05/23/2015 03:58 am ET Updated May 22, 2016

Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Daria Thorp, President/CEO, ACD/Labs

Dr. Thorp is President and CEO of ACD/Labs, a 150+ person multinational chemistry software company. ACD/Labs manufactures and distributes software solutions that increase productivity of research and decision making; and is used to manage, share and reuse chemical knowledge amassed in product R&D and manufacturing, in chemical, food, biotech, and pharmaceutical industries. Among the company's worldwide customers are all of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers, numerous chemical companies, and many research organizations. Daria has been with the company for over 12 years, maintaining keen focus on innovation, deep alignment between ACD/Labs products and market needs, and excellence in product quality and service.

Dr. Thorp holds a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry and a Master's degree in chemical engineering. Daria has over 20 years of experience in marketing, sales, business development and management. She has served with a number of vendors for chemical, pharmaceutical, and process manufacturing industries. Her expertise is based on a solid foundation of academic and practical lab experience in research and production environments.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Leadership, to me, is about good and correct decisions, about relationships with people, and about people trusting and following your decisions to successful execution. I have worked on every aspect of this, I have sometimes failed, but I've learned from failure.

I have made many successful decisions to choose my career and to change my career; to move countries, and to move other people to other countries; to accept and decline opportunities, and to convince others to accept or decline theirs. If you can make good, solid, lasting decisions, and have people trust and execute on your decisions I believe you're on your way to being a successful leader.

Another important skill is to have the willpower to stand back, and empower others to become leaders. The empowerment of employees is essential for any company to be successful. Letting others influence decisions by pooling their expertise has an exponential effect on the quality of outcomes. I try to let good people do their work and help them to bring the company success.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ACD/Labs?
I am a chemical engineer and a chemist by training. I am tremendously interested in the field of Life Sciences. Every time I have a chance to sit at a scientific session or read a review, the scientist in me gets very happy. I work with people who create fantastic advances in our field of chemical structure characterization and use software to supplement human intellect to help find new medicine, food additives, natural remedies, and chemicals of all sorts. Computer algorithms help with chemistry research by offering property prediction, suggesting chemical answers to observed measurements, or just by aggregating a huge body of information to highlight and bring to the attention of the research team the most relevant facts. At ACD/Labs I am exposed to work conducted by the most prominent and brilliant minds in the field. Truly, learning about that is great fun--you just need to know the basics and the terminology!

Marketing and management, however, are my personal passions. I find it most satisfying when the results of research and engineering become real products, requested and appreciated by users and their companies. I have had several jobs at varying levels of international marketing, business and management, working in the lab, and teaching students the chemistry of biologically active substances (aka, pharmaceuticals). I undertook pre-and post- sales support of chemical instrumentation, and its business development. I had the advantage of dealing with industry and research, not only within the chemical and biotechnological fields, but also for pulp-and-paper and petrochemical applications. I have managed distributor networks in Eastern Europe on behalf of Austrian, British and Danish employers; developed marketing and communication campaigns for North American and European software users; and managed teams of varying sizes. I believe that every single project was adding to the tremendously valuable pool of expertise.

ACD/Labs employs 160 people around the globe. We support chemistry research where it is done, in many countries and cultural environments. I draw personal parallels that help me understand the variety of specific situations and challenges my colleagues and customers find themselves in. There are certain common fundamentals between how business is run in each and every country or industry, but there are also very important differences. This awareness that my colleagues and I have learned not only from textbooks but also through personal experience helps us to make better decisions.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ACD/Labs?
I started with this company as a marketing specialist in 2001. I viewed it as an incredible learning opportunity to understand B2B software applications within a market that I could relate to. Since then, I have considered myself to be in the software business, and it has been an incredible time to learn it.

Think back 20 years ago: advanced computing power was used 'for work', and then it became 'personal'. Today, everyone seems to have a phone or a tablet as an extension of their hand; computer technology made a leap into our private lives but industrial applications have barely changed. Today, phones/tablets and their software are not yet good enough to become mainstream industry tools, but tomorrow that will change. It is a tremendously exciting time and space to watch and contribute to!

As ACD/Labs challenges go, I have been part of both a significant management restructuring, and massive product revision that was much needed after 15 years. We reviewed our portfolio of specialty chemistry software products and consolidated them into two new product platforms--Percepta and Spectrus. Five years later, the revision is more or less complete and we are now tackling new challenges. This has been an ambitious undertaking that required a lot of creativity, and lead to phenomenal customer interactions.

During my seven years as the president/CEO of ACD/Labs, we have also undertaken an aggressive international expansion, as we want to be where our users are--globally. I feel privileged to have been part of such considerable change with an opportunity to influence the company's path forward.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Let me share with you a secret: deep inside, professionally trained chemists truly believe that their training makes them uniquely suitable and capable of working in the great majority of other disciplines. I did not invent that theory, but I buy into it. Chemists, men and women, are trained to be very organized in their experiments, to think projects through to the end and anticipate the alternatives, to work with their hands, with computers, and with mechanical instrumentation. Mathematics and logic are a big part of the education, as well as memorization--if you ever took any chemistry, you know what I mean. As a result, in their personal lives, chemists make good cooks, avid computer geeks, acceptable auto mechanics, and overall excellent wives and husbands. On a serious note, I am privileged to work with many colleagues and customers who had their original training in chemistry, and I vouch for them--these are highly intelligent and capable people worth learning life lessons from.

