Kathy Thrive

Brené Brown has been an inspiration for her directness. In her book Daring Greatly, she talks about vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” — that feeling when we step out of our comfort zone. I was in a meeting the other day that got really tense. I said to the person running it, “I’m sorry, but I’m feeling incredibly defensive and uncomfortable.” I would never have said that a year ago. I love how directness can help make a difference.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Giusti.

As Co-Chair at the Harvard Business School Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, Kathy is working with disruptive leaders across the healthcare ecosystem to revolutionize and accelerate business models in precision medicine. As Co-Founder and Chief Mission Officer of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) and a patient herself, Kathy knows firsthand how to bring a community together to drive toward cures. It was at the MMRF that Kathy first drew on her extensive experience in the pharmaceutical industry to build collaborative models and align incentives, always with a focus on the patient.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up outside Philadelphia. My father was a doctor, my mother a nurse, so I felt I was already in the healthcare industry at a very young age. I was one of four kids born in just three years, possible because I have an identical twin. In my family, there was a strong emphasis on always moving forward. If anyone ever sat idle, they were given a job to do.

In college, I majored in pre-med and was accepted to medical schools, but decided not to enroll. Instead, I took a sales and marketing job at Merck. I went to Harvard, got my MBA, and then went to Gillette to learn the consumer side of marketing. I always felt that the business of healthcare was where I’d make a difference, so I joined Searle, where I was running worldwide operations, when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, in 1996.

In 1998 I founded the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, and I later had the good fortune to send my myeloma into remission, thanks, in part, to bone marrow from my twin sister, Karen, and to getting access to the right treatments that became available. In 2016, I was appointed the Faculty Co-Chair of the Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator at Harvard Business School.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

With my work in healthcare, I had a deep understanding of the business, but when I became a patient, suddenly I had a window seat to how incredibly challenging the healthcare system was to navigate. I went from getting a diagnosis to calling my sister and saying, “What just happened? And WTD (What To Do)?” It’s a devastating transition.

I quickly noticed that not all diseases were getting their fair share of attention or funding. Diseases like myeloma that are relatively uncommon — or diseases that skew older or impact African-Americans — were neglected. There were no new drugs in the pipeline for them.

My experience and research led me to focus my efforts in two places.

First, I’m using my voice to articulate where and why the healthcare system is broken. It’s a complicated system shaped by many different needs and incentives.

Second, through my work at the MMRF, I am doing a lot of things first. When we realized that tissue was indispensable “gold” for developing cures, we built a national tissue bank. When we saw the future of genomic sequencing, we became the first to sequence our genome. When we saw the importance of collaborative clinical trials, we built the first clinical network. When we saw the importance of data sharing, we were out front with a study to provide researchers with truly rich data on 1,000 patients.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Around 1985, Veronica Lewis was my first boss at Gillette. She took a red pen to every single thing I ever wrote. She was super direct and told me to always be prepared and speak up. She would lead meetings and she would run the show, looking at commercials and creative, and she would chime in at just the right moment. Since I was so junior, I played no role. Then one day, she started by asking me to share my ideas — and I had nothing to say! I wasn’t prepared! It was torture. The entire creative team just stared at me, and I had nothing. Funny in retrospect, but I never, ever let that happen again.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

At Searle, there was a formal mentorship program. The interesting part of the story is that each of us in the program were told to write down who we wanted to mentor us. Everybody else said, “I’ll take my manager” or “I’ll take someone in market research.” Not me! I said, “I’m taking the CEO, Al Heller!” I was shocked that nobody else tried. So, he became my mentor and taught me the importance of rotation. I told him, “I want to be the first female president of a pharmaceutical company,” and he guided me. He told me to do things like learn to run a sales organization. I did every rotation he suggested, and I was on my way, until I got sick.

My second mentor is Dana LaForge, a classmate who became the chairman of the MMRF. He’s an amazing listener with a remarkable ability to manage governance. Some board situations can be challenging, and without him, I never would have gotten all those firsts done. He was literally watching my every move, encouraging me to take the risk, and backing me at board meetings: “She’s going to get this done; let’s support her.” His ability to serve as board chairman and to drive our mission forward makes me a much better leader.

Richard Hamermesh, my fellow co-chair of the Harvard Business School Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, is my third mentor. His advice to me has been to look outside healthcare. While I always found value in listening to different voices, that meant learning from organizations focused on other diseases. Richard helped me to think differently. He’d push us to look at other companies, including studying Netflix, Rent the Runway, and Facebook — which allowed me to think more strategically and creatively. I learned a lot from him to broaden my horizons.

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