A Low Tolerance for ‘No’: In Conversation with Polsky’s Innovation Programs Director

Polsky’s Director of Innovation Programs, Melissa Byrn, at the 22nd annual New Venture Challenge on Wednesday, May, 30, 2018, in Chicago. (Photo by Matt Marton)

Breaking boundaries is not glamorous or easy, but having a low tolerance for ‘no’ and finding mentors can help advance professional opportunities for women in historically male-dominated industries.

As we kick off Women’s History Month, an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, we sat down with Polsky’s Director of Innovation Programs, Melissa Byrn, to discuss the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, and her advice for women looking to break boundaries in the workplace.

How did you get your start in the STEM industry?

My STEM awareness and interest in the field started during grade school. I was fortunate to have a father who was an engineer by training and working in computer engineering for IBM during the emergence of software and personal computing. I also grew up in a university community with a heavy focus on engineering so I attended events like the Rube Goldberg Contest and annual women in STEM events. To be surrounded by this culture of engineering and science meant that it was always on my radar as a career option.

Professionally I got my start in the STEM industry through my first job out of college. I joined a medical device company, Cook Medical, within the business unit responsible for running their clinical trials and managing regulatory affairs. This was a great first job and I learned so much about the medical technology field, the R&D pathway, and the FDA. Interestingly, my grade school soccer coach who was a medical director at the organization recruited me to the role.

This taught me early on that your network and reputation have a powerful influence on your professional opportunities and trajectory.

What drives your passion for STEM?

Science and technology innovation has the potential to have such a profound impact on society. If you are passionate about contributing to societal improvement, this field provides so many opportunities for fulfilling that need. Whether you are the scientists developing new tools and techniques, the researcher studying theories that will drive technology applications, or the businessperson creating a framework on which these ideas can launch, there are so many professional opportunities to drive change.

All of the scientists, researchers, professionals, entrepreneurs, technicians, and students I have worked with in this field are motivated by the real-world impact and implications of their work. Using your intellect to help people is incredibly fulfilling. The uncertainty and failure rates in this field require that kind of intrinsic motivation and long-term perseverance.

How were you positioned for your current role?

Before becoming the Director of Innovation Programs at the Polsky Center, I was working in the healthcare industry at the intersection of research, hospital operations, regulatory compliance, and data. I developed skillsets that could have taken many different jobs to develop if I hadn’t found myself at this confluence. As the director of clinical research operations and compliance for two large top-tier academic health systems, I had the fortune of supporting the infrastructure required to support the clinical trial development phase of thousands of drugs, devices, and biologic projects trying to get to market. The excitement of seeing products approved to market that we supported during Phase I, II, and III clinical trials never gets old.

In addition to my day job, I am a health tech founder and have participated in Polsky Center programs geared toward scientists and early-stage entrepreneurs. These programs were transformative for me and my venture and I am thrilled to be able to give that back to others starting their journey. I understand the experience of taking something from idea stage to developing a business model to creating a product based on customer needs and market validation. These personal experiences, challenges, and lessons inform the work that I am doing in my current role. I continue to learn from the exceptional mentors, advisors, colleagues, and entrepreneurs in the Polsky Center ecosystem.

When I moved into my current role, I could see the opportunity to expand the work that I was previously doing in order to meet the needs of a broader audience. I devoted my earlier career to medical research and commercialization and now I have the opportunity to support broader STEM innovation and technology commercialization. My experience working with faculty researchers, industry, regulators, and complex organizations (looking at you healthcare industry) meant I have the skills and experience to empower scientist-entrepreneurs through educational and experiential programming while creating pathways for disruptive technologies to succeed.

Do you have any advice for women looking to break boundaries in the workplace?

First, power to anyone taking on boundary-breaking. It is not a glamorous or easy pathway. Finding mentors to join you along the journey will provide you with moral support and help you best navigate the journey.

What does breaking boundaries mean to you?

Boundary breaking is saying ‘yes’ or ‘it can be done’ instead of the easy ‘no.’ I have found that many people start with ‘no.’ One of the ways in which I have carved out new opportunities is by starting with ‘yes’ and then finding a way to make it happen. Boundary breakers have a low tolerance for ‘no.’

Where is there room for improvement and opportunity for growth when it comes to more women being involved in STEM?

Leadership in STEM organizations still lacks diversity across many facets, not just gender. The more women, people of color, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds we can have leading this field, the better positioned we will be to create solutions that meet real-world needs in this technology-centric era.

Drawing upon my experience of early exposure to the STEM fields, there are opportunities to increase and expand STEM education, career opportunity exposure, and STEM awareness in the formative years (K-12). I am excited about the growing momentum for early STEM education and engagement, particularly in communities and groups that are underrepresented in the current STEM professional landscape.

However, there is still lots of work to be done to make early STEM awareness and educational pathways more accessible and interesting to a broader group of people. I look forward to watching this work progress.

What women-focused STEM initiatives or projects in the UChicago ecosystem are propelling the industry forward?

Thankfully we have an active community of women and men who are thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion and actively working to promote, celebrate and increase the number of women in STEM. With Women’s History Month in March, there are many initiatives and events taking place on campus, in the Chicago area, and nationally that provide opportunities to participate and advocate. For example, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Physical Sciences Division exhibit Redefining the Landscape: Women in STEM features 29 women faculty, students, and staff and the amazing ways they are contributing to the STEM field.

There are incredible women scientist-entrepreneurs in the UChicago ecosystem who have gone through STEM entrepreneurship programming. What I love about STEM entrepreneurs is their passion for solving complex problems and creating impact. Some of the female powerhouses that I have the pleasure working with and look forward to watching scale their ventures include Dr. Stacy Lindau of NowPow, Dr. Cathy Nagler of ClostraBio, Professor Margaret Beale Spencer of ThinkLive! Inc., Professor Giulia Galli of Qresp, and alumna Yuan Zhang of Seurat Therapeutics (just to name a few). I work closely with STEM entrepreneurs at the early end of the innovation cycle and feel excited about the pipeline of female entrepreneurs and innovators in the UChicago ecosystem. There are a multitude of exciting and disrupting women-led deep tech ventures set to launch out of the University of Chicago in the next few years.

What resources does the Polsky Center offer to women interested in STEM?

The Polsky Center currently offers a number of programs and resources to support STEM scientists and entrepreneurs. Over 500 STEM innovators have participated in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program run out of the Polsky Center. Our I-Corps teams have raised over $70M in funding for their venture. We are seeing an increase in the number of female-led STEM ventures engaging in our programming. Last year 41% of the founders in the I-Corps program were women.

In addition to the resources that the Polsky Center currently offers, I am excited to be working with a number of stakeholders in the UChicago ecosystem and Chicago area community to build out new programming for STEM researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Women working in STEM are top of our mind as we not only launch new initiatives and we are thinking about our messaging, program leadership, and our mentor network for STEM innovators.

Stay tuned for new STEM programs launching out of the University of Chicago and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation!

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