re concerned about your data. Look at all the things we’ve done to protect it.” And that I think was like a real key decision we made early on because then it allowed us to go to first healthcare provider and give them the comfort that they could give us access to their data and it was going to be protected. And then once we got the first one, it was much easier to go to the second one and then a third one. But honestly, back to your question building out that healthcare provider network, which now is about 200 organizations, actually a little bit more than 200 organizations. That was the hardest part of what we had to do and it was a long process. So we started with one in year one and then we had two in year two and then four and then eight and it really just built slowly like that until where we are today, which like I said, is more than 200 organizations.
Taren: Wow. And so, do you compete at all with 23andMe, is that this sort of the kind of the same model? Because they also look at that kind of patient data, if you want to call it as such.
Jill: So I would say it a little bit. We don’t directly compete with them today. Because what we’re really focused on is the biospecimen. And the researchers who we’re dealing with, which are pharmaceutical companies, are in preclinical research a lot of times looking for companion diagnostics for their existing therapies. We deal with in-vitro diagnostic companies for developing new tests, assays, instrumentation. Some government researchers like the CDC and academic institutions. They’re all looking for not just data about the samples and the patient, but they actually want the sample itself. Because what they’re doing generally speaking is they’re looking for some biomarker, so they want to know – What makes this patient respond to my medication versus that one who didn’t? What can I find different in their blood? Most of the time it’s blood, but it could be any piece of material that comes out of the body, but what’s different about them that makes them responsive? And how can I develop a test that will show that that patient’s responsive? So they need that sample and that’s really the key difference. 23andMe has a lot of genomic information and there’s a lot of research that can be done off of just that information, but the researchers we deal with are the ones who actually need a biospecimen to accompany that information.
Taren: Gotcha. Well, I have to know, what led you to start up iSpecimen? You didn’t wake up one night and say, “hey, I think we need to have bodily samples of things.” So what started this for you?
Jill: Yeah, it’s funny. Because if you’d ask me 15 years ago, is this what I would be doing with my life? I probably would have said, “no way.” I came out of technology. I’m an electrical engineer. I developed microprocessors out on the west coast for a while. Then I moved into the product side of business at semiconductor companies and I made my way through a number of semiconductor companies. I ended up deciding to leave that industry. I made my first industry switch and I went into video editing software, which was nascent at the time. It was just coming being digitized like, before that everything was done on tapes. So I joined that industry when it was really new and like completely switched to video and film editing which very fascinating industry in of itself. When I made this industry switch, it was software. So I went into the software world, and then that led me to being on a founding team of a startup company with a number of people from that organization. And it was a storage networking product which was not as far flung as it sounds from video editing, because with video editing you have to move a lot of bits around in order to do the video editing. So I went into storage networking, started a company and then decided to, I thought it was retiring. I hung up my cleats at age 35. I actually had a retirement party. I had three young kids at the time. I had, I think it was on my seventh pair. My husband was at a startup and it was just, life was really hectic. And something had to give, and I said, “okay, I’ll stay home with the kids.” And I jumped out of the workforce, which lasted about six months. And after six months, I got a phone call saying, “hey, can you come back and help? Can you help do some consulting work?” Which then started my consulting practice and I did that for about eight years. It was mostly with small companies mostly in the software space. So I made some stents in storage networking. I did some network management software and it was at that network management software company where I had done, it was a long-term contract that I was working on with them. And at the end of my contract, they really needed somebody to jump in full-time as the VP of marketing. I said, “I was just not at a point in my life where I could jump back in full time.” So they brought in a VP of marketing, my contract ended and then the CEO of that company happened to be Chris Ianelli, who’s the CEO of iSpecimen at a party. And Chris had this idea for this company. He said, “oh, I know somebody who might be able to help you. Give Jill a call.” And so, Chris gave me a call back in 2010 and he got me on the phone and he told me this idea. And the idea was really simple in its infancy, which was, there are all these clinical lab samples, the blood, plasma, and serum that are left over from clinical testing. So when you go in for a blood test your sample goes into a lab, it gets trafficked around the lab, it gets tested, it gets put in a refrigerator. And three to five days later, typically gets thrown out. And there are researchers who could use access to those clinical lab samples, especially if they’re accompanied by some data, to do things, like, genomic studies for instance. So he’s like, there’s a big opportunity for this. And by the way, this is not just my crazy idea, he had met up with a former resident, a woman he went to residency with who was working at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And she created a core facility there called the Crimson Core Facility, and it did just that. It made those remnant clinical samples available to internal Harvard researchers. And he heard that idea and he’s like, “this sounds like it could be a great commercial endeavor.” So he started thinking about it. He started talking to some customers and got great feedback that, “if you build this, we will come.” And that’s when he called me. And he’s like, “I have this idea for a company. This is what I’m thinking about doing like yes, starting with the clinical lab samples, but my vision is, it’s going to be the Amazon of human biospecimens and really be the place where people come to procure samples.” A big component of it was tech-related and it made sense. And I tell people 30 seconds after I hung up that phone call, I was sold. And it’s a little bit longer story, but in part because I wanted to do something that I felt was really meaningful. So, I worked in a lot of places. I didn’t need to work to make a living. It was really, I wanted to work because I wanted to do something that I felt was meaningful. And when I heard that this company would be involved in medical research in advancing medical research, I really gravitated towards that idea. So it had the altruistic nature that I loved. It had the technology component, which Chris is a physician by training and he’s a PhD in immunology, so he’s really a physician scientist. So I could bring this technology, entrepreneur piece to the relationship and the boxes checked. It fit the things that I was looking for, which is, do something meaningful, do something challenging, and it turns out do something with people I really like. So I jumped in.
