MD-turned-investor on failing fast and gender equity in the workplace: Sara Nayeem of NEA

Sara Nayeem is a Partner at New Enterprise Associates (NEA), where she focuses on investments in biopharmaceutical companies. Her investment career is brimming with high-profile biotech companies, including Loxo Oncology, Tesaro, and Nightstar, which have all been acquired in the past few years. She was included on Fierce Biotech’s 2019 list of the Fiercest Women in Life Sciences and was selected three times as one of GrowthCap’s Top 40 Under 40 Growth Investors. Prior to NEA, she was an Associate at Merrill Lynch’s Global Healthcare Group and completed her MD/MBA at Yale. In our podcast interview with her, she talked about what makes for a successful venture, steps that entrepreneurs need to take before starting their own companies, and what we can do to eliminate biases and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in our workplaces.

Highlights of our conversation include:

“You have to really think through what is the killer experiment, as we call it, that tells you, ‘Yes, this is worth going forward.’”

Dr. Nayeem discussed the importance of critically evaluating your idea, and trying to address a serious unmet need. Many entrepreneurs tend to go after big indications — heart attacks, diabetes — that are of high value because of how many patients are affected by these conditions. But standard of care for these disorders is already relatively good. Because of this, long, large, expensive trials are needed for regulatory approval, as there is a high bar for new treatments. More important for pitching to potential investors is highlighting the advantages of a novel technology over current standard of care. Another vital consideration is the amount of time and capital you have to put in before you know if your technology or molecule will actually work.

You want to fail sooner rather than later, before you put a lot of your time and effort into it. You can learn a lot from these early efforts on things that fail.”

Dr. Sara Nayeem speaking about the future of healthcare and healthcare investing at the STAT Summit. Photo courtesy of STAT News.

“We have a long way to go, but I am encouraged by the strides we’ve made.”

Dr. Nayeem highlighted that education is a critical part of any effort in eradicating gender bias. In addition, practices in hiring and promotion need to be adjusted to break the cycle of lack of representation of women in healthcare leadership. For example, names are part of a resume that can trigger implicit biases against women or people of minority groups, so one method of reducing bias is to remove names and other such indicators from sets of resumes before they are evaluated. Another method that Dr. Nayeem mentioned is clearly defining the criteria and expectations for a role before interviewing candidates. This would prevent hiring committees from subconsciously prioritizing a certain quality in hiring considerations just because it is the quality that a male candidate has versus a female candidate. Dr. Nayeem also emphasized looking to pivot hires to be a bit more junior, as women and minorities are better represented at more junior levels, thereby diversifying executive positions.

“By saying, We’ll pivot this to a junior hire, we’ll put in place more training and mentorship, we’ll try to grow this company from within… By definition, you’re building a more diverse group.”

Interested in starting your own venture and want to learn from an investor? Check out Spotlight on Women in Healthcare Ventures on Spotify and Anchor!

Theia is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to inspiring and empowering the next generation of women entrepreneurs and investors in healthcare. Visit our website to join our community and access resources that will support your entrepreneurial journey and pursuit of changing healthcare.

Story written by Luiza Perez and Priya Kumar.

Theia is a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs and investors in healthcare.