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Shirley Leung

For women, business as unusual at Biogen

Biogen’s “Raising the Bar” group (from left): Nadine Cohen, Susan Alexander, Lynne Sullivan, Paula Cobb, Samantha Budd Haeberlein, and Carmen Bozic.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

Biogen has three women on its 10-member board of directors, an unusual feat in corporate America and the biotech industry.

But instead of patting itself on the back with a round of attaboys and attagirls, the Cambridge powerhouse wanted to do more: help other companies put women on their boards.

Where to find talented women? It happens that Biogen is loaded with them, holding MDs, Phds, or MBAs, and managing vast divisions, from manufacturing to technology. Starting last year, Biogen began identifying senior women and training them to be compelling board candidates. They go to three-day workshops, and they get connected with companies looking for directors.


Some firms bar their executives from sitting on corporate boards, fearing it would be a distraction from their day job. But to Biogen chief executive George Scangos, director experience makes his team well-rounded — and along the way, he can help women navigate a path to the boardroom.

“This is one part of a broader way of thinking of people and business,” Scangos said. “It’s good for business, and it’s the right thing to do.”

How bad is it out there?

Big firms like Biogen are making progress, but more than half of the small and medium biotech companies in California and Massachusetts have all-male boards, according to an analysis by Liftstream , a search firm that specializes in the life sciences. Women hold just under 10 percent of board seats at those companies, and make up about 21 percent of the leadership teams.

What’s vexing is that the life sciences are awash in smart women. Half of the doctorates in life sciences are awarded to women, and half the medical school classes are female. But biotech businesses tend to spin out of academia with money from male-dominated venture capital firms, which then put their own men on the boards. Biogen is hoping to change that dynamic with its inaugural cohort of 11 female executives in its “Raising the Bar” program. They range from women who already sit on boards to those who aspire to.


Some, such as Dr. Carmen Bozic, have the right pedigree but needed a nudge to think they could be boardroom material.

“It never had occurred to me,” said Bozic, a senior vice president who oversees the safety of Biogen’s approved and experimental drugs. “I think that’s a very important point. I don’t think women necessarily are aware or think about the opportunities that are available to them.”

Serving on a corporate board has been one of Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan’s goals. She just didn’t know how. Now she does.

“Getting in this program is setting a clear path,” said Radhakrishnan, who is Biogen’s vice president of European regional medical affairs, overseeing the medical team there.

Boards hire search firms to fill vacancies, but directors also tap their own networks. In addition to helping women make the right connections, Biogen sends female executives to George Washington University, which designed a program at the company’s request to prepare women for board directorships. The women attend two workshops a year, from reviewing basic skills such as accounting and auditing to handling thorny issues such as cybersecurity and shareholder activism.

Javier Barrientos, Biogen’s senior director of global diversity, filters requests from companies looking to diversify their boards. He thinks Biogen’s female directors-in-training make good candidates not only for life science firms, but also for companies in other sectors. Executive vice president Adriana Karaboutis, for example, sits on the board of Advance Auto Parts, and Esther Alegria, a senior vice president who oversees all of Biogen’s manufacturing operations, last summer joined the board of Union Atlantic Electricity, a three-year-old Portland, Maine, startup.


Another startup, Cocoon Biotech, is interviewing two women from the Biogen program as it builds a board of directors. The two-year-old Medford company is developing treatments for osteoarthritis, a disease that wears and tears joints. While its founder and CEO is a woman, the company has an all-male advisory board.

“When people refer folks to you, it tends to be more male,” said Dr. Ailis Tweed-Kent, the CEO of Cocoon Biotech.

Tweed-Kent said that while she’s not specifically seeking female directors, she does want a diverse board and top talent to sit on it. The Biogen program offers a chance for her to find what she’s looking for. “I like the idea of a big company like Biogen really focused on building their talent and executive members to be real assets to smaller companies,” Tweed-Kent said.

Turns out developing drugs and building a pipeline of female talent have something in common: innovation. Biogen has figured that out.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.