Taren: It’s a very cool story. Thank you for sharing that with us. No, who would have thought, right? But you have an entrepreneurial spirit ingrained in you, because this is not your first startup. So tell me a little bit about that, what drives you to be part of these kind of fledgling companies? Is it that spark? Is it that energy you get from being part of a startup?
Jill: Yeah. I think it’s a number of things. It first started with a right outlook. Three years out of college, right out of college, I went to work for a large company and it was great. It was a wonderful training ground. I was living out in Silicon Valley back in the 80s and I was looking for my next opportunity because I wanted to get out of the engineering work and move more into something like product marketing, product management, more people-oriented. I was given an opportunity to go to what was a startup, a small company at the time called MIPS Computer Systems. And I jumped in, and within a short period of time after joining the company went public. So I got a taste of two different things. The first thing was when I went there, they threw this big project at me, as 20-something year-old and said, “a lot of money is based upon you finishing this. So can you get this project done?” It was my first experience of, oh my gosh, something like I can do something and actually see the effect on the company like immediate effect on the company. And that’s what I love about small companies, is that you’re given a lot of responsibility and everything you do, you can see what the impact is on the bottom line. So it’s like you live and die by the work that you put in. And there’s a great sense of satisfaction of seeing results of your work, and not just moving the needle a little bit, but moving the needle a lot. So that was my first experience. I fell in love with the, like the sense of responsibility and somewhat autonomy and having the ability to really make a difference. And then that company went public, which was kind of, icing on the cake where, I now got to see that whole going public process. It was a very, very exciting time. Also interesting at that time, it was back in the late 80s and there was no internet yet and I had moved over into this product side of the world and I remember at one point them saying to me, “okay, Jill we have an idea for a new business. So can you write the business plan for it?” There’s no way to Google. How do you write a business plan? What needs to be in the business plan? And so, I pulled together a business plan. I think I did a pretty good job at it, but it was at that point that I was like, “okay, you know what? I had gaps in my education and I want to go back to school.” I did, I went back and got my MBA and then that afterwards set me on the path of working mostly with small companies with a few exceptions.
Taren: Interesting. And I loved how you identified that there was a gap that you needed to fill professionally and then you filled it. And then, as you said, you worked in a lot of different industries. The semiconductor industry, the movie editing industry, but then you found your purpose, working in the biopharma industry. I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs and their past are somewhat similar, where they could use their talents and their treasures almost anywhere because you all a very smart people. But yet, you gravitate to helping people and that altruistic piece really comes through, and it becomes a meaningful life then, in a lot of ways.
Jill: Yeah, it absolutely does. I tell people a lot of times when I talk about it – because I’m very passionate about the company in what we do and I feel a very, very strong sense of loyalty and especially to the people. When I look back on my career, it’s not that I job hopped a lot, but it’s that even within companies when I stayed there for longer periods of time, I would do a job and then I would get bored and I’d be like, “what’s the next job I can do in the company?” And so, I was moving a lot and moving up the responsibility, but it was really all around. I’m bored. I want the next challenge. And I look at iSpecimen and since day one, I’ve learned so much and I feel like continual learning is happening for me every day. And that I’ve come to realize is a real key driver for me, is that I have to be like, doing something I love with people that I really care about, and doing it in an environment that gives me the opportunity to continually learn and grow. And I think if I get to the point where I feel like I’m not learning something new, virtually every single day, that’s probably when I would be like, “okay, I’ve done what I can here. I’m probably now bored and I’d be looking for something else.” And that hasn’t happened, which is kind of to me, like the big surprise that iSpecimen, so I’ve been here now 11 years and I’m still feeling like I’m learning every single day.
