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Christi Shaw, this year’s Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Woman of the Year, stays true to her beliefs—and life mission—of helping others.
Christi Shaw grew up in rural Iowa where everyone in her family had to pitch in with chores around the farm. As one of three daughters, there wasn’t an opportunity for her parents to assign work by typical gender role. Shaw got her hands dirty, worked long hours, and felt the satisfaction of a full day’s work. She also quietly learned there were no limits to what she could do just because she was a girl; there was nothing she couldn’t tackle.
That fortitude and perseverance have played through Shaw’s 34-year career in pharma. From her early days as an Eli Lilly product detail representative based out of Oshkosh, Wisc., to her most recent position as CEO of Kite (see Pharm Exec’s November cover profile (https://bit.ly/3Tn5vJo) in Santa Monica, Calif., she has made a point to identify her true north and rely on it as a guide. Her recent recognition as Woman of the Year by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) demonstrates the success she has attained from staying true to her beliefs.
“Your true north isn’t defined by your job title or your career path,” says Shaw. “It’s your purpose or the ‘why’ that gets you up in the morning.”
Having lost her mother and older sister to cancer, she was naturally drawn to helping others who were forced to deal with the illness. During her time at Kite, she focused on leading a team to transform cancer treatment and bring a potential cure to patients. By creating that mission as her anchor, she expanded the company’s global footprint and demonstrated that cell therapy is something more than science fiction. In three years, she was able to help 15 times the number of eligible patients who receive CAR T-cell therapy. To continue the drive forward in cancer care, Shaw makes it a point to mentor the next generation of pharma and biotech leaders.
She is also a role model when it comes to prioritizing family and friends. When her sister became ill in 2016, Shaw stepped down from her position as the US country head and president at Novartis to care for her. In 2017, she and her younger sister founded the More Moments, More Memories Foundation in honor of their older sister and mother. The organization helps patients and their families with travel, lodging, and meal expenses to have access to clinical trials.
Still true to her Iowa roots, Shaw also makes time to travel back to the Midwest periodically to manage the family farm and is active in soil conservation and forest preservation.
These themes of cancer care and family continue to strongly influence her choices, both personally and professionally. As Shaw stepped away from Kite last month to pursue new opportunities, she says they are the principles she will use to guide her future endeavors.
“No matter where my journey takes me next, these responsibilities will continue to be core focal points for me, in addition to tackling new challenges that align to my true north,” she says.
Having lived through the cancer journey with her family, the idea of offering patients a new ray of hope in the form of cell therapy is what led Shaw to Kite. But her love of science began in high school. She fostered her innate interest in the subject and worked as a pharmacy technician both in high school and while earning her bachelor’s in marketing from Iowa State University. To expand her ability to help people even further as a cross-functional business leader, she attained her master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin.
Shaw moved from Lilly to Johnson & Johnson, ultimately rising to vice president of business development in 2006. She eventually held vice president roles at J&J’s Ortho and Ethicon as well. In 2010, she moved to Novartis as the North American region head, oncology, transitioning into the role of the US country head and president in 2014.
After taking a year to care for her sister, she re-entered the industry once again with Lilly as senior vice president and president of Lilly Bio-Medicines and then found her way to Kite in 2019.
“Ever since I decided to join the pharmaceutical industry, it’s always been about helping people and helping patients,” says Shaw. “And my true north is what led me to Kite. My sister was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, [and] my mom died of breast cancer; and to be able to bring a potentially life-saving therapy to the world, a potential cure, was something that I was passionate about.”
Kite currently has two approved therapies. Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) is the first CAR T-cell therapy approved for initial treatment of relapsed or refractory large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL) as well as relapsed or refractory follicular lymphoma. Tecartus (brexucabtagene autoleucel) is the first and only approved CAR T-cell therapy for relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma and relapsed or refractory B-cell precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The one-time treatment calls on a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease by re-engineering their own cells. About half of the patients are still alive at five years after a single infusion, with more than nine in 10 needing no additional treatment—suggestive of a potential cure.
“It’s humbling to hear physicians and patients talk about extending life instead of ending life,” says Shaw.
With three manufacturing sites across more than 20 countries, Kite is now a global leader in cell therapy. Though the technology is nascent, Shaw believes it will evolve over time to not only treat blood cancer but other types of cancer and disease.
“We’re now seeing data in patients with lupus, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes,” she says. “As I look at cell therapy as a whole, Kite has set the stage to be able to bring this to the masses. The science fiction that nobody thought was possible is now a stabilized business with a strong foundation and a strong future.”
At the time her sister received CAR-T therapy, only a few hundred patients had received cell therapy. To date, Kite has treated almost 13,000 patients.
“Sitting back and listening to my team present our accomplishments, I’m in awe of how many patients we’ve been able to reach in that short period of time,” says Shaw. “We’re still only reaching a fraction of patients who are eligible for cell therapy; so, our top priority is ensuring that every patient who can benefit has access.”
To do this, she and her team constantly seek ways to overcome all the challenges to access. Some patients and physicians simply lack awareness of the therapy. Some patients may not be able to reach a treatment center or don’t have the means to travel. There can also be an unconscious bias of physicians excluding certain patients because they assume they won’t go or think they’re too old or too sick to receive the treatment.
“[We need to] make sure that we get the word out and educate and continue to evolve the science and the clinical data and investment into our whole patient journey to make sure that more patients get it,” says Shaw. “That is the greatest challenge that we’ve had. We’re making progress and have a lot more to do, but that’s probably the biggest thing that we need to focus on, and now it’s the next generation.”
