Anastasia Gutierrez is the Director, Clinical Operations at Bellicum Pharmaceuticals, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering and developing cutting-edge cellular immunotherapies.
Anastasia has worked her way up through the clinical community, moving from Russia to the United States while advancing her career through relentless drive for her work and the good she can do for society.
Tell me about your career progression into your current role.
I began my career at medical school, where I had plans to be a doctor; however, since Russia has a public healthcare system, the wages and resources provided were minimal. While my motivation is not just about pay, it’s more about being appreciated and feeling accomplished with what I do.
I knew I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference and where my work in Moscow would be at the same level of others in the industry across the globe. That’s when I found clinical research and began working at a CRO (Pharm-Olam International) as a CRA in 2003. By 2006, I was a project manager, and four years after that I was transferred to the U.S. as a Project Director. Since being in America, my career has progressed to where I am now, serving as the Director, Clinical Operations at Bellicum.
What are some key themes in your career that allowed you to progress so quickly?
The key for me in getting ahead was always to start doing the work of roles above me before I held that title. A lot of people stick to only performing the duties in their job description and then are frustrated when they don’t progress. I was always unafraid to do tasks outside of my job title in order to be noticed, and it always worked out.
In 2003 I was the lead CRA and we had one study for a client who had been working with our Country Manager. Due to this occurring during the holiday season of December, he was frequently out of the office and I was acting as his backup. I remember thinking that this could go one of two ways: I could relay to the upper management that they needed a PM to be assigned, or I could keep the communication going with the client and carry out the work needed for this project with hopes of eventually being assigned to the project. I saw this as an opportunity so I kept communication with them and by that time my manager appreciated the initiative and gave me a shot.
Moving up from CRA to Project Manager is a big jump and usually you need to prove your experience to make that move, but since I had created the opportunity myself I was able to capitalize on being in the right place at the right time, and through putting in the effort I was given that chance.
Two years later, I was working side by side with another PM and my manager noticed the high quality of my work. He wanted me to assist the other Project Manager by overseeing both projects, acting as the interim Program Director.
Through taking on responsibilities that were outside of my job description, I proved my work and eventually my manager wanted to promote me to Project Director, with the chance to relocate to the United States. I’m very thankful to Pharm-Olam International, where I worked for 13 years, for giving me this relocation opportunity.
What are your experiences with diversity & inclusion within the Life Sciences Industry?
I came to the States from a completely different culture and had to integrate professionally and culturally to continue my work. I had to learn how to communicate with people in their language and their culture.
Conversely, when I came to America, I was working on the global side utilizing my own diverse cultural background to interact with the different offices abroad.
At Bellicum, we have three offices, two in the United States and another in the UK, and it’s interesting how the communication varies because of the differences of culture, not just the language component of it. What I learned from working on global studies, since being in Russia, was to be very mindful of cultural differences and always approach situations in the polite and respectful manner and then work on being a bit more casual from there.
Have you ever encountered any challenges throughout your career that arouse from diversity?
One of my hardest challenges and something I think many women will face is being able to balance your career and your family. It was easy for me to power through my early career, setting high goals for myself and achieving them when I didn’t have any children.
I was finally in the U.S., in an amazing position as Project Director, making a good living for myself, and I realized I didn’t feel fulfilled in my life. Family was important to me and I always knew I wanted children. Luckily, at the time I was working at the Sarah Cannon Research institute which was led predominately by females and they allowed me to work remotely after having children.
While remote work has its pro’s and con’s, it offered me the flexibility to be with my family and working for a company led by women, they were better able to understand where I was coming from and offered the accommodations I needed to be able to balance my work and home life.
Typically, there are fewer women in leadership positions than men in the Life Sciences industry. Could you describe to me the differences in management styles you've experienced throughout your career?
I think that, as a woman, it’s easier to progress in your career when you work at a company led by women because women focus on the “we” and how they can build their employees up through a more human centered approach.
I think men tend to be more focused on the bottom line and delivery, whereas I have found women are more focused on how they treat their teams. While both are fine ways of management, it comes down to how your employee performs and feels working under those different styles.
Of course, these are generalizations. The last two companies I worked for, Sarah Cannon and Bellicum, both utilized engagement surveys to understand how their employees were feeling. Sarah Cannon, which was run mostly by women, generally had high employee engagement. My current company Bellicum has a high male presence at the Executive Level, with more even rations of men and women seen at Mid-Senior management levels, still produces positive engagement survey outcomes.
Why do you believe that diverse & inclusive teams are important in the Life Sciences industry?
Being from another culture myself, I think that the diversity of cultures and experience is very important. Bellicum is probably the most diverse company I’ve worked for thus far in terms of culture and gender and I think that mix provides the best balance for a company. Cultural diversity is very important because it offers a different atmosphere and provides a broader perspective for the business, celebrating their differences.
How do you make hiring decisions while keeping diversity and inclusion in mind?
When interviewing, I focus on their professional qualities, their qualifications and skill sets. Once those are in line with what the team needs, it boils down to a good personality and cultural fit for the team. Diversity to me is more centered around someone’s personality and character; I aim to build a team of individuals who work well together but all bring different ways of thinking and working to the table.
I’m always looking to be inclusive of different cultures because it’s more fun to work on a team of diverse individuals who bring about new ways of problem solving. Working for a global company as well, it helps having team members of different backgrounds, it gives us a better understanding when communicating with our overseas offices.
You must always be open to having a different perspective on something, no matter if you’ve done it 100 times – you can always learn more.
I’d like to thank Anastasia for her incredibly insightful thoughts and for sharing her story on how she’s progressed in her career.
Anastasia continues to make an impact in the clinical world as she prepares for the “Outsourcing In Clinical Trials Texas” conference this upcoming month. She’s set to speak this September about useful strategies businesses can use to ensure the best teams are engaged with their trials. You can find more information about the conference here >>