Taren: Is this the longest job you’ve had?
Jill: By far. Prior to this it was five years and even within that company I was there for five years, I rotated through probably three different jobs and then ended up leaving that company to start a company.
Taren: Wow. So as the chief operating officer, your job, do you have a typical day? What does your role entail?
Jill: That’s actually a very hard question. Because sometimes I’m like, “what doesn’t my job entail?” So practically speaking, in the early days it was small, so we did everything. But as the organization has grown, I’ve retained a lot of different functions. So just if you think about like my role at a high level what I do. So I’ve got responsibility for the operational piece of the business. And when I say that, I’m thinking mostly around the biospecimens and the acquisition and distribution of those biospecimens. So everything from somebody raises their hand and says, I have a need, salespersons handles it. But as soon as the need gets complicated where somebody has to go and do some work to say, can we actually do this? Then it goes to my team to do what’s called the feasibility assessment and then my team, the operations team is the one that does all of the tracking and managing of the orders, the fulfillment of the orders called chain logistics, like the whole thing to get the samples ultimately in the hands of the researchers. So that’s one big piece and it’s not surprising given my title. Within that organization, there is also customer service and quality, so I’m responsible for that. Kind of outside of that normal operational piece, site development and management. So we run this two-sited marketplace; we’ve got customers on one side and those are those life science researchers who need biospecimens and then we have a supply network on the other side made up predominantly of healthcare providers of all different sizes. It could be very large practice groups up to multi-hundred hospital healthcare systems. And so somebody has to go out and create that network and then also manage that network. In the early days it was the CEO, Chris and me, going out and developing that network. We now have a team of people who are doing that. But because I’ve done it early on, that just became something like, “okay, keep it under Jill because she’s got a lot of experience with that.” So, site development and management. Closely aligned with that is legal and compliance. Because a lot of what we do at the healthcare providers revolves around contracts and certainly making sure that everything we do is in compliance. So, all of the IRB and compliance that falls under me. Human resources, I think just because it seems like operations was the right place for that, so that’s under me. Marketing, I got the marketing organization under me because probably my background like really was marketing. So, it made sense to have marketing under me. We just recently put product management under me. So we hired a new head of product and that person will be extra dotted line to both Chris and me. But I’ve got product management. Let me think what else? Investor relations, that kind of goes hand-in-hand with marketing, so that’s under me. Corporate strategy, Christ and I handle all of that. And in the past, like up to about a year ago, finance underneath me. We now have a CFO. She joined us prior to our IPO. I’m so thankful she’s there. But yeah, sometimes I look like I’ve got way too much on my plate. But I also have because I’ve been here for 10 years, so I have domain knowledge and institutional knowledge in each of those areas. And I know what I need to do is help move that institutional knowledge to other people, so that I can free up my time a little bit to be less, I would say, reactionary and spend more time thinking and really planning about where we want the business to go.
Taren: Wow, well, that’s a lot of hats. That’s a lot of dotted lines going in one direction. Tell me about the IPO. How was that? Was that fun?
