Antonia (Toni) Holway is an experienced industry leader with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and successful roles in a range of companies from start-ups to health systems. She is currently President of Digital Cognition Technologies (DCT), an early phase medical device/digital health company revolutionizing the field of cognitive assessment.
I recently had the opportunity to interview her about her personal career story to learn more about how she’s got to where she is today.
Tell us about your career progression into your current role.
I’ve always been interested in science. I majored in Biology in college and got a PhD in Biochemistry studying cell cycle checkpoint control in the early C. elegans embryo. As much as I enjoyed playing with microscopic worms, I found bench science a little bit isolating so I went into the biotech industry right after grad school. I’ve worked in several different areas: product management; technical support; R&D; business development; and I’ve always been energized by situations where I could use my scientific background to tackle new business challenges using the problem-solving skills I learned in grad school. My career progression hasn’t followed any master plan, but the diversity of roles has made for an interesting and valuable journey. I don’t run any Western blots or ELISA’s in my current role, but as President of a start-up medical device company, I’m always drawing on the knowledge and experience I’ve gained along the way.
What are the key challenges you've overcome in your career?
I can’t say that I have overcome it, but work/life balance has definitely been a challenge for me. I’ve missed my fair share of school functions over the years because I’ve always felt the need to prove my commitment to my job, no matter the cost. I am more mindful of the need for balance now, and I’ve done better, but a big part of overcoming this for me was accepting the fact that even if I can’t volunteer for every school event, I can find ways to be involved and still pursue my career. I have two boys and most school functions are during work hours. Making time for those things, which don’t seem important but actually are, has been a challenge. It was a personal choice that I put my career first for a long time, but now I’m older and wiser and realize that no one at work will remember that I skipped a school concert to attend a meeting, but my kids absolutely do.
Do you think it's easier to do that these days?
Yes, I think employers are more flexible and more mindful of family commitments now. There is much more awareness that a happy employee is one who is not missing those school events and is able to do everything they need to be doing in their children’s lives. There is a shift towards supporting working parents better than we have in the past.
Which personal attributes have helped you progress in your career?
A willingness to do what it takes to get the job done. I’ve had a variety of roles and have often been faced with tasks that have nothing to do with my training or education. My approach has always been to get my hands dirty, dive in and learn everything I can about it. As a result, I’ve been exposed to a variety of business functions and that diverse experience has really prepared me for my current position running a small company. So, a passion for what you do and a willingness to be open-minded and never stop learning is crucial, in my opinion. It can be hard for people, particularly those who have specialized in one thing, to understand that there are other valuable skills out there to be learned.
What are your thoughts on diversity in the medical devices industry?
Diversity is important in any industry and medical devices and biotech are no exception. My PhD class was a pretty even mix, gender-wise, but I’ve seen far fewer women in management and executive positions as my career has progressed. I think there is a problem moving women forward. We start out with even numbers, but women aren’t moving up the ranks in the same way that men do. It could be because of families, though I’m not saying that men don’t play a huge role in kids’ lives. However, it is still typically the woman who takes time off when kids are born, and I think that has historically had a negative impact on her career. Of course, not all women choose to have a family, so they must be being passed over for promotions for other reasons too.
What advice do you have for Life Science professionals who want to include diversity and inclusion within their organization?
Strive for hiring diversity at every level but also ensure that growth opportunities are available to everyone as well. A gap in employment history due to family commitments should not be seen as a negative. Some of the most amazing women I have worked with chose to take time off when their kids were young and it’s often a struggle to re-enter the workforce after a break like that. It’s mind-boggling to me, but it’s still seen as a negative. I don’t believe that women should be discounted for that kind of career break.
We've also seen that kind of discrimination on criteria such as which college a candidate went to.
That’s another great example of the diversity you want to have. Someone educated elsewhere, in another country maybe, can bring a really valuable different perspective. I worked with a really talented MBA recently who blew my mind with her knowledge and experience given that I am used to working with scientists.
Women of color are the most under-represented group in the corporate pipeline - what are some practical steps companies can take to improve those numbers?
It’s essential to start with students and focus on the range of careers that a STEM education can prepare you for. I think kids picture a scientist as a white-haired guy wearing safety glasses and a white coat! Overcoming that requires exposing students to successful women of color in STEM fields. Companies could sponsor career days, focused on women in STEM. Making programs like that more widespread could change the next generation’s perceptions and encourage more women of color to pursue STEM careers. My son’s school had one of these programs that I took part in and I hope that I made an impression. There were actually so many women in science who came along that we each only had three minutes to talk, but that shows that the resources are there to do this.
What image did you have of a scientist when you were young, and what influenced you into STEM?
Science was always of interest to me; it was something I enjoyed doing so I pursued it even though I had no idea what kind of careers were available. I would not have guessed that this was the type of career I would have right now, but here I am. That vocational guidance at the school level needs improving to explain the roles and options that exist. In my career I have been motivated by working with female leaders in the STEM field and they have had a big influence on me, so having mentors is important to attract women into STEM.
What are your thoughts on mentorship, both as a mentor and a mentee?
I continue to benefit from the strong mentors in my life. I absolutely hope to return the favor, though it seems strange to me that anyone could see me as a mentor as opposed to a mentee, but I do take that responsibility very seriously. I’ve found a lot of my own mentors through luck. I’ve had strong mentors in jobs I took after college and after grad school and they influenced my career progression and what I’ve done with my life. Now, when working with younger professionals who want career advice I always ask them what they want to be doing in five years, so that they’re not only focused on what they are doing now but also thinking ahead to a longer-term career goal.
How do you ensure an inclusive environment working for a small organization?
By definition, a small organization has to be inclusive, there’s no choice. If you aren’t, you won’t have a company anymore. It gets harder as companies get larger, but when you’re small, you simply have to be inclusive.
As of 2017, only 18% of CEO's are women and only 3% women of color. What steps can leaders take to improve their pipeline of diverse talent?
Step one is getting more women into the STEM workforce and nurturing their career growth through mentorship and career development programs. It’s a lot more practical in larger companies but seeing and learning from minority leaders seems to be the best way to encourage others to pursue that path. Making genuine maternity leave possible and supporting women who return to work is also critical to improve the diversity of the talent pipeline, ensuring that entry level employees stick with it and move up the ladder.
I’ve been fairly lucky and have known a good number of female CEO’s. Part of that is because I am involved in a female entrepreneurs network which has exposed me to more leaders. However, even in my earlier career stages, I had the benefit of having a female boss in biotech. She was amazing and inspired me to pursue a leadership position. It feels like Life Sciences is a more inclusive field than some other business sectors, but I’m not sure why that is. It’s certainly not equal representation, but I’ve had plenty of access to female mentors in leadership roles throughout my career and have benefitted from those tremendously.
A big thank you to Toni for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with us!
Do you know an inspiring business woman, and/or a leader in Life Sciences who is challenging the status quo? I want to meet them! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Posted about 4 years ago