JPM17: A First: Women in Bio’s Cynthia Smith Tapped for Nivalis Board

Published: Jan 09, 2017

JPM17: A First: Women in Bio’s Cynthia Smith Tapped for Nivalis Therapeutics Board January 9, 2017
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

It didn’t take long, but the inaugural Women in Bio Boardroom Ready Program class has placed its first member on a company board of directors.

Cynthia Smith, chief commercial officer of California-based ZS Pharma , was named to the board at Nivalis Therapeutics, a company focused on developing therapies for patients with cystic fibrosis.

Smith was introduced to Nivalis Therapeutics through LifeSci Advisors’ Board Placement Initiative (BPI), a program started earlier this year to help life sciences companies diversify their corporate boards.

“The process works,” Smith said in an exclusive interview with BioSpace. “It’s very exciting work they’re (Nivalis) doing and I’m excited for my role.”

Smith was officially named to the Nivalis board earlier this month, while she was going through the Women in Bio Boardroom Ready program. However, Smith said her name was given to the Nivalis board prior to the first Boardroom Ready class meeting. Smith said her name was given to Jon Congleton, president and chief executive officer at Nivalis, by LifeSci Advisors.

She began to talk with Nivalis and went through several interview rounds with Congleton as well as individual board members while she participated in the Women in Bio program. One of the goals of the program was to find board positions for each of the 20 members of the inaugural class. Smith was the first of that group to be named to a board since the class ended and the fifth participant to be named to a board. Smith has already participated in her first board meeting. “I’ve been in boardrooms before to make presentations, but this was the first time I was on the other side of the table,” Smith said.

As a board member, Smith said it was an enjoyable experience being able to “take things in” as a board member, rather than focusing on her own presentation.

“They’re doing some great things at Nivalis,” Smith said.

Smith has served as chief commercial officer at ZS Pharma, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca , since 2013. Prior to her tenure with ZS Pharma, Smith was vice president of market access and commercial development at Affymax, as well as holding several leadership positions at Merck . Smith also served as a healthcare policy analyst in the White House Office of Management and Budget during the second term of President Bill Clinton.

Smith said she applied to the Boardroom Ready Program to boost her chances of winning a spot on a corporate board of directors. She said there are challenges to getting on a board, even for men, and believed that participation in the program would elevate her chances. While that certainly proved to be true, Smith said the best part of the program was forging a bond with the other 19 class members.

“By far that was the highlight for me,” Smith said.

While those bonds are important, Smith said the goals of the Boardroom Ready program to diversify boards of directors is laudable and needed. Not only should boards include more women, but also people of color and a range of various ages, she said.

“You also need to include experience in there are many (life sciences) boards that are looking for members who are knowledgeable about commercialization or regulatory concerns,” she said.

Smith praised the Boardroom Ready program for honing her skills, as well as the skills of the other 19 inaugural participants. Smith also appreciated the openness of former and current board members who shared their experiences with the class. She said the boardroom training program provided necessary insight into the functions of a board of directors, as well as a strong networking platform.

“All the women in the program are more than qualified to be on a board,” Smith said. “There was just an incredible group of women and just a great program.”

Now that Smith has achieved a goal of being on a board of directors, she said she intends to “pay it forward” and mentor other women in the pharma and biotech industry. Although as an executive Smith has certainly had her hand in mentoring others already, she will now be able to draw upon additional experiences as a board member that she can share. Smith said board members are exposed to additional board opportunities, something which can be shared with those who she mentors.

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