Jill: The IPO is great. Now, it was during COVID, so it was a little I’d say less exciting because the roadshow was all virtual. Like on one hand, it’s great virtual roadshow. On the other hand, I love to travel so I wouldn’t mind it being in 10 different cities and 10 different days. I think that would have been kind of fun. But it was really the process leading up to the roadshow that was in many ways, really tough, but also very rewarding. So longer story to our history, but we have been, we don’t have any institutional or venture investors in the business. So we were capitalized with angel investors and a strategic investor and a family office and not with, I would say deep pockets to help us and continue to make investments in the company. And so we got to a point where we needed more money to keep the business going. And it’s another longer story, kind of like, what are the things that you did wrong along the way? Well, capitalization, we made some mistakes there, and one of the big mistakes was our Series B was around ahead of where it should have been in terms of the company valuation. So when we needed money after the Series B, we could have raised money, but it would have required most likely a down round and that’s not something that people wanted to do. And so, we started taking on some debt and the debt was supposed to be a short term fix, so we either raise money or we sold the company. And that’s the path we thought we were going to go down. Then COVID hit and so some of those deals that we’re looking at fell through, and we are in a situation we’re like, “oh, no, COVID just hit. We’re running out of money. The world has shut down, including healthcare providers who are major suppliers. What do we do? Like how do we get ourselves out of this?” And in one of the things that Chris and I are, we’re problem-solvers. So we always are going to say, what are the challenges and what can we do about it? And really, like saying, asking the five whys. Why is that a challenge? – Well if it’s because of X, Y, Z, well why is that a problem? And you keep going until you get to the root core. And as we are sitting and saying, “okay, we’re now in this challenge, what do we do?” There are some quick easy things like bring on PPP money, the payroll protection plan. So we qualify for that because our healthcare provider network shutdown, we weren’t able to get revenue, like we previously were. So we signed up for PPP money and that got us through a little bit. And then we’re like, “okay, we’re sitting here in this world of COVID now, and we can’t get cancer specimens anymore because people aren’t going in for cancer treatment. We can’t get diabetic samples. What can we get, like COVID?” Like, there’s all this COVID research. Everything is shifting to COVID. And so how do we work to obtain those COVID samples? In the early days, it was very complicated because there wasn’t even protective equipment to go around. We had some, so, we were sending some of ours out to our supply sites for those organizations who collect it. But we did things like, one we have this very large network. So as COVID moved around to different parts of the network, we were able to follow COVID kind of around as it spread. So if somebody need a COVID samples, we can continually fill them. But the second thing we did is, we did things like instituted mobile phlebotomy. So we found some mobile phlebotomy firms where now somebody has tested for COVID, they’re isolated right? They’re not going into a healthcare provider to give a sample. But we could send a phlebotomist who is trained, who have protective equipment to go out and do those biospecimen collections. So, all of a sudden, we were able to capitalize on what would have otherwise have been a terrible situation, generate revenue via COVID, which then grew our revenue, which then started eliminating some of the capital challenges that we were having. And then also, set us up very nicely for an IPO. Because now we had grown. We have PPP money and the market was really ripe for companies doing IPOs. It was funny. It was in some ways amazing that at the end of May an opportunity fall apart for an acquisition, which is what we thought we’re going down the path of. June, we were like, “okay, now, what?” By July, we started making calls to bankers and lawyers. By August, we had the team set up and we started the IPO process. So back to your question of like, exciting times, it was fraught with like, “oh, my gosh, what are we going to do next? How do we survive?” And it ended with what many people consider like kind of the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae like an IPO. Now our IPO was an early stage IPO, so it wasn’t the grand coming out party, but to put it in perspective, we raised, I think, just north of 20 million. It was 18 to 20, I can’t remember the exact number in our IPO. And then we did a subsequent funding of 21 million. So we raised roughly, 40 million dollars and to put it in context, prior to that we never as a company had more than a million dollars in our bank account. I think 1.6 like that was our largest infusion of cash. So this really opened up so many opportunities for us and we’re now sitting here, saying, “all the things that we’ve been wanting to do for the past 10 years, we are now capitalized to be able to do it.” So it’s a really, really exciting time, not necessarily because of the IPO process but because of where it’s led us to.
Taren: That’s a heck of a big cherry, I’ll tell you that. I can’t even imagine what that roller coaster ride must have felt like, I mean, and you’re not even talking six months at a time. We’re talking month-by-month there for a while and the highs and the lows and coming out at this end. Well, congratulations to you all. It takes a certain amount of guts to be able to keep going like that. That’s not for the faint of heart for sure, that journey. That’s exciting and to be able to turn those obstacles into opportunities, again, not usual. Highly that’s great strategic thinking. When you’re thinking about, so now you just said you have all this opportunity because you have this cash. What are those key objectives for this year? Where are you going to be spending that cash?
