Fearless Ferolyn, Remembered

ferolyn powellA year ago this month, our community tragically and prematurely lost one of its greatest leaders. In honor of Ferolyn, and to keep her strong spirit of mentorship alive, we decided to revisit this blog post from 2010 [reprinted in full below]. Back then, little did I know that what we wrote would still be one of the highest-ranking hits on Google under Ferolyn’s name and that it would even be quoted in one of her obituaries. Back then, the MedTechWomen organization was in its infancy, and these Biodesign Alumni Tableside Chat events were one of the only ways for us to glean such meaningful advice from mentors like Ferolyn.

Last September, at the 5th annual MedTechVision Conference, MedTechWomen introduced the first annual Ferolyn Powell Leadership Award. Ferolyn was its first recipient. Liz McDermott, Ferolyn’s sister, accepted the award on her behalf. In her acceptance speech, Liz said of Ferolyn, “Ferolyn was special in many ways, but what made her such an incredible leader was the way in which she naturally balanced her intensity and drive for achieving goals with her genuine love of people and her compassion and care for those she worked with. Ferolyn deeply understood the importance of surrounding herself with talented people who she could learn from, as well as empower to be successful. She knew this would be the path to achieving goals that you might think were unachievable. She set high standards. Then, she pushed you to exceed them. Don’t think for a minute it wasn’t hard!” Hearing those words took me right back to that Tableside Chat with Ferolyn. Her tenacious spirit was undeniable. Liz continued of Ferolyn, “Beyond her insatiable curiosity, and her ability to see a clear path, was her ability to inspire people. To make them achieve things they thought were never possible. Ferolyn didn’t like “can’t” statements. To her, the word can’t was an invitation to explore, to say “why not!”, and then find a way to make it happen… Ferolyn generously gave of her time and talents and mentored many entrepreneurs. I have been astonished at the number of women who have come forward to tell me how Ferolyn inspired them to follow their passion, to be confident in themselves and to make a difference in the world.”

In that spirit, we asked some MedTech leaders close to Ferolyn which of the “lessons learned” from that Tableside Chat resonated the most with them in the hopes that their advice, inspired by Ferolyn’s original words, would continue to inspire and encourage others.

So much of that article that resonates with my lessons from Ferolyn, particularly in terms of confidence. No doubt it’s a complex world out there, and it can be daunting at times, but never for Ferolyn. I think Ferolyn’s confidence was rooted in her ability to cut through the noise to address the simplicity that lies at the core of any problem, whether technical, business, or interpersonal. She also didn’t take (and certainly would not permit!) shortcuts. Though tempting, she reminds us just how much confidence can be derived by setting the right course and remaining true to that vision.

“Tenacious” and “powerhouse” are spot on, and these same qualities are what made her such a great mentor. If there’s one gift Ferolyn left us, it’s the license to face the world as we understand it, trust our instincts, and learn from our mistakes.

–Jonathan Coe [’11-’12 Fellow], President & CEO of Prescient Surgical

Ferolyn was special in so many ways. I had the good fortune to meet her during the early days of Evalve. She was initially brought in as the Chief Operating Officer, but within a very short time, she demonstrated the skill set to be promoted to CEO and run the whole project. She directed the project through to its approval by the FDA 12 years later. Ferolyn lead with a remarkable combination of dogged passion and determination combined with humor and sensitivity. She demanded a lot of herself and inspired those around her to also strive for high levels of quality and success. Once done with Evalve, she continued to mentor a whole new generation of innovators and young CEOs. Her legacy will live on for years though the patients and their families who continue to benefit from her extensive work on the MitraClip and the numerous young innovators whom she influenced. She believed that by putting the patients and their outcomes first, success would follow. For me and all who knew her, she will always have a special place in our hearts.

— Fred St. Goar, Co-Founder of Evalve

The lesson that jumps off the page for me is “Confidence is King.” Here is why: my dad was a southern high school football coach who always said you have to be confident in how to use your own strengths to win, regardless of what the other team does. That kind of confidence simultaneously allows you to take on things you don’t know how to do, while forcing self-awareness of your own limits — and great leaders use that type of confidence to build great teams. To me, it is the very foundation of what Ferolyn was talking about here.

— Deb Kilpatrick, CEO of Evidation Health, Co-Founder MedTechWomen

I had the chance to know Ferolyn for a fair part of her career and there is one other attribute I would highlight (most closely related to your point about company culture). It’s this: Ferolyn was one of the most trustworthy people I have ever encountered — in the industry or elsewhere. The characteristics you outline in the blog that made Ferolyn a great woman entrepreneur – confidence, “going out and getting what you want” –  worked for her because she was genuinely motivated by solid values, including her focus on patient care. People trusted her – and it was the basis for both her success and her remarkable impact.

