THE BLOG
10/25/2013 06:24 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2013

Women in Business: Q&A With Dr. Robin Smith, CEO of NeoStem

Since joining NeoStem in 2005, Dr. Smith has helped raise about $140 million in capital and shape the company's focus through a number of acquisitions and divestitures, and by pushing its main cell therapy drugs through clinical trials. She's also worked to create partnerships, including an exclusive one with the Vatican, which they recently announced.

Under her leadership, NeoStem was named the fastest-growing technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and clean technology company in the Tri-State New York by the Deloitte Technology Fast 500™ and number seven in North America.

As a leader of this rapidly-growing emerging cellular therapy company, Dr. Smith has extensive first-hand knowledge on the shift in today's medicine (from treating disease with drugs to treating disease with our own cells), the business behind a paradigm shifting company and the future of medicine and cures to diseases that tragically effect people around the globe.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I earned my MD from Yale and MBA from Wharton, both of which gave me a strong foundation of knowledge and confidence to move NeoStem forward as a leading company in the adult stem cell industry. But the practical experience that I have gained while building this company is really what has prepared me to tackle whatever comes my way and lead us through substantive challenges. There is no substitute for learning on the job and addressing issues and situations as they come up -- always building upon and using your experience. I think the people who are most successful are those who can deal with the unexpected challenges and still persevere.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as NeoStem's CEO?

I'm fortunate that I have a sales and marketing background, as well as medical and general business management experience. Sometimes people who start out as physicians and then transition into business haven't gone through the practical part of actually seeing patients and administering care. Having done those things has given me a unique blend of experience. I not only understand the technology and science, but I'm also able to communicate in layman's terms, as well as connect with the business and medical communities. I find these different communication capabilities very important to achieve success in a biotechnology company on Wall Street, as they allow me to dialogue with all of our constituencies, whether they are employees, doctors, patients, scientists, investors or otherwise.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It is important to keep things in perspective and to make time for family, friends and for other interests in your life. Sometimes I do my best thinking at times when I'm doing something other than work. We all know that life gets busy, but you have to make the time. I find that for me, making room in my busy schedule for both a fulfilling professional and personal life makes me a better, more well-rounded, happier person.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at NeoStem?

We've built the company with mergers and acquisitions and through partnerships, which has been a really interesting way to accelerate growth. It's always challenging when you're integrating businesses and people to continue to grow, but we've been pretty successful in doing that. It's also been a true challenge to educate people about new technologies when they have preconceived views on issues such as stem cell therapies, and the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Our relationship with the Vatican has helped us with this education process. The issue of education is critical for us as the field is growing so quickly. One of the highlights is definitely seeing the support and excitement that is generated in the media as people began to truly understand the potential of adult stem cell therapies in the fight against chronic diseases and illness.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to start a career in medical research?

Medical research is the cornerstone of the development of new therapies to treat diseases. It's so important for our future. Health care is almost recession proof and there will always be dollars available to advance new and exciting technologies, whether it's through grants or philanthropic organizations or industry. I would encourage anyone who is interested in medical research to pursue that interest. I would advise for individuals to be passionate about the areas that they choose, get involved in organizations that support the area of research, and meet and dialogue with colleagues and scientists to share ideas, talk about your work and establish useful and successful collaborations.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

When I went to medical school, there weren't a lot of women in the class. Now I believe that women outnumber men. I am pleased to work with many women in leadership roles in our field. I am also proud that the medical industry has been so vocal and so active in creating resources to support women, such as the AMA's Women in Medicine Program. But in general, I know that many women face the same issues across all industries-- how to balance career and family and less female role models at the executive level. My hope is that with each successive generation that more female leaders will emerge and we won't view them as "great women leaders," they will just be "great leaders."

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

Like most women who read the book, I can relate to some of her points, while others just do not apply. I am fortunate that I have never really experienced gender barriers in my career. However, I was able to relate to Sheryl's points about taking risks within your career, the careful balancing act between work life and personal life, as well as how communication is so important in every aspect of your life. With regard to the movement the book has started, I think it is great that women in any field are empowered to reach their fullest potential and break through any internal and external barriers. However, it is also important to take her advice and life experiences and put them in the context of your own life, because not all of her points will apply or make sense for where one may be in her career or life.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentorship and guidance from others has been very important to my own personal success. I've always appreciated the opportunity to be able to ask for help and for the opinions of people who have more experience. There have been many people throughout my career that have been very helpful and influential in guiding me on how to analyze situations and look for solutions. At NeoStem, I try very hard to assist people in their careers and help them find the path that works for them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Thatcher. Oprah is self-made and hard working. She manages with her head, not her heart and has created a wonderful brand for herself. Margaret Thatcher was an expert at handling political affairs and she stood by her decisions, a very important trait to possess.

What are your hopes for the future of adult stem cell research and technology, both in the U.S. and across the globe?

At NeoStem, we are working to improve clinical outcomes for chronic disease and lower overall healthcare costs. In my lifetime, nothing is going to influence medicine as significantly as this paradigm shift in medicine toward using the cells of our body to treat disease. It's a transformative time in the treatment of disease and chronic illness. It's hard not to get excited about this possibility.