Since chemists are well-balanced individuals I believe they can choose to work in any industry that interests them. My words of caution would be: do not be afraid of change, but be true to your choice as long as needed to succeed. Many people change their field when they run into resistance or difficulty and then change again and again, so they never really get the satisfaction of mastering that hill, or any hill. Stay at it until you are accomplished at something--at that point you have either succeeded in your chosen career or you have the full right to consider a change of direction.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The value of a positive attitude towards people and projects. That the sky does not really fall as often as we fear. And that those who believe in success (while critically addressing the difficulties) seem to accomplish much more.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In my attempt to balance work and personal life, I garden. It is an active meditation, and an intense mental exercise (try to optimize 7+ parameters such as size, shape, shadow, texture, color, bloom time, light needs, water needs, etc. in a 3D grid!)--plus a workout. But beyond that, I enjoy placing a plant into a good location and watching it develop. I do not overwater, over-fertilize or over prune, if I can avoid it. I want it to stand its ground, and be the best it can be - again, based on my educated choice for the placement.

This also happens to be my management philosophy. Capable individuals, given responsibility and independence, paired with regular attention and care, become great in what they do. I aim to follow the Level 5 leadership ideology as defined by Jim Collins.

To the topic, nowadays, work/life division is in the individual's head, it can no longer be defined on formal grounds. It became a matter of personal self-discipline, especially in the software industry.

I have just committed to conduct a business meeting at 2 am my time, as it fits the time-zone of the majority of the audience. All of my personal electronic devices collect work and private emails and combine work and private calendars. Our headquarters in Toronto, Canada moved offices in 2012, and allowed everyone who wanted to, and was not connected to physical hardware and paper, to work from home. It did impair our social interactions (we used to go out much more, as work teams), but it did not impair productivity, and no one seems to be complaining that their quality of life got worse. By the way, we did place spare desks in the office, for use if needed.
Our Toronto colleagues support installations in China. Our California product manager works daily hours with developers in Eastern Europe. Look at the time zone calendar--those are no longer regular business hours. I do insist that my reports monitor their work-life balance, and strongly object to weekend shifts unless necessary for emergency or planned maintenance, as a way of reinforcing the division. That is a certainly a challenge of management in an international business.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I do often find myself in an under-10% minority at many industry events and associations, but I could never understand the reason. I don't know if there is an objective reason for that, or it is a matter of perception that becomes self-fulfilling. At ACD/Labs we are fortunate to have adopted, from the very beginning: those who are best suited for the job will do it, irrespective of their minority/majority status or gender.

I believe that women who love what they do at work are happy and usually successful. Same works for men, actually.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have met, and continue to interact with, many distinguished females. Some are in formal positions of leadership and power, some are teachers, and others are guiding teams from the inside. One of my greatest female heroes was my grandmother. A person of unwavering character, dedication and ethics, she was a renowned researcher in her field (mineralogy), with a volume of published works still heavily referenced today. Unlike many experts, she had a keen daily interest in all aspects of life, and would go out of her way to understand natural phenomena, for example. She also taught me, by example, her exceptional work ethic.

Having said that, I try to learn from capable talented professionals and human beings, with no regard to gender.

What do you want ACD/Labs to accomplish in the next year?
We have many tangible and intangible goals. Like any business, we are looking towards growth in the coming year and the further commercial success of our technologies. We are working on several exciting introductions that not only make our customers more innovative and efficient, but also relate to bridging the personal and professional aspects of technology as it relates to the chemist's work. Let me explain.

In chemistry-driven industry, there is a current gap between personal and professional use of technology. One of the challenges we are working on with some of our customers is 'finding useful things, fast"--the chemical and analytical knowledge management and transfer. As private individuals, we are constantly processing, filtering, and applying a significantly larger volume of information and news than we did in the past. As an information request pops into my head, I instantly reach for my phone and Google an answer. Which local pubs are in the area, and what do the customers think about them? Kitchen recipes? Sports scores? Driving directions? The basic routine processes of "access-to-knowledge" have shifted. In the chemistry world, I would expect the same change taking hold in the near future, but it is a challenge. Types of information objects are very different from the "private life" queries. Chemistry speaks its own language of graphical but meaningful structures and their names (IUPAC nomenclature is an example). Chemists and their organizations get enormous volumes of data in numerous specialized formats, on demand, from their greatly advanced spectroscopy, spectrometry, and other instrumentation and IT systems. Sufficient data organization, clever access, and intelligent comprehension, paired with up and coming computing technology, are the future of the chemistry IT space. We are striving to be part of that. We apply this change to our core areas of expertise: small molecule characterization, property and biological endpoint prediction, and aggregating all that information in a chemically intelligent way that generates new insights and helps produce new chemistry products or enhance the existing ones.

I am expecting to see some of our behind-the-scenes work become public in the next year, and looking forward to hearing the reaction of our customers!