How Mentorship, Networking and Visibility are Changing the Game for Women in Healthcare


    Tired of looking at company board member photos or conference panels and seeing a wall of male faces? One online platform is working to change that with the help of mentorship, networking and visibility.

    A recent Forbes article featured several online female-focused organizations that are changing the professional networking landscape.  They all create a place for women to find authentic personal and professional relationships, away from advertisers, something they aren’t able to find on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

    But is professional networking enough? CSweetener is a holistic female-focused organization that’s changing the game for senior level women in healthcare. Rooted in mentorship, networking and visibility, CSweetener helps propel executive women forward and into the C-Suite. The organization is built around its mentors: hundreds of talented and accomplished healthcare industry veterans who have the desire and wherewithal to give back and help talented women succeed.

    “Our brand promise is that we connect rising stars in healthcare—women already advanced in their careers and on their way to the C-Suite—with talented and experienced healthcare industry leaders who are committed to helping propel women leaders into the C-Suite,” said Anne Bentley, executive director of CSweetener.

    CSweetener was founded by Lisa Suennen and Lisa Serwin, two healthcare C-Suite executives who were challenged in their first roles in the C-Suite and wished they’d had access to mentors. So they pulled together their rolodexes and formed a roster of mentors with the intent to help women accelerate into the C-Suite via mentorship. And CSweetener was born.

    But instead of focusing on helping women find one mentor, Suennen and Serwin wanted to go big. “Not just a mentor,” said Bentley, “but a variety of experienced and accomplished industry veterans who could guide them on their journey to and into the C-Suite, because the journey is rarely linear, and one needs different skills at varying points along the way.

    “It’s rare that one mentor can fit all needs; more likely, a person might need their very own personal advisory board to help navigate the terrain.”

    Today, CSweetener offers mentees the opportunity to build their personal advisory boards for mentorship and networking with the help of the organization’s virtual profile matching service. The algorithmic profile system matches mentees with a series of mentors who have the experience and qualifications she is looking for. From there, she can schedule calls, video-conferences or in-person meetings with her mentor.

    The network utilizes online mentor program technology to help women connect in real-time, giving them access to a community of experts. “CSweetener does vet all our mentors, and our standards are quite high. Our mentors are highly experienced and accomplished industry veterans who are committed to propelling senior level women in healthcare to succeed in and into the C-Suite,” said Bentley.

    CSweetener has received a positive response so far, with over 200 mentors on their platform. “The first session I had with a wonderful mentor, we talked about negotiation skills; she advised me a way to accelerate my career and continue to grow my skill set,” said a CSweetener mentee. “She advised me on various leadership skills that I think will be helpful to me as well.”

    One mentor helped her mentee overcome her insecurities about talking with senior men and board members in her company. “This has been one of my most successful experiences because she came back and said ‘You have given me a way to merge my personal and professional selves and I have never felt more like myself.  Such a win for both of us. My business is thriving. I feel more comfortable in my own skin.’ It has really been such a great experience for both of us. I feel so accomplished because I was able to help her figure out how to help herself and there is nothing better than that in a mentor-mentee relationship.”

    CSweetener has built a community where women and men can empower future female leaders in the healthcare industry in a safe and supportive environment. And this year, CSweetener rolled out its Speaker’s Bureau, a roster of experienced, subject-matter expert female speakers ready and willing to speak at conferences and on panels. “We added the Speaker’s Bureau as part of our offering because women who are experts in their field need to be seen and heard as experts in conferences and on panels,” said Bentley.  “The simple truth is, if you aren’t visible, you aren’t seen as a leader, and it makes it that much harder to ascend to a power position.”

    When asked about the larger issue of fighting gender bias in the workplace, Bentley said “Gender bias can only be conquered by continuing to build awareness, take action and provide services which help women into leadership roles.” And networks like CSweetener are helping to do just that.

    Featured in the News: How CSweetener is helping women healthcare leaders succeed

    Article originally posted on MedCity News

    A 2017 study of 177 publicly-listed biotech companies found women hold just 1 in 10 board seats. And 2012 research from Rock Health showed women make up 4 percent of healthcare company CEOs.

    CSweetener, a Mill Valley, California-based nonprofit company, wants to change that.

    The organization, which launched in September 2016, was founded by Lisa Suennen and Lisa Serwin, the latter of whom will be speaking on a diversity in healthcare panel at MedCity INVEST in May.

    In a recent phone interview, Suennen explained the impetus behind the business. As part of her Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellowship, she was tasked with creating something that advanced the field of healthcare.

    While brainstorming and catching up on emails, Suennen noticed that she typically gets between 10 and 20 requests for advice from women each week. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thought, if there were a for healthcare that would pair women with established male and female mentors?

    So that’s what she and Serwin developed with CSweetener.

    As part of the matchmaking process, female mentees sign up and must be approved to join. Candidates have to be C-suite or in an equivalent role (such as vice president). Once accepted, they pay a $250 fee and are matched with a mentor based on their personality and availability. With their membership, mentees gain 12 sessions per year, which can be with the same mentor or different mentors.

    Mentors have to be experienced healthcare executives who are talented at giving advice. They don’t pay a fee, but must commit at least one hour per month to speaking with mentees.

    Pairings can contact each other through the phone and video capabilities in the app so they don’t have to exchange personal information if they don’t want to. They can also meet in person if desired.

    After the initial sessions, mentors and mentees can decide if they’re the right fit for each other before moving forward with additional meetings.

