Myrtle Potter, Serial Entrepreneur in Healthcare Technology: There is No Substitute for Smarts & Passion

Myrtle Potter is one of America’s foremost healthcare leaders and innovators. She operates Myrtle Potter & Company, LLC, a life science and healthcare advisory firm with clients that include global public and private healthcare corporations, venture capitalists, private equity groups and boards of directors. 

The firm is known for devising novel business strategies to accelerate top-line growth and profitability of their clients. Myrtle also operates Myrtle Potter Media, Inc., a consumer healthcare technology company that helps patients and caregivers navigate the U.S. healthcare system. 

Prior to becoming an entrepreneur Myrtle was the COO and president of Commercial Operations at Genentech, president, Cardiovascular/ Metabolics at Bristol-Meyers Squibb and vice president at Merck.  She also started the drug company Astra/Merck that was later acquired by Zeneca to form Astra/Zeneca.

Myrtle’s business and healthcare leadership has been hailed by America’s most influential business publications, including BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, FORTUNE Magazine, TIME Magazine, Forbes, Black Enterprise Magazine and Harvard Business Review.  She was named to FORTUNE Magazine’s list of Most Powerful Women in Business for three consecutive years.  Myrtle is also referenced in more than twenty business and leadership books and is a regular business commentator on CNBC.  She is a 1980 graduate of the University of Chicago.

We spoke to Myrtle about how a near-death tragedy turned her into an entrepreneur; the leadership lesson she learned the hard way; and the motto she lives by.

TNW: You founded Myrtle Potter & Company and Myrtle Potter Media after a near tragedy.  Was there one inspired moment in which you decided to use your difficult experience for the benefit of others? As the impetus for your change of career, how do you look back at those events now?

MP: In early 2005 I spent several months fighting for my life.  My kidneys were in complete failure and my lungs and liver were also failing. I was losing my skin in sheets and I was down 30 pounds as my body fed on itself to keep me alive.  The diagnosis?  “Unknown”.  In a desperate effort to save my life I was forced to fire the lead doctor caring for me.  It wasn’t until I hired a new doctor to take over my care that it was discovered that the cause of rapid decline was a life-threatening allergic reaction to a medication.  It took me over a year to fully recover.  

What I realized from this horrific experience was if I -- a person with 30 years experience in the healthcare industry -- could get ensnared in our healthcare system, then something big needed to be done with the system to better serve those who depend on it.  As a first move, I formed Myrtle Potter & Company, a life science and healthcare advisory company that serves public and private biopharmaceutical and healthcare services companies.  A few years later I started Myrtle Potter Media.  This company develops, produces and distributes content designed to help patients navigate the healthcare system.

I look back on those events as life changing.  

My near-death tragedy gave me the insight and the renewed passion to help the healthcare care industry as it struggles with some of the most complex challenges seen in recent decades.  

At the same time I am committed to helping consumers by taking the mystery of getting their needs met in the healthcare system.

I lived through my tragedy with the healthcare system and saw the gaps in our system directly and personally.  I was motivated to start these businesses in the hope of making real differences in how companies provide care and in how consumers secure care.

TNW: How did it feel to leave the security of a corporate role and strike out on your own? Since then, what have you most enjoyed about running your own company?

MP: I had been in corporate America since I was 19 years old.  It was the only world I knew and leaving it was extremely difficult.  The first thing I did was over estimate my abilities as it relates to the skills needed to run your own company.  

It took me two years to realize that I only had about 50% of the skills that are required to be a truly successful entrepreneur.  

The other 50% I learned by making a lot of mistakes and posing a lot of questions to those who were coaching me.  

What I enjoy most about being an entrepreneur is seeing the direct impact that my companies have on the healthcare sector and on consumers.  Forming Myrtle Potter & Company has allowed us to play a very pivotal role in addressing some of the biggest issues in the healthcare and with Myrtle Potter Media we touch and help consumers everyday.  I am very proud of that.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of Myrtle Potter & Company ad Myrtle Potter Media?

MP: Technology is very important to Myrtle Potter & Company because we have a distributed work force. While I understand the need for “company headquarters”, I believe our team needs to be physically close to our customers.  We increasingly look for more productive ways to communicate with each other real time, because oftentimes a business issue cannot wait for someone to get on a plane.  So we have worked very hard to establish a distributed network of employees and the IT systems to support that.  For Myrtle Potter Media, all of our content is distributed digitally.  Given the nature of our digital distribution model, technology is at the core of this business.

