A Q&A with Kathrine Switzer, Board Chair, 261 Fearless, Inc. non-profit, and President, AtAlanta Sports Promotions, Inc.
It all started in 1967 when Kathrine Switzer challenged societal norms and became the first woman to officially register for and run the Boston Marathon. Just a mile into the famous race, an official accosted her and tried to forcibly remove her from the event. Frightened, but determined to finish, the incident inspired her to become a pioneer for the advancement of women – athletically and professionally.
This year, MedImmune and AstraZeneca welcomed Kathrine to speak at its 6th Annual Women’s Summit, a forum where employees, company leaders and industry experts gather and discuss the obstacles professional women face in their career and celebrate diversity — including the diversity of thought that propels science and innovation forward. The theme for this year’s Summit is Forward: Boldly, Bravely, Fearlessly.
In this Q&A, Switzer shares her insights on smart risk-taking, learning from failure and pushing oneself to achieve goals — all of which are integral to MedImmune’s culture. These are just a few of the themes she shared with employees – both women and men – during our Annual Women’s Summit.
Q: Smart and collaborative risk-taking is central to our mission of bringing new medicines to patients faster. What does smart risk-taking mean to you?
A: Taking risks is of utmost importance, to be weighed equally with calculating and preparing to take a risk. Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance.
When I decided to run the Boston Marathon this past April – 50 years after my initial race in 1967– I took a risk and put enormous pressure on myself. People raised close to $1 million on behalf of my charity, and the world’s media was watching me. And then I thought to myself, “What am I going to do? I’ve got to finish this race and let the pressure motivate me.”
But once I started, my training really kicked in; I had trained well for it. You take that risk and you do it anyway. If you’ve done the prep, you can trust that it will come right.
In a similar vein, if you’re in the field and you’ve done the prep, how wrong can your intuition be? You are the expert in the situation, and when you’re not, go to the best person you can find. There are people around who can give you extremely good advice and can guide you to make the right decision. That’s where time, practice and intuition usually kick in and work.
Q: Technology and new discoveries are moving faster than ever before – it’s a great time to be seeking the answers that could change patients’ lives. How do you deal with the inevitable setbacks along the way?
A: Something I learned over time is to trust in the process and your expertise.
Running a marathon and the clinical trial process are both complex. You have to take the process step by step and there are typically failures along the way. But every time you do something that’s difficult, you learn a lot about yourself and your ability, and you also learn to redefine, work through and overcome the things that hold you back.
As a scientist or a marathon runner, if you don’t love the process, you’re in the wrong game. The adventure, outcome, failure or discovery all contributes to the learning process – it either sends you back to the drawing board or it spurts you ahead.
Q: At MedImmune and AstraZeneca, we have a strong commitment to expanding opportunities for women in the workforce, and fostering their sense of curiosity and desire to innovate. While women have made great strides, what challenges do you believe still exist?
A: One of the biggest obstacles I have witnessed in the workplace is the tendency for women to not trust in their incredible capability and to succumb to their self-imposed notions of limitation. Particularly for women who are in a male-dominated profession or work environment, some may find themselves intimidated or have the perception they aren’t capable – both extremely false notions that can become barriers to success.
My first advice to women is to realize your enormous potential awaits you after you take that first step.
The path toward success is not unlike running a marathon. You can’t run a marathon the first time out. With each mile comes added experience coupled with setbacks, which you can still learn from and persevere. Taking that initial step can lead you to the next bigger step, and before you know it you are starting to see the big picture.
Mentorship programs like the one MedImmune has in place are a phenomenal opportunity for women to encourage each other’s success. By mentoring other people, you in turn are learning and growing, passing on new knowledge and becoming the best advocate for your company and your work.
Q: This year’s Women’s Summit theme – Forward: Boldly, Bravely, Fearlessly – could be a description for your own incredible career. What advice do you want to leave attendees with?
My personal story is a true testament to my belief that the way you view a circumstance can really shape the outcome.
There are going to be various scenarios that you will find yourself in throughout life, both positive and negative, that can turn into major opportunities. Sometimes, even the worst things in your life transform into a positive result.
I didn’t realize at the time, but who would have thought that when I was getting attacked over 50 years ago at the Boston Marathon by an official who wanted to throw me out—simply because I was a woman—would lead me on a path of social revolution in women’s empowerment, health, fitness and fearlessness?
Turning a negative into a positive can result in something fruitful, whether that be a new invention, developing a new biologic, or in my case, developing a new career.
About the Women’s Summit
The Women’s Summit is an employee-driven cornerstone program and professional development opportunity for AstraZeneca and MedImmune employees, spanning multiple sites as well as streaming for field employees in the US. Open to both male and female employees, the Women’s Summit heightens the awareness of diversity and inclusion, underscores the importance of advocacy, and provides insights and tools for professional growth and development. These are all key components of MedImmune’s emphasis on creating a great place to work and ensuring that diversity in its broadest sense contributes to our ability to innovate on behalf of patients.