Amy Schulman, who recently left her job as general counsel at Pfizer Inc. in New York, began work this week at Boston venture capital firm Polaris Partners. The firm’s first female venture partner, Schulman, 53, will work with early-stage companies in health care and life sciences. She also will serve as chief executive of a Polaris-backed startup, Arsia Therapeutics. Globe reporter Robert Weisman talked with Schulman last week outside Arsia’s lab at the Lab Central incubator in Cambridge. Here’s what he found out:
1. Schulman’s appointment at Polaris Partners -- a leading venture firm moving its headquarters to Boston’s Seaport district from Waltham -- will be her first experience working with biotech startups after a career that took her from a Wall Street law firm to Big Pharma. But she’s not unfamiliar with building companies. She helped grow the practice at Piper & Marbury, a law firm that became the behemoth DLA Piper. Later, she ran the nutrition and the consumer health care businesses at Pfizer.
“I’ve spent most of my life in big organizations, “she said, “but often in entrepreneurial roles within big organizations.”
2. Arsia, the first Polaris portfolio company Schulman will lead, is a 15-month-old biotech co-founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer and Polaris partner Alan Crane. The company is still operating in stealth mode. Among other things, Arsia’s scientists are working to make it possible for a broad range of medicines, which now must be administered intravenously at a hospital, to be injected with a syringe at home.
“So far, Arsia has been able to access talent, financing, and potential collaborators without needing to be self-promoting.”
3. Schulman described her management style as highly collaborative, whether it’s overseeing a small team of researchers or running a staff of hundreds of lawyers.
“It’s about creating a culture. Inquisitive, unafraid cultures are where great things get born. And they don’t happen by accident. You have to listen and you don’t punish people for speaking out.”
4. Schulman employs a two-step approach to make decision, keeping in mind that humility is especially important for non-scientists operating in a scientific environment
“I have a healthy appetite for listening to divergent points of view. I’ve learned that different contributors make their presence and their thoughts known in different ways. But at some point, you have to say ‘enough of the voices, this is what we’re doing.’ And you lead.”
5. Schulman’s mother, who went to law school at the age of 45, was one of her role models. And throughout her career, mentoring other women has been important to her. While there are relatively few women in the top ranks of venture capital, Schulman is quick to note that woman are well represented in the health care and science fields in the Boston area. Women make up a majority of the small workforce at Arsia.
“There’s a great network of women who have welcomed me and have flourished here long before my arrival on the scene.”
6. A graduate of Wesleyan University who earned her law degree from Yale, Schulman ran Pfizer’s nutrition business and eventually sold it to Swiss food giant Nestle SA for $11.8 billion. But she is reluctant to cite that as her top achievement.
“I hope I haven’t had my biggest accomplishment yet.”
7. Schulman described her relationship with coffee as “intense.” Favoring dark roasts served black, she has been known to bring pour-over Melitta cones with her on business trips so she never has to settle for weak coffee. Among the first things she bought for her new apartment in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood were not one, but two coffee makers.
“Redundancy is important. You need back-up systems.”