Jill: So I guess, there are two major answers to that. When you look at our business and I mentioned this early on that the customer side is relatively easy. There’s a big demand and I haven’t talked to you about like the surveys that we’ve done and others have done that really show that researchers continuously say that it is hard getting biospecimens. That they limit the scope of their studies because they can’t get enough. The words they use to describe it are frustrating and challenging. It’s hard. It’s really hard for them to get their specimens. So we’ve always felt like that side of the equation is the easy side. And the harder side is the healthcare provider side, and then the technology piece to connect them to. So we’ve done a good job of building up the healthcare provider side. We always need more because, especially with the changes and requests due to precision medicine. The requests are becoming more and more specific and the more and more specific a request for specimen becomes, the larger patient population you need access to, to be able to fulfill it. So we continually need more supply and we’ll invest resources to building that supply network. But equally important when we build that supply network, we need to start building the deeper datasets that we obtained from those supply networks. So in the early days, it might have been okay, to say I’ve got patients who have diabetes and here’s a sample from them. But now, you need not only I need patients with diabetes, they have to have this type of diabetes. They have to be on the following medications. I need five years of medical record data. They can’t have kidney disease. So it’s like list goes on and on, it becomes more complex. So in order to automate that process, we need to ingest more and more data from the healthcare providers. These deeper data sets. So on the supply side, it’s still about growing the network, but it’s really the focus this year is going to be on growing the depth of the data that we’re getting from our supply network. Then if you’re getting this data, the second thing you need to do is you need to be able to do something with it. And that’s where the technology investment comes in. So in that time period where I told you things were lean and we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t invest in our technology as much as we wanted to. So this year, we’re finally able to invest in the technology and it’s really going to be around taking these deeper datasets, ingesting them, and using them for a couple purposes. One, not only to help better match researchers’ needs to biospecimens, but we always say, if you can find a patient for a biospecimen collection study, you now can find patients for all sorts of studies. And so while our initial focus and foray into what we call patient search or patient targeting will be for biospecimen collection studies, it does open up a whole new world of other things we can do once we can find those patients. And likewise, as we build a bigger dataset, a healthcare data, there are opportunities for making that healthcare data available in and of itself without a biospecimen or patient but just for research. So, the plan is get the datasets, build the technology to support the biospecimens business and then look at how can we add adjunct data or patient businesses on top of this dataset. And that’s really what this year is about, from a kind of a high-level business. Now, when we set our goals for the year, we also look at other goals like operational efficiency and we have to get better and better at what we do. And the technology will help there but even in absence of technology, how can we improve our processes so that things get higher quality and faster and we’re continually working there. But the last piece which I think is really, really important is our people and people growth. And we look at our employees, the ones that we have. We want to keep them. Keep them happy and make sure they’re growing in their jobs. But we also want to create this place where people want to come to work. And what we find is that we’ve got really strong loyalty, employee loyalty here. And our voluntary turnover rate is extremely low and I think it’s in part because we treat people like we want to be treated. So we communicate. We’re open with them. We’re not afraid to have hard conversations and encourage, like if somebody’s not performing, “okay, let’s talk about why? Our goal is not to get rid of you. Our goal is to figure out how do we get you where you need to be and where we want you to be.” I always tell people like, when you join iSpecimen you become part of the family. And even when you leave, you’re still part of the family. Like you can’t divorce us. You can leave us but you’re still part of this family and I think it really like in genders this, the sense of community that we’ve built.
Taren: That’s amazing. Well congratulations again to you for building a corporate culture that is bringing people in and keeping them and nurturing them. And especially in that technology area is certainly as a leading woman technologists, you recognize that you are often, I would imagine and have run in the room with other technologists. How did you find your voice? And you set yourself up to be a role model in a lot of ways. Are you finding more women coming into the technology field?
Jill: Certainly, it has changed since I was a young woman entering technology. Actually, the story goes back a little bit further. I had the advantage that my mother was an electrical engineer, and she really paved the way. She was the only female engineer in our entire four years at college. There was not another female engineer in the entire school. She went to big school, Penn State. And I didn’t really realize the importance of that until like much older in my life. And I actually just a couple weeks ago, called her and said, “mom, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this. But like I want to thank you for paving the way for the rest of us.” And she never worked. She graduated college. She got married. She had a family and that became her life. But just the fact that she did it, I think I grew up with the, I can do whatever I want to do. There were no limitations. And so I love math. I love science. It made sense that I would go into engineering and that’s what I did. And to your point early in my career, I was typically one of a few women at my level and I was thinking about this the other day, did I ever have a woman in my chain of command? And I can’t think of a single time in my entire career. And even here because Chris is a man, I’ve never had a woman in my chain of command. Which is really kind of sad when I think about it. Because one of the questions people ask is, who was your mentor? You had mentors and I did not have a mentor or anyone, I even considered a mentor until I was well into my 30s and I was working at that video editing company, Avid. And the reason being, there were women that were in the workforce when I was in high-tech companies, but most of them, I’d say universally, I don’t remember a single one that was either single, married, no kids or married, kids and divorce. There was nobody there who I could look at and say, they “have it all”, which is actually another funnier story, but they didn’t have it all. And so it wasn’t until when I went to Avid that the VP of engineering. She wasn’t in my chain of command but the VP of engineering was a married woman with grown kids and a successful career. I remember sitting down with her and having conversations about like, how to do it? How do you navigate it? And it was really the first time that I felt like I had somebody who could help me see that it is possible. Because even then I was questioning, is it possible? Can I can I do this? What’s really nice to see now is that there are a lot more women in the workforce and it certainly here at iSpecimen, I think we’ve got more women than we do men. We have on our C team we’ve got two women out of four of us. So we’re half represented. The next level down, our VP level, again, I think we do have more women than men where we try really hard to recruit women engineers. And so half of our interns that we’ve hired over the years have been female and it’s not just, I wouldn’t say just female, we’re looking for diversity in general. So we’ve got diversity, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, like we just really value that and value the different perspectives that people bring. And then personally, I want to make sure that women do have an opportunity to succeed and do have an opportunity to see that other women can succeed and they can follow in those footsteps.
