Susan Windham-Bannister- CEO of Mass Life Sciences Center
Working to expand Massachusetts STEM sector
Susan Windham-Bannister has directed the Massachusetts Life Sciences center for Governor Deval Patrick since the $1 billion initiative was launched in 2008. She set up the center and developed its programs, which have boosted the state’s economy.
“This is the economy of the 21st century. This is where the job growth is,” says Windham-Bannister, the center’s CEO and president. “The life sciences sectors, since this initiative by the governor, are among the fastest-growing sectors in the Massachusetts economy.”
It’s rare for a woman to run a science-oriented arm of a government, rarer still for a black woman to do so.
“I’m usually one of the few women in the room, and the only person of color, if I’m in a meeting,” Windham-Bannister says.
Windham-Bannister is a prominent example of an executive without a college degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics whose work involves those STEM fields of study. She mastered the life sciences through business, helping companies bring health-related products to market.
Her combination of business savvy and life sciences knowledge made her a perfect fit for a brand new job that came looking for her, not the other way around.
The various programs of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center spur innovation, create jobs and support scientific research on the cutting edge. The center offers loans, grants and tax incentives to pursue those goals. The life sciences industry includes pharmaceutical, biotechnology, diagnostic and medical device companies.
Windham-Bannister has applied the center’s ample resources to promoting diversity in the life sciences industry, which she says makes social and business sense.
“A big part of my goal with this initiative has been to make it inclusive,” she says. “I want the face of the life sciences workforce to look like the face of the country, in terms of diversity — people of color, women, all socio-demographic groups. I don’t want zip code to determine whether our young people have a chance to compete for jobs in the life sciences.”
The life sciences center has supported targeted programs in K–12 schools and community organizations.
“We have put millions of dollars into grants that support STEM programs that are targeted at girls and kids of color and kids in urban communities, kids who are not well-represented right now in the classroom among kids that are interested in STEM,” Windham-Bannister notes.
Such grants have gone to the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Girl Scouts for its Science Club for Girls and Freedom House.
High schools and vocational-technical schools in economically challenged cities, schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and charter schools in Roxbury have also received grants. Madison Park and East Boston are among high schools that have used such grants to upgrade laboratories or buy equipment, including computers.
“We’re making grants that will go up to $250,000, which for a high school is a lot of money, and getting industry to put in matching funds,” Windham-Bannister says.
At the collegiate level, the life sciences center has made grants to UMass Boston for a program to enroll and graduate more students of color in its College of Science and Mathematics, which has become majority-minority. A program at Harvard Medical School targeted to people of color also receives funding.
The center also has an internship program for college students, who have been notably diverse, and pays their stipends. Many people mistakenly assume a PhD is required to work in the life sciences, but the internship program tilts in the other direction.
The internships are for community college students, juniors, seniors and master’s students. Doctoral candidates are not eligible.
“Companies can come to our database and select the students, so we don’t place them. We’ll pay for four interns, if two of them are from a community college,” Windham-Bannister explains.
“Over 360 companies around Massachusetts have used interns,” she adds. “We have funded 1,600 interns. A third of the interns are kids of color. Half of them are women.”
This year, one out of eight interns have been community college students.
“The life sciences hires people with all different skill sets and levels of training. The life sciences is a business, so it needs people who run projects. It needs people in administration. It needs people in sales, marketing and accounting and legal and IT,” Windham-Bannister says.
“The life sciences needs many people who are mid-skilled workers. They have high school degrees. They have community college degrees. Or they have less than a high school degree,” she adds.
Windham-Bannister does have a PhD, in health policy and management from Brandeis University, not STEM. She was born in St. Louis at the famed Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which trained many black doctors during the era of segregation. Her father was a surgeon who integrated staffs of other hospitals in St. Louis.
She came to the Boston area to attend Wellesley College, before doing her doctoral work at Brandeis on national health insurance. She became interested in how providers and suppliers get reimbursed through government and private insurance plans.
For a couple years, Windham-Bannister worked at Abt Associates, the research firm in Cambridge that has nurtured and developed considerable black talent over the years. There she worked on health policy.
“I realized that that was a little far away from the action, and I was really more interested in what was going on at the market level,” she recalls.
So Windham-Bannister set up shop as an independent consultant, helping companies bring health-related products to market. She brought to the table her understanding of the complexities of how health insurers make reimbursements.