Last year, Kite received its second-line approval in LBCL, which nearly doubled the number of patients eligible for treatment for LBCL. There is now an ongoing definitive Phase III study vs. standard of care that is bringing cell therapy into the spotlight and demonstrating its potential to help more patients in the future.
For how proud Shaw is about advancements in cell therapy, she is likewise encouraged by the progress made by women in the industry. When she began her journey in pharma in 1989, she noticed a discrepancy in the perception and expectations of women vs. men. For example, early on, she was coached about what to wear in the workplace.
“I was working in Wisconsin, and it was 20 below with windchill in the middle of winter,” she says. “I was a sales representative, and I had a suit on, but it was pants. I was coached that I needed to wear a skirt; that women shouldn’t be wearing pants. Hopefully, that would never, ever happen now. I feel like people’s eyes are just open so much more.”
In another anecdote from her early career, Shaw describes how her ambition in the industry was valued but not welcome. “I recall a brand leader had come to ride with me in the field because I was performing well, and he wanted to see what I was doing,” she recounts. “He mentioned that he wished I could move to the home office to help him lead the brand for the whole country. I was [excited] because I had always wanted to do that. But he said he was told by my manager that I couldn’t move because I had a family and that I was geographically restricted.”
Although Shaw never had a conversation of that nature with her manager, the limit was set for her.
“Some of those unconscious biases really taught me that I had to take charge of my own career and that I couldn’t rely on [others],” she says. “I’m glad it happened early in my career because now I know if I want to find my own path forward, I need to be the one in charge; nobody else.”
A dearth of female role models in the c-suite made it difficult for Shaw to visualize her pathway in pharma as she rose through the ranks. She says there was only one other woman on her team of 14 people at her first job as a sales rep. Because of this, she turned to female examples outside of the industry and created a support system not just within her company but externally.
Professional coach Mindy Hall helped change the way Shaw viewed herself and her path forward. “[She helped me understand] being authentic to who I am, how I see myself, and making sure that I stay true to myself and not try to mold myself into what others think I shouldn’t be,” she says. “She had a tremendous impact and was incredibly helpful as someone outside of the organization.”
Shaw also has role models outside of corporate America. For instance, she developed a deep respect for Tina Turner as a child. “When I was a kid, my dad was a fan, and her story is just so remarkable—growing up in a rural area, like I did, being underestimated, fighting through adversity, following her passion, and becoming so successful in spite of how and where she was brought up,” says Shaw. “A lot of times we say, who is your mentor in the pharmaceutical industry? But I have found that it’s not always in the industry that I find my strength.”
While progress has been made regarding gender parity, there is still much work to be done. Today, nine out of 10 biopharma CEOs are men, according to research conducted by Business Insider. With women making most healthcare decisions, having them in major decision-making roles in the c-suite is critical for better patient outcomes. In 2021, women represented just 28% of pharma executive teams and 35% of biotech teams, according to research done by Innovara. By 2027, the average is expected to reach 40% or higher.
“That gives me a lot of hope,” says Shaw. “As you look at the C-suite and the progress that’s been made, it is encouraging. I’m pleased but not satisfied. We need a lot more women at the helm for that parity to take place.”
Bringing men into the fold at organizations, such as the HBA, as well as encouraging them to be advocates for women is a key part of the path forward, as men can greatly impact a woman’s career journey. Shaw says teaching young men—including her own teenage son—to recognize gender inequity is smart. “It starts really young in terms of gender bias,” she says. “To be able to point it out and talk about it early [is important].”
As one of the few female CEOs, it is now Shaw’s turn to give back and support women rising through the pharma ranks. She does this in formal and informal ways, through organizations such as the HBA and employee resource groups, and through personally connecting with mentees.
“I mentor a lot,” she says. “I actually learn from the next generation and the people I mentor. I get mentored back because I learn so much from them as well.”
Shaw also believes in networking. Whether it’s former employees, referrals from colleagues, or people who reach out blindly, she’s happy to make introductions when she can.
“I’m probably one of the few CEOs that reads my LinkedIn emails,” she says. “It’s not every day, but I’ve given referrals in my company and outside my company. There are a lot of women who have reached out and said, ‘I saw you took time off to care for your sister, and I did the same. Now I need to get back in the industry. How do I do that?’ [Oftentimes,] they just need somebody to open a door for them. They get the job themselves.”
Shaw encourages the people she helps to pay it forward to create a domino effect. “A trait men have always had that we are hopefully learning more and more is that it’s okay to help each other. It’s okay for women to help women. We don’t have to be competitive. We can all win together.”
To those looking to enter the industry, Shaw can’t stress enough the importance of finding one’s true north and authentic self. “Understanding what drives you and remaining true to that helps make every decision clearer and less of a struggle,” she says. “It’s so exhausting to have to be one person at work [and] a different person at home. Don’t change yourself. Have the courage to be your authentic self and stay true to that.”
Setting specific goals against one’s true north can also help guide career decisions.
“Before you even take a job, ask yourself, ‘What am I going to accomplish here?’” she says. “Then, see if you have accomplished that goal. If you have, maybe it’s time to move on. Knowing what your true north is and being able to stick to that can help navigate changes in your life, personally and professionally. Grounding yourself in your true north and then being able to take ownership of how every aspect of your life fits that, without compromise, is one of the most critical pieces of work people can do for themselves.”
— Elaine Quilici is a freelance content specialist based in New Jersey. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Executive.