Scientist, entrepreneur and footballer Claire Thompson chats to Hazel Davis about how nimble footwork skills have helped her get ahead in business.
Claire Thompson has started several companies and now runs Agility Health Tech, a consulting and communications firm for the healthcare and technology sectors. She’s worked her way up to the very top of the pharmaceutical industry and also played football at international level.
Walk me up your academic path and why you made the choices you did.
I’ve always been a geek. I loved science and maths at school so left Belfast to study biochemistry at the University of St Andrews (before Prince William made it cool). Initially, I was interested in forensics but a picture of a blood-covered police crime scene soon put paid to that. Around the same time, my grandfather died from a combination of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease and this sparked my interest in medicines.
From St Andrews, I moved to the School of Pharmacy at The University of Nottingham for my PhD, which was sponsored by the large pharma company SmithKline Beecham. I’ve been in the pharmaceutical industry ever since, with large, small and virtual companies, before setting up my own companies.
However, although I was a geek when I was a child, the only thing I really wanted to be was a comedian (I still might do it).
Did you ever feel any expectation or pressure not to study the things you did on account of being a girl?
No, not at all. My parents were really supportive. Neither of them had any qualifications, so they encouraged us to study. At school and university classes there was a good mix of boys and girls, so I never felt like an outsider.
What exactly does Agility Health Tech do?
Can I digress a bit? When I was five, my dad taught me how to play football. He told me that the difference between an average footballer and an exceptional footballer was their ability to look up from the ball. They know where the ball is. It is at their feet. They can look up at the opposition running towards them, decide which pass to play next and tell that player the ball is coming to them.
“I think you only regret the things you don’t do. If you find a role that interests you but you think you might not have all the skills they want, take a chance on it, be brave.”
In essence, we help our clients to look up. Look up from their science or technology, define how they are going to get it into clinical trials or onto the market, assess how they are going to beat their competitors and tell their peers and public about the true impact of their science.
What’s the most sexist thing that anyone’s ever said to you in your career?
I remember meeting a new senior executive and asking him what he did before he joined the company. He responded, “I was a gynaecologist and, no, I won’t examine you here.” Some of the group laughed. I was shocked. He must have made a few more remarks like this because he didn’t stay with the company for too long.
Who (or what) is your inspiration?
I’m lucky in that I get to meet really clever people with fabulous ideas all the time. They inspire me. The thought that some of the medicines and technologies I work on can make a significant impact on people’s lives spurs me on. A bit idealistic? I’m fine with that.
What main challenges do women in the pharmaceuticals industry face?
One of the largest pharmaceuticals companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has announced that Emma Walmsley will become its CEO in Mar 2017. This will be the first female CEO of a major pharmaceutical company, which is a significant step but there is still a lot to be done.
The trouble is, you can’t be what you can’t see. If we don’t know the roles exist, or don’t see others like us in them, then we don’t think they are open to us.
How are you or other people changing things?
There are a number of good professional networks for women, such as HealthTech Women and Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, which are dedicated to providing women with the skills and network to advance in their career.
I help run an annual Women in Healthcare Leadership event with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, bringing together women from across the sector to talk about their roles, share their experiences and inspire one another. I also talk at schools and universities to inspire younger people to pursue a career in this industry.
“My dad told me that the difference between an average footballer and an exceptional footballer was their ability to look up from the ball. They can look up at the opposition running towards them, decide which pass to play next and tell that player the ball is coming to them.”
What advice would you give to any young women wanting to follow your path?
Build and use your network. I would never have got to here without the help of people I have met over the last 15 years. They are my friends, mentors, sounding boards, sheroes and heroes.
Also, be brave. I think you only regret the things you don’t do. If you find a role that interests you but you think you might not have all the skills they want, take a chance on it, be brave.
I’ve taken a few chances in my career/life and they have all paid off in one way or another. Like the time I was leaving my job and sent an email to someone in the building that I had never met, telling them I had admired them from afar and then ran out of the building.
We were married within two years. I can’t believe I’m telling you this…
How is the industry changing?
The industry itself has been changing for the past 10 years with the large companies downsizing. With change comes opportunity. New medicines still need to be made and there are hundreds of spin-outs and biotechs emerging every year, so there are lots of varied roles available.
Or, if you have a great idea, you can always start your own company. This is a great industry to be part of, one where you really can feel that you are making a positive contribution to the world.
Meet more of our Glass Ceiling Smashers here.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".