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February 22, 2021

Q&A – Jane Wright-Mitchell, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer – Vaxcyte, Inc.

Julie Q. Brush

My next guest for the Lawyer Whisperer Q&A is life sciences legal guru Jane Wright-Mitchell, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer and Corporate Secretary of Vaxcyte, a next-generation vaccine company seeking to improve global health. Jane’s career has been an impressive one with an early interest in life sciences stemming back to her days as a Biochem/Bio Science major at Clemson. As a young lawyer, Jane’s legal foundation started as a pharmaceutical lawyer and after five years, she traded in the courtroom for an in house role at Abbott. She worked her way up the career ladder with marquee life sciences companies culminating in the Chief Legal Officer role with AcelRx Pharmaceuticals and then with a stint in cannabis before taking on her current role with Vaxcyte, a company she shepherded through its IPO in the choppy waters of 2020.

When you meet Jane, you are presented with an accomplished, intelligent and incredibly personable and vivacious individual. In an industry with few women, Jane has forged a path not only for herself, but for scores of women to follow. A true role model, indeed. Point of interest: In addition to her JD, Jane earned her PharmD, Pharmacy and worked as a Pharmacist before launching her legal career!

Jane was kind enough to take the time to provide her thoughts for my Q&A to share with the community. Thank you Jane!

From an executive’s perspective, how can an employee increase his/her value to the organization during these challenging times?

Be flexible and open to taking on new things that you may not have even considered.

I don’t think any of us would be able to say we had experience dealing with pandemics before COVID-19 hit. There was so much information coming from all sides during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Quick business decisions needed to be made in order to keep our labs up and going.  In order to address not only those business concerns but employee concerns about safety, I initiated a COVID Action Team.  We worked to synthesize the information we could gather and distill it down into new policies and procedures so we could ensure our research activities were able to continue on track as well as provide comfort to our employees that we were working to address safety concerns.  We also had to determine how to move office-based staff to work-from-home to maintain productivity and being cognizant of individual working needs.  What did I know about this in February 2020?!  Nothing!  But the company needed support and I saw the opportunity to make a positive impact on the company outside of a traditional legal role.  I’m really proud to say we have kept our research labs going through COVID, we have provided support to our work-from-home employees and have regular meetings and communications to address the changing environment.

Having the flexibility to take on new projects or subject matter can really add value.  You don’t add a lot when you say “I don’t know how to do that.” and leave it there.  You need to turn the mindset to “This is going to be challenging but I’m going to find a way to make it work”. Even with small things, being flexible and open to new opportunities can bring value not only to the company but really add to you personally and professionally.

What is your management philosophy during this pandemic and how are you keeping  your team mentally healthy, motivated and positive?

Again, flexibility is key.  Everyone has adapted differently to COVID.  People are dealing with different stressors from home school to caring for extended family to being isolated by themselves 24/7.  Being aware when team members were experiencing stress, actually asking how team members were doing,  and adjusting to accommodate a new normal work environment was a must.  It was critical to be in tune with colleagues and when for example they needed a break from Zoom calls or needed to block specific time to dedicate to work versus non-work activities. For example, understanding that some people do well with video calls while it can cause a lot of stress in others.  COVID made working closely with your team even more important and to be flexible with how work product is delivered.  It’s important to understand what makes people thrive and work well and what causes stress.  You can’t make everyone happy all of the time but being open and flexible to change can promote a positive work environment and increase productivity.  

Jane Wright-Mitchell

What is your advice for staying nimble and managing change through Covid-19?

I’ve really had to learn to give myself permission to log-off.  As easy as that sounds it has been difficult.  You live and work in the same place.  I hear a lot of people say they are working longer hours since COVID stated and it feels like work is always with you.  I’ve certainly found that to be true.  I had to make a physical work space that I kept separate from other parts of my house.  I only go there to work and I agree on a time that I will log-off each day.  I can’t say I stick to it 100% but it’s gotten me away from constantly carrying my computer around and never feeling like I had down-time.  I’ve learned that I need to take that downtime to recharge and take time to do something outside of work.  Even though it sometimes feels like I can’t log-off or I should review just one more document, taking the time to recharge actually makes me work better and my working time more productive.

How do you think Covid-19 will change the legal profession?

It’s definitely made it clear that you can get a lot done remotely and you do not need to be in the office 24 hours a day to be productive.

I went through an IPO during COVID and everything was done virtually.  No running from one ttw (testing the waters) or roadshow meeting to the next and flying all around the country to meet with investors.  Everything was done virtually and with a lot less hassle.  Also, no more printing thousands of pages of the prospectus.  Everything was electronic.  I hope those changes stick post-COVID.

I also work in a highly regulated industry (pharma) and it was great to see the regulatory authorities working to streamline some processes and procedures.  I think it shined a light that changes were needed.  Electronic signatures come to mind here and how some US regulatory authorities would not accept e-signatures pre-COVID.  Changes can be good and increase efficiencies.

Courts were also able to operate somewhat virtually and that’s a huge change!  I was called for jury duty during COVID and the court did a great job of streamlining the juror selection process to keep the court proceedings safe but also to cut out a lot of the downtime and waiting around.

What have you learned about yourself during this pandemic?

I learned I really miss going out to lunch with friends and colleagues!  (I also learned I do not get the sourdough craze at all.)

Seriously though, I’m a bit of a talker I like to be around people.  I like to connect with people even if it’s to say ‘good morning’ in the break room or ask about weekend plans.  Also, talking things out, considering different points, helps me synthesize information so I enjoyed going to the office and working in a team environment.  I thought I’d go crazy just working from home.  I learned I actually liked working from home.  It took some time to realize but after several months, I felt like I had a lot more structure to my day and enjoyed seeing people on Zoom calls to check-in as well as having more time to spend with my family.  Some of the stressors in my life like my commute or finding time to work-out or even finding time to call friends and family actually got easier.  I’m looking forward to going back to the office but I wouldn’t mind working in scheduled work-from-home days once we go back.  I think it will bring a better life balance.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that has impacted the world more meaningfully than ever. How is your organization “walking the talk’ and making a difference?

Black Lives Matter started a lot of conversations in our organization.  We are taking active steps.  We are a small company (~60 employees) but have a fairly diverse employee-base.  When things were escalating last year we took time to address all of our employees to reinforce that we support diversity initiatives and are open to ideas and changes that support diversity.  We appointed our first woman to our Board of Directors in 2020 and are in the process of recruiting more as well as specifically seeking more diverse candidates.  We talk to our recruiters about how they will identify underrepresented candidates in their recruiting efforts.  We have talked to our outside counsel about diversity in the teams they are providing to us.  We recognize Martin Luther Kings Jr’s birthday as well as Juneteenth so employees have a moment to pause and reflect on these days.  We have been supportive when employees have brought cultural activity requests to our attention such as providing meeting space, food and offering education for those who may not be aware of those cultural differences or want to learn about different cultures.  We don’t mandate that people participate but we extend an open invitation to those who want to attend. We can do a lot more and I’m hopeful we’ll continue to walk the talk as we grow.

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