    Suennen said CSweetener currently has a couple hundred mentees and a couple hundred mentors. Some companies have even started to sponsor mentees and pay the $250 fee.

    “It’s beginning to pick up and spread,” Suennen said. “People have been loving it and really enjoying the connections.”

    Chicago-based ExplORer Surgical cofounder and CEO Jennifer Fried is one such mentee. Through CSweetener, she met Ned Scheetz, managing partner of Aphelion Capital and now ExplORer Surgical’s lead investor. He has also joined the startup’s board of directors.

    “It’s been hugely helpful,” Fried said in a phone conversation.

    The primary benefit of the program, Fried added, is access to experts in the field.

    “They have an interesting set of senior folks who have signed up for this,” she said. “When it’s structured like this, it doesn’t feel as high stakes as ‘I’m coming in to pitch you my company.'”

    For Suennen, part of what sets CSweetener apart is that it’s focused on women executives rather than young women who are new to the field. It’s also crucial that the organization pairs mentees with both female and male mentors.

    “Our general view of the world is that women talking to women is an echo chamber,” Suennen said. It’s challenging to make progress if all stakeholders (regardless of gender) aren’t involved.

    The ultimate goal of CSweetener isn’t to create a monster company. Instead, it’s fairly straightforward.

    “I think my goal is pretty simple: just to help women succeed faster and better,” Suennen said.

    Featured: CSweetener in the News

    Amid Gender Gap Talk, Mentor Network Emerges For Women In Health, Bio

    Article originally posted on

    It’s been more than a year since an infamous party with hired models in cocktail dresses captured the biotech community’s attention at the 2016 J.P. Morgan conference.

    There has been plenty of talk since about closing biotech’s notable gender gap. At this year’s J.P Morgan conference, for example, a group of 100 life science executives and others pledged to follow a list of gender diversity “best practices.”

    There has also been some action. Launched last fall, a nonprofit mentoring program for women in healthcare and biotech has already signed up about 100 women, according to its founder.

    The group, called CSweetener, is meant as a boost for women who are nearing the executive level. It is the brainchild of life sciences investor Lisa Suennen, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and publishes a popular industry blog and podcast. Suennen and cofounder Lisa Serwin have cobbled together $125,000 in donations, grants, and sponsorships to commission a software platform that could be what Suennen calls a “ for mentors.” Because of her high profile, she says she receives frequent requests from women executives for help and advice. “If I said yes to everyone, I wouldn’t have time to work,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What if I can outsource this problem?'”

    Despite a rank-and-file that is roughly 50 percent women, fewer than 10 percent of biotech CEOs are women, according to a recent report from U.K. recruitment firm Liftstream, which studied 177 biotechs that went public between 2012 and 2015.

    Board seats are another measure. Less than five percent of the board members were women at the time of those companies’ IPOs.

    There was a hint of progress in the report: 58 percent of public companies have at least one female board member, up from 48 percent three years ago. But there’s far to go. Public biotech boards would need 40 more years to achieve gender equity.

    To address the board gap, a five-day training program called Boardroom Ready launched last summer. Of its initial class of 20 women, four have been placed onto boards so far.

    Run by the nonprofit group Women In Bio, the program is sponsored in part by the life-science advisory firm that threw the cocktail party. For now, the plan is to hold Boardroom Ready once a year; the next one takes place over two weekends in the fall.

    Suennen’s investor peers deserve no small portion of the gender gap blame (as she often points out on her blog). Fewer than 10 percent of life-science venture partners are women, according to Liftstream. The low number of female VCs perpetuates the gender gap because venture investors sit on their companies’ boards until and often well beyond the initial public offering. “Our study shows that the male dominance of venture capital brings unintended implications for the portfolio companies in terms of their board diversity, and consequently may also have an undesirable effect on their ability to attract talent,” the report reads.

    Suennen recently joined GE Ventures, the venture arm of General Electric and one of the few firms in the traditional or corporate VC world with a high percentage of women. (GE Ventures has donated to CSweetener.)

    In addition to the 100 women who have signed up for CSweetener, the network now counts 110 mentor volunteers, Suennen says. Roughly 15 percent are men. If they are not involved, adds Suennen, “nothing will ever change.”

    Ned Scheetz, founder of Bay Area healthcare venture firm Aphelion Capital and father of two daughters, explains that he signed up to be a CSweetener mentor because healthcare needs more women entrepreneurs. “An outsized percent of venture backed companies are founded and led by high-ego, take-the-hill men and backed by equally Y-dominant venture groups,” Scheetz says. “Much of healthcare is about understanding and serving the subtler, empathetic needs of humanity, and testosterone-driven ambition may miss some of those finer points.”

    Many corporations have internal programs to pair women with mentors or sponsors. But the set-up is fraught with potential conflicts: how freely can a woman speak her mind about the pros and cons of her job, or about her ambitions, to a person higher up the corporate ladder, even if that person has pledged support? CSweetener is meant to provide independent mentoring without conflicted relationships. Mentors are required to have C-suite experience and no financial or business ties to their mentees—a rule to discourage women from joining the network to sell products or raise funds, Suennen says.

    CSweetener requires a $250 fee from mentees. (Mentors sign up for free.) With a few hundred thousand dollars more, Suennen would like to build more community tools into the organization’s software—giving mentors a chance to compare notes, for example—and offer training material for mentees. Negotiation skills would be a priority. “Women don’t often ask for what they want,” Suennen says. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”