Taren: So, if you think about it, it’s not that long ago. So it’s one generation, right? Since your mom was in college and now to you and now the next generation coming. And now they do have more role models to look up to. And that’s a lot of responsibility. How does that sit on your shoulders? How do you feel about that?
Jill: I love it. I love having the opportunity to influence other people and help them see that there are opportunities. It started when I was in college. I had a little sister when I was in college and she lived in a very poor area of town and in a housing project, then just did not have a good home life. Like it was the sort of home life where I could see her getting stuck there and that just being what her life was like for the rest of her life. And my goal with her was, of course I wanted to take her out and have fun. But my goal was, I wanted her to open her eyes to see that there’s a bigger life outside of that block that she lived on. And I took her to things at the college. She’s only six years old, but still I took her to museums and I took her to plays. And I wanted her to see that like, there’s another world out there. Yeah, and so, it started out at a young age. We didn’t talk about this, but I did take or maybe I did say, I retired. When I took time off and retired, one of the things I did was I started an entrepreneur club at the junior high, not the junior high, the elementary school. I had like 100 kids in this entrepreneur club and I arranged it by like 6th graders of the salespeople, 7th graders are the product people, 8th graders are the finance and business people. I created like a whole curriculum for every single time we got together. And it started with like, a big ice breaker, where everybody did this icebreaker together, and then we broke up into the individual groups. And ultimately, these kids ran a school store. So they learned about products and making money and then importantly, what do you do with the money once you’ve made it. I try to incorporate the empowerment of people at all levels. Like whether it’s that little girl, the kids in high school… my grown kids, they have friends and they’re constantly coming to me and saying, “hey, Mrs. Mullan, can you help me with career counseling?” And I’ll sit down with them and go through like, “okay, what are you doing? What do you like doing? Where might you want to go? What are some opportunities? How do you go and look for a job?” Like, I’ll even go and say, if I can help them narrow down the things we’re looking for, “okay, here are things I found,” and send job opportunities their way. Because sometimes they just don’t know what they might want to do. So, yeah, I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing people succeed, especially if I feel like I’ve in some way shaped or help them.
Taren: That’s amazing. You didn’t by any chance follow on with that little 6-year-old, did you?
Jill: No. I always wondered what happened to her. I felt my biggest accomplishment was I got her parents to agree to let her to go to summer camp, like they just did not want her to go. And I was thinking, this is another way for her to get out and meet other people. And so, working with the social worker and the parents, they finally agreed. So I was really happy. But no, I wonder. I only know her first name and I wonder what happened to her. So Megan, if you’re out there.
Taren: Yeah, Megan if you’re out there, call Jill, she’d love to hear from you.
Jill: Yes. I wonder all the wonderful things you did.
Taren: Exactly. I loved that story about the school. And I think, that really teaches kids just a different way of thinking as well and gives them that spark of ingenuity that they may not have been exposed to. So it’s wonderful. So throughout your career, you’ve had a very varied career. What is some of the best leadership advice you’ve received? And then I’ll ask you, what are some of the best leadership advice you provide?
