Spotlight on Women: Wendy S. Johnson
President & CEO Aires Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Wendy S. Johnson
President & CEO
Aires Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the biotech industry? I had always planned to go to med school, but my mother became seriously ill, so I moved home to take care of her. By the time she died, I was too worn out to go to med school. I have a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Maryland, an M.B.A from Loyola University, and an M.S. in clinical microbiology from the Hahnemann Medical School.
Where did you begin your career? I worked for the Food and Drug Administration for 10 years, got promoted a lot, and eventually had to decide whether to stay until retirement or to move on. The FDA was very male-dominated. One Saturday I was called in for an emergency meeting. I was the only woman in the room, and the leader of the meeting told me he would like me to get coffee and to take minutes. That was the deciding moment for me. I was really interested in the biotech field, so that is what I pursued.
What brought you to San Diego? I was a trailing spouse, and I just began looking. I have a twin sister, and she recommended me to someone she knew. She was working for a pharmaceutical company back east, and they were trying to do a deal on the West Coast. They wanted to hire her, but she was not in a position to move. They said they wanted to hire someone just like her. She said, “I have the right person for you on the West Coast: my twin sister.”
You have been involved in several start-ups. What do you consider your greatest achievement? I was working for a company called Salmedix and was instrumental in bringing a cancer drug to the U.S. to develop it for leukemia and lymphoma. We put the drug into clinical trials; it did well; our company was acquired; and the drug is now on the market, standard of care, and helping many cancer patients. This is the lifetime dream of any cancer drug developer. The chances of a successful drug are very low.
What advice do you have for others? Always take initiative without asking a lot of permission. If you are clear about the goal, there are a lot of ways to get there. I always encourage people to take international assignments. I lived in England for six years, and I learned firsthand how others view us. You also have to be in the right place at the right time.
Did you have a mentor or role model? Well, I had a boss who taught me a lot, and he helped train me to articulate my message, which is important if you want to get your point across.
Who have you had an impact on? My goal has always been to try to find the person who will take my job. I am always looking for talented people and have moved a lot of people up the ranks, helping to give them an opportunity.
What have you done to support your community? I do a lot of pro bono work, and I accept many speaking engagements. I have served on the UCSD Moores Cancer Center board and am currently on the
Clearity Foundation, working with patients and their doctors. When patients have a relapse, we try to determine the drugs or clinical trials that are most likely to help them.
What’s next for you? When this company is finished, whatever that might mean, I may consult and work with small companies to help them grow.
Whom do you most admire? Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, a man who had very modest beginnings. He has done a lot of things that others would not have done.
What would you like people to know about you? I was very persistent, which has led to success. I have never been afraid to do something new. I have never taken no for an answer.