“I was able to parlay that knowledge about how all this works in great detail into doing a lot of business strategy, which was of much greater interest to me,” she explains. “Not that I don’t love policy. I do, but I like things in application.”
In the early 1980s, Wendell Knox, who later became CEO and president of Abt, recruited her to return to the company to help start a commercial division to complement its government work. She cofounded what became Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions.
Windham-Bannister managed the commercial strategy division, consulting with companies in a new industry, biotech, and other arenas that came to be known as the life sciences.
“I learned all the science from working with business. You have to begin to learn the science to understand the products,” she explains. “If it’s a drug, how does this drug work? I have to understand the underlying science because that’s how you are going to talk to a physician, to explain why this is better than what he or she has been using. You have to understand it to talk about it to the consumer as well.”
In the mid-2000s, Windham-Bannister started thinking she’d like to return to the nonprofit world. Early in her career, she had worked at the Mary Eliza Mahoney Family Life Center, a health center in Dudley that was part of the federal Model Cities program.
She interviewed for a position running the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. Her business-oriented presentation did not go over well with board members accustomed to how nonprofits function.
“But the search firm that was doing the search said to me afterwards, ‘we really liked the way that you interviewed for this position and we have another position we think you’d be perfect for,’” Windham-Bannister recalls. “It was this position. I thought ‘there’s no way I can work for government. I just don’t have the temperament.’”
She changed her mind.
“I came to interview with the search committee, and I really got very excited about the job. I thought ‘wow, there’s a lot of room here for strategic thinking.’”
“I was very happy that I got the job,” she adds. “Here we are six years later, and it’s been fantastic. It’s drawn on every experience and every skill that I have ever developed.”
Windham-Bannister arrived to set up the new life sciences center “with a lot of understanding what innovation looks like, because I’ve been working with companies that are doing innovation for all these years.”
“I really was able to be bilingual in this job,” she continues. “I was able to talk to my business stakeholders. I understood what they needed. And I was able to talk to the policymakers. I could talk with them about equitable distribution of the economic benefits. I could talk about inclusion.”
In her role, Windham-Bannister has a lot of speaking engagements. She has a presentation for life sciences companies about why hiring employees of color is a business imperative.
“My message on the business side is you need us to be in this game, because you are growing, you need talented workers, we are talented people, and if you are going to find the workers that you need, you are going to look at the growth segments of the population,” she explains.” “The demographics are changing in this country, so industry and academia are going to have to look for their students, their workers, in communities of color.”
Windham-Bannister has another, tailored message she delivers to African Americans, about the importance of life sciences to health, income and wealth.
“One of my really big frustrations has been to really try and emphasize to my own community, the African American community, why the life sciences are so important,” she says.
“When I’ve been out talking in my community about the life sciences, I get a number of reactions. ‘What does this have to do with us? Those are jobs for very elite workers, people who have PhDs and the like.’ ‘We don’t want any of those facilities in our communities. It’s dangerous, the things that are going on there.’”
She has polished counters to those arguments, by pointing out the community’s self-interests.
“The life sciences matter, for our health. There are a lot of medical issues in the communities of color that are more prevalent or present differently than they do in the Caucasian population,” Windham-Bannister explains. “Unless we are present in the community that’s researching and looking for drugs and treatments or cures, our voice around issues important in our community will not be heard as loudly.”
Besides health issues, there are the economic interests of a community underrepresented in a growing, better-paying sector of the state economy.
“This is where the job growth is. This is where the wealth creation is. So we need to be in that mix,” she says. “Our kids need to be trained. They need to be thinking about careers in these sectors — and it doesn’t mean they have to be in science. They could be interested in and really like to put things together, assemble things. They could like to work with animals, (become) animal technicians, a big area in the life sciences.”
More African Americans working for the life sciences could narrow the gap in black and white incomes in Boston, as documented in the State of Black Boston report of 2011.
“People in the life sciences make above average wages for any job,” she notes. “They can be an administrative assistant and they will make more than the average salary for an AA.”
Windham-Bannister’s role as the pioneering, founding chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center is coming to an end. In May, she announced she will resign as soon as a successor is found. Her intent is to have her tenure roughly coincide with Patrick’s. The governor leaves office in January.
In early July, Windham-Bannister was uncertain where she will land and what she’ll be doing next.
“Even though my career is about strategy, I don’t live my life that way,” she explains. “I really sort of know it when I see it, the right thing.”
As she did when she interviewed for a quasi-government job six years ago.