Jill: So some of the leadership advice that I’ve received that I thought is really good includes the first one, this is a saying I use all the time, “all progress requires change, and all change is painful to someone.” And it’s funny, because just last week at work, somebody had a cartoon that they put up. And on one side, the cartoon was, who wants to change? And everybody in the audience raised their hand. And the second side of the cartoon was, who wants to change? And nobody raised their hand. When I think about all progress requiring change and all change is painful to someone, the real point is like, you have to change to make progress and there’s going to be somebody who’s going to be like – this makes my life different or difficult or uncomfortable and we have to just work through it. Usually it comes up in particular around when people leave. And when somebody leaves it’s always like, uh, it kind of hurts me because they’re leaving and I want them to be happy here and okay, if they can’t be happy here they have better opportunity, I want them to go some other place, but it leaves a hole. And universally whenever that happens and we’re all feeling like, oh no, how do we get through this? When we bring the next person in, the next person is so much better equipped for the job. It’s not so much that the next person is different. It’s just that we know now what we need to hire in that next person to do a good job. And we always get through. And we’re always like, “oh, my gosh, that was the best thing.” And so I say that a lot as we're going through something difficult as a way to say, like, it’s going to be difficult but it’s going to be better in the end, we’re going to progress. So that’s one and that actually came from a business school class that I took. Another one is around, and I think you said something about this, a pessimist sees challenges and opportunities and an optimist sees opportunities and challenges. And so, we want the people who are going to see the opportunities and challenges. In effect, it relates to our core values. One of our core values is the acronym is GRIT, the last one is T and T stands for Tiggers not Eyores. We want the people who are going to be happy and be like, “okay, I got this. I can figure it out.” As opposed to the ones who are like, “uh, uh, this is as bad, this is bad.” So seeing opportunities in challenges that’s I think a really key thing and it’s what keeps us going when there are challenges. Because we’re like, “okay we can get through this. We just have to problem solve and figure it out and there’s going to be something better on the other side.” So, that one is really important. And then the last one is something, if you would ask me 10 years ago, I probably it wouldn’t have been on my list at all. But it’s around showing vulnerability. I used to think I had to be this really strong person, that nothing rattled me. Everything was perfect. I could do anything. And what I’ve learned, especially over the past 10 years, is that as I show vulnerability, I develop much closer connections with the people that I work with. And as I develop closer connections with people I work with, suddenly and they said this, “we want to work and we want to work hard because we want all of us to succeed.” Like we like you, we want you to succeed. We are doing it not because you’re the boss saying, this needs to be done. We’re doing this because this is what we want because we’re all in this together and it’s by letting people in and seeing that we’re all flawed and that’s okay. And then the question becomes, “okay, here’s my flaw. How can others help me and pick me up when that’s coming to the surface and vice versa?” So it’s a little counterintuitive. I’ve started looking things articles up about it because I’m like, I can’t be the only one feeling this. And it seems like it’s a now more popular management technique to be vulnerable. And with us, it kind of grew organically. And so that would be the other thing is, like don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Be your authentic self.
Taren: Absolutely. Be your authentic self and being vulnerable. That used to be one of those skills that would be they considered a soft skill that women had. Women are too emotional. They’re too vulnerable. But I think through COVID, we’ve all come out of this or are starting to come out of it by noting that empathy is a huge leadership trait that is a positive. It’s not a soft skill. It’s really an important skill to have.
Taren: As we look to our workforce and being understanding of what they’re going through. Again, being that authentic kind of leader. Our time is just about done, but I do need to ask you first of all, with all the things you do, how do you maintain some like what’s your number one productivity tip and then we’ll go to your Wow question.
Jill: Whoo, number one productivity tip. So I think it’s triage. My life is triage. So it’s everything from like having a process with email. So when an email comes in, saying do I have to do something with it? – Yes, but I don’t have time to start. Yes, I can answer quickly do it or nope, just let it go. And so triage email. I triage my like, daily to-do list, what’s absolutely needs to get done. What’s most important? So that’s a key thing, I think in all aspects of what I do. But then there is another one which a lot of people talk about getting disruptive throughout the day, constant disruptions cell phones and text messaging and emails and slack. All these ways of communication. And what I do is, I turn off most of the modes of communication. So I have my cell phone but my cell phone is always on silent. My texts are on silent. I don’t have the pop-ups on my screen saying, when I get an email. I have pop-ups were like meetings I have to go to but that’s it. I don’t want the distractions. And then what I do is I use technology on my own time. And so, I will once an hour or when I’m between meetings look at my text. Anything I have to answer, great. Any phone calls I have to respond to, great, I’ll do it then. But I don’t let it disrupt me because then I would never get anything done. Now, it drives my family crazy because they can’t always reach me. But one of the things I learned recently and I have an Apple phone, I assume it’s the same on others, is that there is an emergency override. Where it’s a feature where you can designate certain people that if they call you twice in a row, your phone will ring the second time. So the people who need to know that if you need to meet me or get in touch with me on emergency, you can buy by doing the double call and it happens very infrequently. So it’s just as an easy way for me to block off time in my life plus the distractions.
