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I interviewed Jackie Fairley for the now defunct Vive Magazine,  a magazine for Australian business women. 


Jackie Fairley profile

Position: CEO

Company: Starpharma

Length of time in the position: two years

What makes the workplace a better place to be: “It’s got to be fun. You have to create a healthy working environment, but you also need a cohesive group of people who can work together effectively and enjoy it.”

The title of CEO is a rather daunting one, conjuring up the image of a very large office whose occupant can only be disturbed for matters of utmost importance. Details such as reviewing research and day-to-day organisation are surely left to those down the management chain. But when asked to describe her role, Jackie Fairley begins, “We’re a small company and I get involved in things that I’m sure CEOs of larger companies don’t. An important part of my role is interfacing with the investment community; I’m also involved in the negotiation of commercial arrangements, the oversight of our research programs, and there’s a big component of financial management. But also the organisational stuff—that’s probably a key part of it all.” When I suggest that she’s involved in just about everything, she laughs, but acknowledges that it’s probably a fair description.

Raised in a family where both parents and both brothers were doctors, Fairley shares the family passion for health and science, providing her with an understanding of Starpharma’s technology and its commercial applications—critical for the CEO role. Her belief in biotech’s potential is obvious, no more so than when talking about VivaGel, a new generation spermicide with the potential to inactivate viruses including HIV and genital herpes. Currently in clinical trials, this water-based microbicidal gel has attracted a lot of interest, with the US NIH, ‘the nation’s medical research agency’, investing more than US$20 million and Bill Gates calling microbiocides ‘the silver bullet’ to stopping sexually transmitted infections. As Fairley says: “It gives you quite a buzz to work with a product that has the potential to be transformational in allowing women to control their own health outcomes for really important, life-threatening diseases, to actually offer a solution where nothing exists now. Vaccines don’t work; these are lifelong diseases that are pretty unpleasant and in the case of HIV, fatal, and we really have nothing to protect women apart from condoms.”

As one of Australia’s most respected biotechnology leaders, and one of a handful of female CEOs in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Fairley has come a long way despite putting her career progression down to opportunities rather than planning. And it appears to have developed all the better for it, at least in hindsight. She completed her first degree in pharmacology and pathology before making the ‘slightly rebellious’ decision to study veterinary science. After a couple of years in practice, she developed her interest in the commercial side of pharmaceuticals through a role with Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, before becoming Vice President of business development with Faulding Pharmaceuticals. The move into biotechnology began with her appointment as CEO of private company Cerylid Biosciences, before she moved on to the publicly listed Starpharma in 2005.

Fairley’s job entails a lot of overseas travel, teleconferences at odd hours and hard work, all of which she expects in a senior management position. And although she admits that “there are never enough hours in the day”, this has been the case for her entire career. For life to operate effectively, organisation is key, especially since the birth of her son and daughter, now ten and eight. Being able to identify what she can and can’t influence—from stock market jitters to the location of a child’s shoes—and marshal her energy appropriately has been an ongoing lesson. As she puts it: “there are so many things that can play on your mind and take up your time. If you’re going to be effective, you have to focus as much as you can on things that you really can influence.”

This acceptance of limits extends into her home, with the assistance of a nanny critical for a functioning family and a reasonably balanced life. Fairley acknowledges the ‘relief valve’ of “having the peace of mind that you don’t need to think about whether someone will remember to pick your child up from school. I know that someone else is worrying about it and she is completely competent in doing so, far more than I.” Her mother was a trailblazer—the first woman to be a professor at Melbourne University; chair of the World Medical Association; and chair of the Australian Medical Association—and a role model to many, including her daughter. “My mother had always worked and my father was always supportive, so I guess I went into a working career with children with a different paradigm. And I think that’s all important. People like to look around and say okay, well that person has done what I would like to do and the sky hasn’t fallen in. I don’t know whether that is peculiar to women, but I think it gives people confidence to give it a go.”

Megan Holbeck