Women in Business Q&A: Lee Jones, Founder, President, Rebiotix

Lee Jones has over 30 years of experience in the medical technology industry in both large and small companies. Most recently she was Chief Administrative Officer of the Schulze Diabetes Institute at the University of Minnesota. Ms. Jones was President and Chief Executive Officer of Inlet Medical, a privately held medical devices firm specializing in minimally invasive surgery. The company was sold to CooperSurgical in 2006.

Previously, Ms. Jones had a 14-year career at Medtronic, Inc. where she held various technical and operating positions. She is on the boards of Uroplasty and Algos Preclinical Services Inc., and is a member of the Sofia Angel Investment Fund.

Ms. Jones has a BS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, and an Executive Management degree from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Since I was a kid I was always stepping up to fill the leadership roles that presented themselves. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis where every other house had a large Catholic family with lots of kids. We used to play games outside as a group. I learned early on that groups of people generally look for someone who will take the lead and move them in a direction or get them organized. Filling the voids I saw worked well for me because I was interested in participating in activities, and it was easy to set up things that I wanted to do. I had lots of friends who would join me and it was fun. Later, those skills I learned served me well. I still get to do the things I find fun and interesting and still have people that will join me, whether it is in business or leisure activities.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Rebiotix?
I have had the good fortune of having a variety of positions at a variety of companies. These positions exposed me to different technologies, different roles, different markets, different customers, different regulations, etc. Because of the exposure I have had over my career, by the time I founded Rebiotix, I pretty much knew what needed to be done to get the company up and running. I knew what was important for success and how to find the people to help achieve that success.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Rebiotix?
I started Rebiotix with two founding partners who were exceptionally skillful at raising money and building businesses. Because we had a well-connected team with great track records of success, raising money turned out to be much easier than we anticipated. Having the money in hand and not having to continually fund raise has allowed me to concentrate on running the business. As a result we hit our milestones faster than we originally anticipated.

On the flip side, some things that I thought would be easy to accomplish have turned out to be more challenging than expected. We are developing the first therapy in a new class of biologic drugs that use live microbes to treat disease. Being the first in an industry with no precedent has led to unexpected challenges. It has been difficult to define and then find employees with the right skill sets. If no one has done this before, there isn't a pool to draw from. The technology has been more complicated than expected. So we have had to invent new ways to test it. Establishing quality specifications for an inherently variable living system was tricky. I could go on and on with the surprises we have had along the way.

Why did you want a career in the pharmaceutical industry?
I didn't know that I was going to have a career in the pharma industry. Originally we expected the product to be a tissue transplant but the FDA regulated it as a drug. My background was in medical devices primarily, so I have had to learn a whole new industry.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in pharmaceuticals?
Apply to a company who makes pharmaceuticals; live in an area where those companies are clustered to increase your chance of employment.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a wonderful husband who picks up the slack at home so that I can concentrate on my work. Our kids are grown up and out of the house so that makes it easier.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women is getting into the right networks so they will come to mind when someone is looking for an employee or for an advisor. I find that so much of the hiring is done through a person's individual network, and that in general, people tend to network with people like themselves. I am in the medical technology industry, and I can't tell you the number of times that I hear that a job was filled by a man and that the person hiring "couldn't find any qualified women". They just didn't know where to look and were surrounded by people who had the same blinders on.

Once in a role, women need to be comfortable asking for what they want and going after it. Many women think that just by doing a good job they will be recognized and promoted for their achievements. That rarely happens without some active engagement. Women need to call attention to themselves and ask for what they want.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made an enormous difference in my life. I wouldn't be where I am today in business if I hadn't had the good fortune of having mentors along the way. The most important mentor for me is a man who was the chairman of the board of my past company. I took my first CEO role in a company that had run out of money and needed to be restarted. At the time, I believed I knew how to run a business, but I didn't know how to go out and ask people for money. I wanted to learn that skill. The person who hired me taught me the vocabulary and showed me how to ask for the money. We have been friends and business partners now for more than 15 years.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire female leaders in general. I find women leaders to be much more inventive in seeking to achieve their goals. They are more inclusive in choosing the people they surround themselves with. I think they tend to be that way because they generally have not had the advantage of fitting into the stereotypical mold of a business leader and have had to fight their way to the top. Instead, women generally have risen by including people and not by crushing them.

What do you want Rebiotix to accomplish in the next year?
I want Rebiotix to be recognized as the undisputed leader in the microbiome industry by completing our pivotal clinical studies, by demonstrating strong scientifically grounded results, and by changing people's lives through the use of our therapeutic product.