Barbara Adey is a global product and go-to-market leader who landed her first corporate board seat with life sciences company Riffyn in September 2019. With more than 20 years of experience in technology, Barbara has led organizations to enter new markets and scale their product line three times—once to $3 billion.
In her interview below, Barbara shares her experience walking into her first board meeting, her advice for startups looking to bring a new product to market, and what she wished she’d known when she started her journey to the boardroom.
The story of my career has been one of significant new product launches and making the first-ever sale of new products and services. That’s the reason I got my first board seat. Many people can read an income statement and a balance sheet. What I’m exceptionally good at is scaling a product.
Riffyn applies machine learning to experimental data in life sciences. The company has achieved product-market fit and now has to figure out how to significantly scale. I met the CEO and we hit it off right away. We’re both engineers, so we speak the same language. His classic quote to me after talking for an hour was “You approach sales and marketing from first principles.” Every scaling opportunity is different, and the decisions that will make it successful are different.
I knew from the time I was in school that I wanted to be a board director at the end of my career. I served on nonprofit boards starting in high school and met people who were on corporate boards. At the time, I thought, “This is a great use of wisdom.” It’s something I’ve always known I would do.
Meeting all the board members and VCs ahead of time was interesting because they are all life-sciences people. I am the token software person on the board as the independent director. We had no networks in common. I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t know their firms. The wonderful thing about that first board meeting was how I felt immediately that my voice was heard. I was not different because I was new, and certainly not because I am a woman.
That’s relatively new and different from my career in tech. I’m used to being the only woman in the room, which has been useful because you get noticed. I am also used to having to work hard to be heard. I’m used to dealing with people who may be less inclined to listen to my opinion than someone they’ve known longer or someone who, frankly, is a man. I didn’t get any of that from the Riffyn board. In the first meeting, I made a forceful comment about a key decision. It was taken at its face value as opposed to having a lot of emotional content. I thought, “Wow, this is great!”
I would love to create what I call a “kink in the curve” for many companies. The unique contribution I can make is moving from product-market fit to a huge success. It’s especially rewarding to think about at Riffyn, which is all about making scientific discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t be made or getting to those discoveries faster.
The best way to approach it is to not have a deadline in mind. Ideally, the opportunity comes to you. Board searches are not a 3-month decision. It’s a 12 to 18 month decision-making process from the board’s perspective. For me, the best bet was to proactively work my network. There wasn’t a formal start time where I thought, “I am targeting a board position.”
I believe in the Athena Alliance because I admire the women who are a part of it. My membership with Athena allowed me to develop my board bio, work on my presence, and find a community I respected on the same path as my own.
As I think about how I managed my career, I would have spent more time doing what I love rather than doing what I think I should do to augment my resume. That’s cost me a lot. Ten years ago, I left my dream job because I thought I had been “in it” for too long (four years). I thought it was a good time to shift from sales strategy to go back into product management. In retrospect, I would have been better off staying in sales and finding a different role rather than moving laterally back into the engineering side of the house.
I’ve always thought of myself as an all-around leader. Recruiters value long-term service in a single function, whatever it may be. It could be finance, engineering/operations, or sales, but you must pick a team. In my career, I did not pick a team. I’ve always chosen to move a new function and to learn more about that part of the business.
Think about the whole product. What complementary services, software, or devices will be needed by the end-customer to use your new product? What partners do you need to line up to be successful? How are you going to get referenceable wins with early adopters? Then, what is it going to take to scale to the mainstream market?
Right now, in boardrooms everywhere, the conversation is starting to shift.
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