Shalini Sharp—Ultragenyx

Shalini Sharp
Company: Ultragenyx
Title: Chief Financial Officer

Shalini Sharp may be steeped in finance every day, but that doesn’t mean her work is limited to crunching numbers. It's much bigger than that.

“You’re associated with working with numbers when you’re in finance, but really, behind that, there’s a big-picture strategy that drives all of the output,” she said.

“I think all activities of the company cost money, and they’re all being executed in order to create value. So I think that means, when you’re in finance, you’re working on everything.”

Sharp manages finance and IT at Ultragenyx, which includes corporate strategy, investor relations and PR, procurement, financial planning and analysis, tax and accounting. The biggest challenge, she says, is maintaining balance—managing priorities and paying attention to the most critical issues at any given time, but also reserving the time to think longer-term.

“It’s easy to get sucked into addressing the day-to-day things that come up and be reactive, but sometimes, you need to spend a little bit of time to actually think about long-term strategy,” she said.

And because Ultragenyx focuses on rare and ultra-rare diseases, that strategy is developing smaller programs, but multiple programs concurrently.

“You can move programs forward in an accelerated way, which is exciting because sometimes it can take 10 years to run a trial in a different kind of indication. When you’re on the business side, it’s kind of hard to wait that long,” she said.

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Besides keeping up a quick pace, Ultragenyx’s business model is also its safety net: “It diversifies the risk profile of the company, so there’s no one event that will lead to the company sinking or swimming, which does happen in our industry,” she said.

Sharp has worked in life sciences for more than 20 years, finding her way there from a consulting position at McKinsey & Co., her first job out of college. She opted for McKinsey partly because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Working with a client in life sciences piqued her interest, leading her to a job at Dublin-based Élan Pharmaceuticals, now a part of Perrigo.

“I realized I wanted to work in an operating company. I didn’t want to feel maybe even just one step removed from where the work was being done, I wanted to be right in there,” she said.

From there, she went on to Agenus, where she rose up the ranks to chief financial officer, eventually joining Ultragenyx in 2012. She joined Agenus’ board of directors the same year.

“I was fortunate because my first board was my former company. It was a way for me to keep helping them out even after I left and remain involved there,” she said.

And once you’re on one board, the board opportunities just keep on coming. This is why board placement programs exist—to diversify boards by helping qualified women get a foot in the door. Sharp hasn’t participated in a formal program, but thinks she’s benefited from the intersection of demand for financial experience and demand for female board members. Though she left Agenus’ board this year, Sharp sits on the boards of Array Biopharma and the TB Alliance.

She hasn’t participated in a formal mentor program, either, though she has worked with company leaders who taught her a great deal and who've fought in her corner.

“The last couple of CEOs I worked for care more about your thought process than whether you look the part of a finance executive. That’s been really critical for me,” she said.

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It’s more unusual, she thinks, to see women, especially minority women, in the chief financial officer role.

“It may not be your stereotypical mental picture of what a public company’s CFO looks like, but if people are open to hearing your ideas and looking at your results […] that’s what it takes to end up with a diverse workforce.”

Ultragenyx is now big enough that it has formal mentoring programs, and so, Sharp checks in regularly with a few employees. But schemes like this can only go so far; corporate attitudes to work-life balance are still a barrier to diversity moving up the ranks.

“I think there’s still a huge amount of challenge not just for women, but women and men trying to balance their personal and family lives with work. It still takes a lot of extenuating circumstances to make those things work,” she said. “I hope we can find ways to make achieving that balance more doable for people.”

And her advice to younger women?

“Don’t be afraid of areas that tend to be more masculinely dominated, like science, math and finance. Anyone can do them, so I think it’s particularly important for women to make sure that they don’t write off those areas and that they’re open to learning about them.”

“I’m not a scientist by training," she added, "but I love that part of that business. I think not being afraid to roll up your sleeves, learn about it and read papers isn’t just very fulfilling for yourself, but also helpful to people you work with, both inside and outside the company.”

Shalini Sharp—Ultragenyx