Dr. Jo Varshney found early on that her brain was naturally wired to visualize vast amounts of data, connect the dots at a faster pace than many of her peers and anticipate problems before they materialized. Those traits served her well as a trained veterinarian and doctorate in oncology and genomics who started innovative lifesaving drug discovery technology company, VeriSIM Life.
Today, her company works with large pharmaceutical and biotech companies to solve their drug development decisions by integrating artificial intelligence with quantitative models that predict several drug outcomes in clinical settings prior to administering drugs to humans.
In the five years the company has existed, Dr. Varshney has raised more than $23 million in operating capital, built a global customer base, produced four drug candidates for rare and unmet diseases and more.
She is also a big advocate of women in leadership programs and holds several advisory roles to enable diversity at the board level of companies.
Know Your Value recently chatted with Dr. Varshney about the common challenges women of color face in navigating the workplace, her best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and how her Muay Thai practice helped turn her business dreams into reality.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
1. Can you tell us about the work you do and what it is like being a woman founder in a STEM field?
As a founder and CEO of VeriSIM Life, I have the good fortune of working alongside an excellent cross-functional team of experts and highly reputable investors and board members. I wear many hats on the job and spend a lot of my time making sure we stay focused on our core mission of helping pharmaceutical companies reduce the time and cost of drug development while limiting unnecessary R&D spending, since more than 90 percent of drugs tested in animals fail to pass human clinical trials, resulting in delayed development and high costs.
I also spend a fair amount of time leading and making complex business decisions including licensing deals, recruiting other talented leaders, and articulating our vision internally and externally to achieve our goals. And it’s my job to make sure we stay financially secure and have the resources to expand and grow …
Although progress has been made to increase the number of women in corporate leadership roles, we all know there is still a long way to go. As a woman CEO, I still find it challenging sometimes to be heard or taken seriously, despite my credentials and experience. Sometimes you just have to rise above that feeling that you’re ‘not enough’ and listen to that tiny inner voice that tells you no matter what, you have to keep going, and one day you can prove your hypothesis and thinking.
I can’t speak for all women. Many who I am aware of have had very similar challenges. They have to work harder to prove themselves. They have to be ‘louder’ so people listen to what they have to say. And they have to build on every opportunity because we don’t get the luxury of missing out on opportunities or making many mistakes. This keeps me very grounded and inspires me to work harder every day …
2. What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life and chosen field and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge has been to believe in myself and pursue what I want sooner rather than later. As with most successful women, I have always had to work harder and smarter to achieve my dreams and aspirations. Coming up the ranks of corporate America, I had three strikes against me – I’m a person of color, an immigrant, and a woman. So, believing in myself and trying to prove myself has been one of my biggest challenges. It forced me to over-prepare and bring value to everything I did. That trait was also the key to success.
Persistence, grit, and staying humble have helped me stay on course and focus on solving hard problems in my field. They say leadership is defined in times of stress, and my years of training in a little-known martial arts discipline, Muay Thai, prepared me for those moments, and more. The practice of Muay Thai has come in handy and been the perfect counterbalance to the demands I face at work and as a new mother. It has taught me that sometimes you just have to fight for your own well-being, and how to do it gracefully without being loud or disrespectful.
Asking for help is another tool I’ve learned to use in overcoming difficult challenges. There’s so much to learn and so much to do, yet so little time. You can’t know it all. You can’t be at every meeting. I have learned to embrace the fact that I’m not perfect and I’m not alone. If I need help, I seek it out. Today, I’m not afraid to lean on my mentors, friends, family, and team for guidance. People will step up. Trust me. And when they do, I accept it.
3. What advice do you have for other women and women of color coming up behind you based on the challenges you have encountered and experienced? How have these experiences informed your leadership philosophy?
The best advice I can give to other women leaders is to find your own tribe. It's very important, no matter who they are. They can be men, women, or non-binary folks… gravitate to people who believe in you. It’s going to start small. There are not going to be many people at first, especially if your idea/passion is unique. This will help you build confidence to pursue whatever passions or interests you want to tackle. Know there will be setbacks and know you will hear a lot of ‘No’s’ before you get to a ‘Yes’. Stay focused and continue to check in with your mentors and it will be that tribe that puts you in the right mindset to move forward in your life without feeling rejected and disheartened.
There’s no way around the fact that women of color are severely underrepresented in corporate America. We only make up one percent of CEO positions across the Fortune 1000. Since I’m more of an introverted person, I am not keen on being in the spotlight. I knew my actions should speak louder than words. That is what helps me stay focused on business outcomes and continue to discuss those outcomes externally in a confident and reliable manner.
I believe good leaders shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Authenticity does not exist without vulnerability. When we are vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line. When you create a two-way street and acknowledge that everyone has challenges, both inside and outside of work, you create more trust. As for my leadership philosophy in general, I take a lot of pride that the leaders we choose for the company, including myself, are open and we are setting great examples for the team so they know that we’re there for them. We have to work with what we have and lean on each other as we grow and scale the business.
4. Can you talk about your Muay Thai practice, how you found it, and how it serves you across your personal and professional lives?
I remember clearly; there were several moments during my Ph.D. when I was testing drug candidates against rare bone cancer cells and the experiment was not working and it was bringing me down. Out of such discouraging times I felt I had to do something for my own mental well-being to cope with the setbacks. I turned to martial arts since I had been exposed to the sport as a young girl. I chose a particular martial art called, “The Art of Eight Limbs”, or Muay Thai, developed hundreds of years ago by the Siamese army to protect the kingdom of Thailand. It teaches you to become a human weapon without using weapons.
The practice not only made me physically stronger, it had a profoundly positive effect on my mental state of being. It helped put my life in perspective and gave me the confidence to better confront the challenges and stresses I faced in a graceful and accepting manner. It was truly a gift that motivated me to complete my doctoral program and gain the knowledge and experience needed to build VeriSIM Life from scratch as a solo founder.
Muay Thai helped me reach another level of mindfulness I never thought possible. It taught me how to stay focused and how to protect myself. As with martial arts or business, standing still is asking to be hit, so I always think about ways to neutralize a threat while remaining calm under pressure. I apply this philosophy to everything I do today. Because not every deal will be successful. There will be fundraising challenges. You will fail before you succeed. Muay Thai has taught me to step back, breathe and continue to move forward with poise and confidence that I can handle whatever comes my way.
5. What piece of advice do you wish you could tell your younger self?
Early in my career, I worried too much about other people’s opinions of me. My advice is to trust your instincts, your education and your values. Don’t be afraid to go with your gut. That’s not to say you shouldn’t seek other people’s perspectives, especially from those whom you respect and know will differ from yours.
I would tell my younger self that it's okay if you don’t have all the answers. Don’t try and constantly overprove yourself. Sometimes you can get stuck in the mindset that “I have to be able to do everything, and I have to be able to have all the answers.” I’ve learned through experience working with and talking to other successful CEOs that they don’t have all the answers. They have to make the best decisions with whatever information they have and rely on their instinct to move the ball forward. And guess what; your intuition gets better over time.
Looking back, I know I put more pressure on myself than I ever should have. You will learn as you get older that it’s OK if things don’t always work out but the learning remains the most valuable asset one will have. Also, it’s OK to rely on other people, your team – your tribe. Do yourself a favor, take more risks and be more confident in the abilities you have. Embrace the unknown. You will find you know more than you think. Start looking at obstacles as opportunities to develop creative solutions. This is what will create more success in your life.