Words by Isabel O'Brien
Christi Shaw, former CEO, Kite, a Gilead Company, talks to Isabel O’Brien about her early influences for entering the pharmaceutical industry, what drives her passion for developing cell therapies and her personal and professional goals for the future
On 17 February 2023, Christi Shaw announced she was leaving her role as CEO of Kite, a Gilead company. It was a role for which she had a profound passion and a drive that was evident in the results she delivered. During her nearly four-year tenure, Kite became the undisputed world leader in CAR T-cell therapy, and the number of patients treated grew exponentially.
“There is no good time to end a labour of love, but I feel I have accomplished what I came to do,” Shaw reveals. For this pharma leader, driving access to innovative cancer treatments is personal. In recent years, she has cared for and lost two close family members to the disease, giving her an intimate understanding of the struggles patients and their families go through. “We need to take the burden off patients and make the patient experience as easy as possible,” she urges, “because patients are already dealing with so many physical, mental and emotional challenges.”
In addition to her work within the industry, Shaw is a co-founder of the More Moments More Memories Foundation alongside her younger sister, Shelley. The organisation helps people and their families with travel, lodging and meal expenses in order to have access to oncology clinical trials for potentially life-saving treatments. She is also an advocate for gender parity in her role as a board member of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association.
As a leader, Shaw believes that work done outside the professional world is just as important as what’s done inside it. “Your true north isn’t just about your job,” she says, “it’s defined by your purpose and how you live your life in fulfilment of that purpose.”
What led you to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry?
I was raised on a farm by a father who was in corporate America and a mother who was extremely philanthropic, always helping with the neighbours, school, community and church. So, when I was a junior in high school and my science teacher spoke about his brother who worked in pharma, I thought it was a great way to use the business skills I had learned from my father in combination with the passion to help others that my mother had instilled in me.
Access to innovative therapies helped my sister live longer, and I’ll always be grateful
During my senior year of high school, and through my undergraduate studies at Iowa State University, I worked as a pharmacy technician because having pharmacy experience was required for one of the companies where I wanted to work. After earning my bachelor’s degree in business administration from Iowa State, I started work as a detail representative, a role that educated doctors about the company’s products, while simultaneously earning my MBA. My career in the industry has spanned over 15 therapeutic areas and includes 13 years in oncology. I’ve had responsibilities across broad operations including R&D, commercialisation, manufacturing and supply chain and business development, along with general and administrative functions.
How did the experience of growing up on a farm in Iowa prepare you for the world of business?
The farm is actually a side business so growing up everyone in our family helped operate it. I remember tending to cattle, fixing fences, baling hay and pulling rocks out of the field. It wasn’t an easy job, nor one that was typical during that time for women or girls, but we didn’t have brothers. It prepared me to work hard and also showed me that women are more than capable of working a role that’s historically been considered a man’s job – and with that, empowered me to take charge of my career. Seeing my parents manage the farm alongside their other jobs also showed me that you can wear more than one hat and take on roles outside of your primary job while still being successful in your career. For example, outside of work, I still manage the farms in Iowa with my younger sister and niece. I’m also a mother and a wife.
How can life-changing cell therapies be made more widely available?
When I first joined Kite in 2019, we were treating a few hundred patients with CAR T. Now, Kite has treated nearly 13,000 patients with two CAR T-cell therapies approved in multiple indications. Cell therapy is very different than other kinds of pharmaceuticals, especially in manufacturing as these therapies are individually made for each patient. Scaling manufacturing, and doing so quickly and reliably, is critical to ensuring access. There’s also still a lack of awareness about the curative potential of CAR T, and only a fraction of eligible patients are actually being referred to receive the therapy.
We all need to work together across the ecosystem to improve awareness and access for patients and their caregivers, and to ensure that community oncologists can identify patients who may benefit from CAR T and refer them to authorised treatment centres in a timely manner. While we work to increase awareness, we need to empower patients to get involved in their treatment journeys and ask about different treatment options.
What is your advice to women on how to win equal opportunities and pay with their male counterparts?
It’s important to utilise your network whether it be for referrals, career advice or mentorship opportunities. Network with those in your company, reach out to people outside of your company who you admire and want to get to know. Early on, I had a manager who encouraged networking and helped me see the value of it from a new perspective. Once I realised that networking is so much more than just hearing other people’s experiences – that it’s really a two-way road to share and learn from what each of us bring to the table so that we can all improve – it really changed my frame of mind. Organisations like the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association have also been essential in advancing the impact of women in the industry and connecting them with mentors who have been in their shoes.
It's important to utilise your network
What have you learned through the founding of the More Moments More Memories Foundation?
My mother and my sister were the inspiration to create the More Moments More Memories Foundation. My sister, Sherry, provided at-home hospice care for our mother following her battle with breast cancer. Later on, I became the caregiver to Sherry when she received her multiple myeloma diagnosis. After discovering that my younger sister, Shelley, was a donor match for Sherry and I was not, Shelley also became a caregiver for Sherry. I have lived through the ups and downs of supporting a seriously ill loved one, as have so many of us, but it isn’t easy.
With my mother and my sister, I learned things about the patient experience that I never knew or thought of – even after decades of working in the pharmaceutical industry. That’s why the Foundation’s goal is to help patients access innovative treatments and clinical trials so they can have more quality time with their loved ones. Access to innovative therapies helped my sister live longer, and I’ll always be grateful for the special moments we otherwise may not have had, such as having her at my younger sister’s wedding to walk her down the aisle and meeting her first two grandchildren.
Now you have left Kite Pharma, what are your professional and personal goals for the future?
Leading Kite to bring eligible patients a potential cure to cancer has truly been the highlight of my career due to the very personal nature of cell therapy and the hope has that it can provide patients with certain blood cancers. With every decision I make, whether it is career driven or personal, I’m always focused on how it relates to my true north star. Outside of my career, there are so many aspects of my life that are consistent with my true north, whether it be my work with the More Moments More Memories Foundation, mentoring the next generation of pharma and biotech leaders, being a role model for others on prioritising family and friends, or my continued work in soil conservation and forest preservation in Iowa. No matter where my journey takes me next, these responsibilities will continue to be core focal points for me, in addition to tackling new challenges that align to my true north.
This feature appears in GOLD 27 – read the full issue here.