TNW: Which aspects of Myrtle Potter & Company make you most proud?

I am most proud of Myrtle Potter & Company’s ability to take on and solve big issues for our clients. Most often we get problems that our clients have found too complex to handle on their own.  

I am also proud that the federal government has reached out to us because of our reputation for solving complex problems in healthcare.  

We make a difference in the lives of patients and we make a real difference in a healthcare company’s ability to prosper.

TNW: What is next for Myrtle Potter & Company? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

MP: As we grow we grow our technology platform.  Our distributed work model has required that we think differently about how we store data, and how we make data accessible to our team members in our distributed network.  It has also led us to build Practice excellence around the use of digital technology in healthcare to advance the goals of our customers.  One big example is how we are helping our clients develop their digital strategies for serving consumers.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

MP: I have great appreciation and respect for DWEN.  This is a community of women who genuinely care about each other, and who also care very much about each other’s businesses.  

The women in this unique network are all entrepreneurs dealing with big issues -- everything from sourcing challenges, to technology challenges, to funding challenges.   

I am impressed that Dell has so boldly committed to female entrepreneurs. Dell got it!!  They understood before many others that women are a major source of job growth and prosperity for this country.

TNW: You now have two distinct companies, Myrtle Potter & Company and Myrtle Potter Media.  How long after the first company did you found the second and why? What is the distinct need for each?

MP: I founded Myrtle Potter Media a few years after Myrtle Potter & Company because I really felt there was an opportunity to find real solutions that could serve the needs of consumers, who were like me at the time I was most ill, and struggling to get through the healthcare system. I also saw great strides being made by the federal government to expand access to healthcare to 30-35 million more Americans.  At the same time I knew there was a great shift happening in that healthcare responsibility has been shifted squarely onto the shoulder of consumers. 

Our research at Myrtle Potter Media has show very clearly that 90% of consumers are not prepared when they are entangled in difficult situations that involve healthcare.  Our Myrtle Potter branded products are a trusted source for consumers as they work their way through the system.

TNW: Whilst you were President of Commercial Operations at Genentech revenue grew five-fold, to $5 billion. How did you achieve this phenomenal growth and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to grow their business?

My experience at Genentech was the most rewarding of my professional career.  I was fortunate to work at the organization during a time of great scientific advancement.  
The first thing I was able to do in helping the company grow so quickly was to co-lead the team that determined which drugs would (and would not) advance through the product development pipeline. These were complex scientific and financial decisions that required significant input from many experts within and outside the company.  At the same time I had the great fortune to lead the commercialization of the company’s great product portfolio.  

My advice to entrepreneurs for growing their business is make sure you are building something that someone wants.  It sounds simple but you would be surprised at how many products I see where there is no market need/ want.  

My second piece of advice is to surround yourself with the brightest, most committed people you can find to advance your business.  There is no substitute for smarts and passion.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why? What is one lesson about leadership you have learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you in the beginning?

MP: My leadership style has become more relaxed over time.  Some of this has come with age and experience but my style also relaxed as I have became better at deciding what warranted my attention and what didn’t.  I am much more discerning about what I give my time and attention to.  I know what really matters for my businesses and personal life and I know what doesn’t.  I stay very clear-minded in this regard.

The one lesson I learned the hard way was there is no substitute for making the right hiring decision.  Early on in my career I thought I could hire “B” level talent and be successful.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  My error in judgment resulted in some tough early lessons that were imprinted on me.  

Most every time I see a business failing to achieve its potential the root cause is tied to the the business failing to hire “A” level talent.

TNW: What did you learn from having an entrepreneur for a father? If your children decided to become entrepreneurs, what advice would you give them, to safeguard their happiness and success?

MP: My father taught me value of cash flow. I saw him, I saw his business, and I understood cash flow.  My father is also a generous man, and I remember when his business didn’t have great cash flow or large revenues.   Yet, when people in our community came to him for help he always found a way to give.  I learned the power of giving early on and it is a lesson I have passed on to my children.

If my children were embarking on a path of entrepreneurship I would advise them to be very thoughtful and diligent about researching the people and entities with whom they decided to do business.  

Collaborations, partnerships and business agreements that are built on a foundation of mutual benefit, understanding and trust have the greatest likelihood of being successful.

TNW: Do you have a motto that sums up your approach to business and to life?

I live by one motto:  Make a Difference.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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