Taren: That’s a great tip. I think that’s something that we could all probably adopt and be far better for it. So thank you for sharing. Finally, let’s talk about that Wow moment of your career that either change the trajectory of your career or left a lasting impression on you. Can you name one of those?
Jill: Yes. And I hope you indulge me for a second here on this story. When I was in business school, I was graduating, I was pregnant, starting a family, and there was a panel, balancing work and family, women who have it all. And three women who were fairly recently within 10 years graduate business school came back to talk to us. I was all excited about this panel. The first woman comes in and she said, the way I balance all, I outsourced. So I hire childcare. I’ve got great childcare. I hire gardeners. I have a personal chef and I have a housekeeper. So I outsource and that’s why I keep my life together. The second one got up there and she’s like, I was a lawyer, a high-powered law firm. I couldn’t balance it all. So what I decided to do is start my own law firm. So the way I balance it is I work part-time in my own law firm and I’m able to now have the best of both worlds that way. And then the third woman got up there and it was the most sad one, because she got up. She’s a McKinsey consultant or BCG consult, a high-powered consultant and she got up there and started crying. And she said, the way she balance that her choice was to marry someone, a stay-at-home husband. And he stays home with the daughter. And she was crying as she’s telling stories about her daughter falls and she wants daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy and how it hurts her. So she was crying. And I left that seminar thinking that is the worst advice I have ever heard in my whole life. All three of these women. They’re not balancing at all. They’re doing something different and I can’t believe the business school would actually have a seminar like this for those of us who are going out in the working world. And so, I was actually pretty dismayed by the whole thing because I thought that’s not having it all. And I started my first job. I had my child and then I realized that I had to change my definition of having it all. Because I couldn’t give 100 percent to my job and a 100 percent to my family, the way I want it to. My definition of having it all was 100 percent with everything. And I realized that I needed to change my definition of having it all. And I needed to change that definition at different points in my life. At some points in my life, having all was going to be devoted to my job and maybe having great childcare. And sometimes as I had mentioned, I jumped out of the workforce, having it all was I need to step back. And another time having it all was, I went to a 4-day work week before anybody was doing it because I was like, I need one day to just get my life together, so that on the weekends I can enjoy the time with my kids. And so at different points in time, having it all means different things. And as a result, my career was what I would say is very nonlinear. I didn’t go like started this job move up to next one, move up to next one, gets the C-suite. Like that was not the path I took. It was much more fluid and I had to become comfortable with my path is going to be different than other people’s paths. And my having it all is based upon my definition at that point in time. And I try to encourage women, a lot of women now to like, do what you need to do to make your life easier and have it all now. Especially for young women, when they’re thinking about starting a family. One of the things I tell them and they all fret, I’m going out on maternity leave and six weeks off and oh my gosh, my job. One of the things I tell them is, in a year from now nobody is going to remember how much time you took off for maternity leave and in five years from now, nobody’s going to like care whatsoever. And so you need to take off and do what you think is right for you and your family right now. Because it matters to you, it’s not going to matter to everybody else out there. So again, it’s back to like, really doing what works for you in that moment and asking for help if you need help and following your own path and your passions and don’t compare and measure yourself to what somebody else’s path is. Because that path isn’t necessarily better, that path is just different. And so that lesson in business school that I hated is like the one that has stuck with me most during my career.
Taren: I love that story. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Jill: You’re very welcome.
Taren: That is so true. Having it all mean something different to everybody and at different times in your life, you have to figure out what that definition is and what works for you at that moment in time.
Jill: Yeah. And be comfortable with it. That’s the big thing is be comfortable with it.
Taren: Right and sometimes you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable at the same time. Because it’s not going to be the same all the time. Jill, thank you so much. What a fascinating conversation. I really enjoy talking with you. Thank you for shedding a light on an area of the industry that we don’t always get to talk about, and I find that also very fascinating. I want to wish you continued great success and I look forward to speaking with you again.
Jill: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed chatting with you and hopefully somebody learn something from this.
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