— Paul Yock, Director of Biodesign

When Deb Kilpatrick introduced the Ferolyn Powell Leadership Award at MedTechVision, I remember Deb saying that Ferolyn always encouraged her to be generous with her time when it came to mentoring young women and young entrepreneurs. In a room full of incredible and seasoned MedTech visionaries, I hope that message rang clear. The point in the New York Times article quoted in the original blog post still remains true: without mentors and role models to relate to, it can be difficult to see a successful path forward. If nothing else, we hope that in the memory of Ferolyn, the Biodesign and MedTech communities will continue to lead by strong example and foster rich mentorships that allow the next generation of MedTech greats to “achieve things they never thought were possible.” Kudos to Ferolyn for being at the center of that movement; her passion and energy will be sorely missed but fondly remembered.


Fearless Ferolyn: Lessons Learned

original post date: May 13, 2010

Recently, good friend and fellow alum Dorothea Koh (’07-’08) shared an interesting New York Times article titled “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley”. The piece described the hurdles that still exist for women in (and striving for) successful positions in the tech sector. According to the article, women own 40 percent of the private businesses in the United States, but they make up only 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies. The disparity seems huge when it comes to technology-based entrepreneurship: women create only 8 percent of the venture-backed tech start-ups and make up only 14 percent of venture capitalists. Similarly, a separate Harvard Business School study has shown that only 5 percent of venture-backed biotech companies have a female CEO. Interestingly, research cited in the New York Times article has found that venture-backed start-ups run by women achieve comparable early-year revenues using an average of 40 percent less capital than those run by their male counterparts, are more likely to survive the transition from raw start-up to established company, and are increasingly involved in successful IPOs.

So what gives?

According to the article, it all comes down to role models. Anu Shukla, the founder of three successful start-ups, was quoted as saying, “There aren’t enough women entrepreneurs because they don’t see enough women entrepreneurs ahead of them and successful.” Likewise, Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo, noted, “As you look around the entry-level management positions, even just the ranks of engineers or product people, there just aren’t many women, so therefore, mathematically, it tells you it’s impossible for them to move up and run something.”

Luckily for us, we are surrounded by positive role models in the medical device industry. Even luckier, they sometimes agree to have dinner with us.

A few weeks ago, 7 Biodesign women had the unique opportunity to sit down with Ferolyn Powell, CEO of Evalve. Ferolyn has successfully taken Evalve from concept to product and through four rounds of venture financing to final acquisition by Abbott. Throughout the night, there were a number of insights that really seemed to resonate with the group:

  • Confidence is King (or should we say, “Queen”): When I asked the group to submit their thoughts on the evening, the words that were used to describe Ferolyn were things like “tenacious” and “powerhouse”. Her confidence in her abilities is palpable (in the most positive, refreshing way). It has led her to be honest with herself in her development areas and accept positions where she knew her hard work, intelligence, and dynamic management style would prove herself worthy of rapid upward movement.
  • Know what you want: While she admits that “CEO” was not in her vocabulary growing up in small-town Ohio, Ferolyn has demonstrated the importance of knowing what it was that she wanted to get out of each opportunity along the way. From new positions to the selling of Evalve, she always had the end-goal in mind.
  • … and then go get it! When it came to negotiating what she wanted, she never backed down. Many attendees commented on how impressed they were with her stories of negotiating the acquisition by Abbott. One wrote that the best take-home message from that narrative was, “know what you are worth, and don’t doubt it. Fight for what you believe in and what you deserve, the right deal will come.”
  • Don’t forget why you’re here: Ferolyn commented that during TCT last year, while everyone was buzzing about the acquisition, she was most focused and excited about Evalve’s EVEREST trial results that were being presented. This was a great reminder to take stock and remember why we are doing what we’re doing in the first place. While there is so much exhilaration that comes with the entrepreneurial aspect of medical device innovation, it is the original motivation of working toward patient benefit that will bring the true thrill. Without that motivation, those other things that make this industry so stimulating will never be realized.
  • Create your company culture: Ferolyn spoke to what she looked for in new hires and the people she chooses to surround herself with. Like her, she looks for positive, hard-working, “get the job done” attitudes. She made the important point that “you’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people,”  so having a good fit within the company culture is paramount to a successful work environment. Up until very recently, Ferolyn personally interviewed the final candidates for every position. E-v-e-r-y position. This spoke to how important each employee is in executing the core values and making the company culture a living reality. Now that she is unable to interview everyone, she has people that she trusts as good judges of character and who deeply understand the company values interview the candidates in order to continue building a strong team.
  • A final golden nugget: “You need to create a record of success.” No matter how small or large the task, whether professional or personal, this seems like a pretty good one to live by.

Thanks to the 7 other fantastic and fearless women who made the evening a huge success and for their contributions to this post, and most importantly, thanks to Ferolyn for her inspiration!


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