Company: Bluebird Bio
Title: Chief business officer
It’s not easy taking the uncertain path from a physics lab to the C-suite. For Joanne Smith-Farrell, Ph.D., Bluebird Bio’s chief business officer, the road less traveled—and the opportunity for growth along the way—is exactly what she’s looking for.
“I love to ask why,” Smith-Farrell said.
That guiding principle has taken Smith-Farrell, who became Bluebird’s chief business strategist in May, a long way from her original career in physics. She's moved through the relatively small world of biotech on up to a Big Pharma and back again. Along the way, she weathered the storm of having children and losing her husband by maintaining the same mission and desire to be a “servant-leader” for her peers.
Smith-Farrell got her first break in the biomechanics department at MIT’s Langer Lab before taking a number of jobs in small biotech companies, including leadership roles. After she and her husband decided to have children, Smith-Farrell opted to make the move to Big Pharma, where she eventually spent a decade between Pfizer and Merck. But disaster struck: Smith-Farrell’s husband grew ill and suddenly her work grew immediately personal.
“The passion I had for the pharmaceutical industry became very personal for me,” she said.
After her husband’s passing—and a “natural period of introspection”—Smith-Farrell found herself drawn to Bluebird, a far smaller drugmaker with big hopes for its oncology candidates.
After reaching out to Jeffrey T. Walsh, Bluebird’s chief strategy officer, on a whim, Smith-Farrell came on to handle corporate development and strategy, and eventually took the reins of the company’s cancer portfolio.
“We really had no boundaries, which was amazing to me,” she said. “They told us to dream big, and we did.”
Smith-Farrell counts expanding Bluebird’s oncology lineup, with 12 candidates in various clinical stages, as her greatest achievement in her current role, and she ties that success to relationships with her team.
“My biggest accomplishment is obviously my team’s biggest accomplishment, and it’s humbling to be a part of that,” she said.
In her current position, Smith-Farrell has focused on being a leader for employees under her. That’s a big task, considering the “very few real female role models” she’s had in her professional life, she said.
Two come to mind, though. The first is Kristen Peck, recently appointed executive vice president and group president at Pfizer's animal health spinoff Zoetis, with whom Smith-Farrell worked during her time at the drug giant. The second is surprising but helps explain Smith-Farrell’s dedication to service: Mother Teresa.
While working as a lab assistant in Washington, D.C., Smith-Farrell volunteered at a Missionaries of Charity hospice, often working alone in her ward. During that time, she was given multiple opportunities to speak with Mother Teresa and see firsthand her ability to effect change.
“I saw her time and time and time again get something done where she basically had to stand up against truly powerful people, and she did it in this soft-spoken way that was impossible to say no to—she never lost,” Smith-Farrell said. “She was never actually advocating for herself, and I think the power she had was truly unlimited.”
That power through purpose and humility is exactly what Smith-Farrell aims to teach through experience. Being different, she said, is exactly what has helped her succeed.
“In some ways the ability to bring a different perspective has actually been a source of my greatest value,” she said. “That’s only true when I own it. Earlier in my career, when I tried to fit in, that just doesn’t work.”
For other employees she mentors, Smith-Farrell’s message is simple: Find your “why.”
What’s Smith-Farrell’s “why?’ Helping the fight to defeat cancer, building a team of strong professionals and making a difference in patients’ lives.
“Make everything you do at work in service of that ‘why,’” she said. “That’s the anchor: being strong, passionate and—frankly—unapologetic."