Diana is a venture capital at Novo Holdings, a global life science investor. She has a DPhil in Cell Biology from the University of Oxford, and has worked with biotech companies at all stages of their development.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I am a molecular biologist. I have a PhD in Cell Biology from University of Oxford, and undergraduate and masters degrees in Molecular Biology. Since graduating, I have worked in the life science industry; I started in investment banking, and then moved on to operational and transactional roles in biotech and pharma. I did that instead of an MBA – by the time I’d graduated, I had ten years of university education and four degrees; I wanted get stuck in and learn by experience.
Today I work at one of the largest, global, life science venture capital firms. Our industry is vital – we help with the execution of brilliant ideas and support them to become cures and reach patients. And execution is everything: a good idea needs to be built. This is the best job I can imagine – I work with the brightest and smartest, and it’s variable – in the span of a day I switch from scientific analysis to financial, to operational work.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s someone who is trying to solve a problem. It’s not a job you pick – it’s something you become; something you grow into by trying to pull all sorts of solutions together. There’s not a formula, there’s no job description or inherent outline. There are as many ways of becoming an entrepreneur as there are entrepreneurs themselves.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number one is being brave. The risks can be big. You need to have the courage to know the risk and still pursue your idea. And you need that bravery to believe in your idea. I work with so many amazing entrepreneurs, and their decisiveness and drive always impresses me.
Secondly, free-thinking. Don’t be constrained by the ‘this is how things are done’ rhetoric.
And thirdly, your connections to others. Collective thinking and efforts are powerful. Network, get advice, hire the smartest people you can find. The CEO is doing something on the back of everyone’s efforts. Be purpose-driven rather than ego-driven.
What is your favourite part of being supporting entrepreneurs?
It’s such a privilege to have these incredibly smart people coming to us with an idea and asking for help developing it. It’s the excitement of doing it together. The ones that succeed aren’t just incredibly intelligent, they are the ones that realise they can’t always do it on their own. It’s a strength to realise where your own limitations are and then find others who can complement and support you. Finding that synergy is so exciting.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I think what’s concerning is that I can only immediately tell you what doesn’t inspire me. There is a concerning lack of good leadership, from governments to companies, to learn from and model yourself on, especially as a woman. What’s more, there are a lot of poor leadership skills being incentivised and rewarded.
In venture capital, there are very few women in positions of power. The VC industry, especially in Europe, is still a cottage industry, if you will. Life science and drug development is a highly regulated industry – unlike tech industry, it takes longer to learn the ropes. This means that those that today have experience enough, belong to a generation when women were not being promoted. This leaves us with a lack of diversity at the very top, and the consequences of that trickle down.
I am inspired by the men who stand up for women and for the change towards a more equal society. It’s also the women who have the courage to do it their way, rather than contorting themselves into something seen as acceptable in our male-dominated industry. The women who are succeeding on their own rules. It takes a lot of courage to recognise that you can succeed as you are – you don’t have to translate your value into other people’s currency.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment supporting entrepreneurs?
I think I’m having it right now. I have two young children, and the lack of time and energy makes me prioritize and be true to myself. I’ve accepted that I’m not going to look like the average person in my industry – and whereas before I perceived that as a weakness, I now recognise it as a strength. I’ve realised I can achieve a lot more in an environment that fits me: it takes courage to say I know everybody wants to be in this space, but I would be happier and make more of a difference in that space.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned supporting entrepreneurs?
There are so many mistakes, but as time goes by you see the benefits of them!
I always used to say to myself ‘I just need to learn a little bit more’, ‘I just need to work a little bit harder’, and then I’ll be ready. Learning and developing is key, but it should not stop you from seeing your own worth – you bring value from the very beginning. Another epiphany I had is when I realised that criticism and corrections are not because it’s wrong, but because someone else has a different view or way of doing things. Someone else’s opinion is just that – an opinion. This all goes back to having the courage to believe in yourself.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’ve have worked in finance and venture capital most of my career. These are male dominated industries, and it’s been challenging to model myself after my seniors. To give you an example, during the first 6-7 years of working, I had never seen a pregnant woman at work.
When there is lack of diversity and inclusion, it can feel like your strengths are not encouraged, because they are not recognized as such. Instead, to succeed you try to imitate the others around you. This is a loss not only to yourself, but also to the organization. Likeminded thinking can be limiting and lead to missed opportunities and solutions.
Lack of diversity also creates lack of solutions for high needs. It’s intuitive that people drive projects that are of interest to themselves. I can give you an example: women’s health is a very neglected area. What is more, drugs are being tested in men, even when they are being developed for women! Some of these things are so obviously missed that you start to think maybe you’re the one misunderstanding. You’re not.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
The solution is to dig behind numbers and not be satisfied. They can always be better. Moreover, it’s not just about diversity – it’s about inclusion. If there are 50/50 male/female applicants, how many are graduating? How many have applied for a patent during their time? What is the proportion of each getting funding? If there is a disproportion somewhere, look for the reason – ask why.
Do you have any advice specifically for women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Don’t allow people’s negative criticism to personally affect you. We often automatically take it to heart and incorporate it into our being – instead, let it deflect. It’s a waste of time to be in environment with people who make you feel bad about yourself. And network and find support systems!