Karen Talmadge: Lessons learned in perseverance, priorities, and partnership

A successful year of Biodesign Alumni Women’s Group Tableside chats culminates with Kyphon co-founder and inspirational Medtech leader / innovator Karen Talmadge.

On a recent plane ride, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the offerings on the personal entertainment system (conveniently located only 18 inches away from my face) included TED talks. I had been meaning to watch “Why we have too few women leaders”, given by Sheryl Sandberg, former VP at Google and current COO of Facebook. I had just read a Businessweek article featuring Sandberg a few days prior that piqued my interest in the Silicon Valley powerhouse. In her TED talk, she spews a number of disheartening facts showing that women are still struggling to make it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world: there are 190 heads of state and only 9 are women, women hold only 16% (at best) of top-level corporate jobs, two-thirds of married senior-management-level males have children while only one-third of married senior-management-level females have children, and, perhaps most discouraging of all, the numbers have not changed since 2002 and are, in fact, moving in the wrong direction.

Sandberg is convinced that the main culprit is women dropping out of the workforce. She offers three commanding messages to those who plan to stay: 1) sit at the table, 2) make your partner a real partner, and 3) don’t leave before you leave. In brief and butchered paraphrase: 1) participate, believe in your talent, and reach for the opportunities that you deserve, 2) make equality at home (data shows that if a woman and a man work full-time and have a child, the woman does twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of child care that the man does), and 3) don’t take your foot off the gas pedal career-wise because you are planning to start a family (9 months down the road? 2 years down the road? “Someday”?).

One of the things that stuck with me about the Businessweek article was the mention that Sandberg hosts what she calls “Women in Silicon Valley” events at her Atherton home every few weeks. Doctors, teachers, and techies gather in her living room with plates of food on their laps to listen to guest business speakers like Geena Davis, Billie Jean King, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rupert Murdoch. These events are highlights for those who are lucky enough to be invited.

A little more than a year ago, the Biodesign Alumni Women’s Group aimed to take on a similar feat for itself (in the vein of Tableside chats): invite women Medtech leaders to share their insights and career decisions with Biodesign alumni women who were in the early stages of their own careers. It started in April 2010 with Ferolyn Powell (eValve/Abbott) and has since grown to include Beverly Huss (Vibrynt), Gwen Watanabe (Hotspur), Lisa Earnhardt (Intersect ENT), and Mika Mayer (Morrison Foerster). The lessons learned have been priceless, and the perspectives varied, showing that there’s not just one way to be successful in medical devices.

After a number of fantastic guests, six Biodesign alumni (of both genders!) were fortunate enough to sit down to dinner in San Francisco with Dr. Karen Talmadge for the final Biodesign Alumni Women’s Group-sponsored Tableside chat of the year. Karen co-founded Kyphon, a minimally-invasive spine company, and took it from the early phases of IP generation and filing to final acquisition by Medtronic in 2007. She has since been named the Vice Chair of the National Board of the American Diabetes Association and sits on the boards of 4 companies. When I asked the attendees to submit their thoughts on the evening, some of the insights that resonated with the group were actually not too dissimilar from those in Sandberg’s TED talk (while of course focusing on Medtech-related wisdom):

  • Sit at the table: Karen was definitely a passionate participant in all of Kyphon’s activities, from IP generation to fundraising. She reinforced what we all learned from Biodesign: “file early and often”, citing that IP can be the best value-add investment in the early stages. In terms of raising support for Kyphon’s concepts, her persistence is legendary. She never gave up, but she also emphasized that you can be passionate and objective at the same time. She advised us to look at our ideas objectively and address any issues that come up in an unbiased manner. Be thoughtful and have a plan for answering each concern; find ways to reduce risk. It is this honesty and ability to analyze things in a neutral way that gives her so much credibility to investors, her board, and key opinion leaders.
  • Make your partner a real partner: When asked about work / life balance, Karen told us to know what’s important. She pointed out that, in a family, the burden doesn’t just lie upon one person to “figure everything out” – you are a team with your spouse, and you should plan and make decisions together.
  • Don’t leave before you leave: Having two young children didn’t stop Karen from taking a risk and rolling up her sleeves to face the early days of starting a company. From a personal perspective, this fact alone may be the most inspirational take-away from the evening. While Kyphon is widely considered to be one of the decade’s biggest medical device success stories, Karen’s unspoken legacy will be having shown her kids, and us aspiring medical device entrepreneurs, how she did it all.
  • The patient’s need is the #1 priority: Kyphon was a major game-changer, so of course it was met with resistance. Karen’s unwavering belief that the innovation would be a huge benefit to patients was what kept the project going. Always keeping the patient in mind set the tone for the entire structure of Kyphon – from the company culture to the device design to the way that the device was rolled-out and distributed. As one attendee noted, “When you put the patient first, all else flows from that: satisfying physicians, investors.”
  • Communicate. Well.  Karen commented on the fact that she would talk to her board members on a regular basis and always kept them informed. These open lines of communication helped them build their confidence in her. On the flipside, she spoke about the importance of listening to her employees and what they were telling her about what was going on at any given time. This not only facilitated effective problem-solving but forged strong personal connections as well. She demonstrated her natural talent by asking us about what challenges we were facing in our current responsibilities and offering perceptive tidbits of tailored advice. Finally, she illustrated the importance of asking the right questions. For example, to physicians, don’t ask, “Do you think this is going to work?” but instead ask, “If this works, will you use it?”

Thanks to all of the attendees for contributing to the lively and rousing conversation as well as this blog post, and, most importantly, much appreciation and gratitude to Karen for her words of wisdom and encouragement!

Link to Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk: “Why we have too few women leaders”

Link to Businessweek Article: “Why Facebook Needs Sheryl Sandberg”

Link to ADA article: “Karen Talmadge, PhD: Supporting Research in Honor of Her Daughter”

2 responses to Karen Talmadge: Lessons learned in perseverance, priorities, and partnership

  1. Letter from the President, 2012 « Biodesign Alumni

    […] – Erik van der Burg (Siesta Medical and Founder of Ignyte Bioventures), Ken Martin (Sadra), Karen Talmadge (Kyphon), Stephen Oesterle (Medtronic), Lisa Earnhardt (Intersect ENT), Reza Zadno (Visiogen), and […]

  2. Ben Rombaoa (@benrombaoa)

    I worked at Kyphon from 2000 to 2006. I was employee number three within the IT organization. How can I forget Karen, she’s soft spoken, cares about employees and most of all very driven and inspiring. Good luck with all your new adventures Karen.

    Ben R.


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