This month, we wanted to shed a light on a successful CEO in the health-tech industry. Dawn Lissy, the President and CEO of Empirical started her company 17 years ago. Shortly thereafter, she brought on her husband Chris to help run the business. What started as a family-run company with a handful of employees has blossomed into three successful companies (Empirical Testing Corp, Empirical Consulting and Empirical Machine). Empirical helps companies with medical ideas bring their devices to completion, offering the full range of services from medical device testing, to consulting and manufacturing.
I got to ask Dawn Lissy about her journey in business and the medical device industry. Her conversation was refreshingly energetic and peppered with positive insights. Below are her answers to my questions.
Q: You started your business in 1998 and have grown significantly since then. You now have 25 employees over three companies. Can you talk a little bit about that journey? What were some of the key things you learned along the way?
A: As this industry grew –our business grew in spine testing and eventually we moved into all medical device testing. Double digits doesn’t even describe how fast the industry was growing.
Companies were throwing money at projects to get the products onto the market. Our business grew double digits until 2009. Since the 2007, 2008, 2009 economy crash we still grow every year, but not at the same rate. People are much more frugal about their dollars. There is a large percentage of companies out there that were created and existing in the 2000 decade that don’t exist anymore.
Our company’s foundation is about being the best for our clients and offering the best for them. We’ve maintained the majority of our relationships over the years. When you’re doing it right the first time, you spend the money for it. We offer the clients value.
Q: What have you learned about leadership? What traits or habits have you cultivated over the years to make you a more effective leader?
A: Trust –you have to find the right people for your team and then you have to trust that they’re going to do the best they can. And if you don’t trust that, then they’re not the right person.
Q: How long did it take to build a team you trust?
A: Chris and I ran Empirical with a handful of employees for about eight years, and then when I had baby number two, I was forced into the position of needing to trust somebody. There are some things in life that breed necessity and having your second child is one of those things –oh heck –having your first child will make you figure out what you need, but the second child was the wakeup call that I couldn’t keep going at the pace I was going. We went from being a mom and pop shop to having a management team and trusting that the foundation we had created was going to continue.
Q: You’re involved in helping more women succeed in the STEM fields. Can you tell me more about the Perry Initiative?
A: The Perry Initiative was started by a dear friend of mine, Dr. Jenni Buckley (a mechanical engineer) along with Dr. Lisa Lattanza (an orthopedic surgeon). They named the Perry Initiative after Dr. Jacquelin Perry –the first orthopedic female surgeon at UCSF. In a very engineering, methodical, scientific manner, they asked: “Why don’t we have women in orthopedic medicine and biomedical engineering?”
Instead of taking on the world, they took on what was nearest to their heart. They created a hands-on orthopedics and engineering program for young women, and got location sponsorships and sponsorships for the tools. The young women spend time in a lab breaking a femur and using plates and screws to figure out how to put it back together. Acceptance into the program is not about your grades, but about your application.
The foundation is evolving, and I like that this program partners girls up with a mentor –someone they can work for the rest of their high school careers.
Q: What does your involvement with the Perry Initiative look like?
A: I attend the program and help with the saw bones lab. But Jenni also likes me to come and talk about my life. Which -I’ll be perfectly honest with you –is an uncomfortable thing for me. The first time she asked me to do it, I kept asking her, “What kind of presentation do you want me to put together?” But she told me she just wanted me to show up and talk about my life. That’s the thing I don’t like to talk about. Jenni considers me one of her mentors and she knows a lot about me and knows my story.
She told me, “These girls need to know that even if they have a plan –it might not work out and they might not end up where they want to go, but it’s okay because if you have good intentions and work hard and make positive decisions for yourself, look at where you can go.”
The only reason I get up and tell my personal story is because I trust and love Jenni Buckley so much that I do it. She dedicates her weekends to impacting women in our society. The least I can do is let women know that if you stumble over one or two things in your life, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure and it doesn’t mean you won’t write your own success story.
Q: Can you tell me more about your story? It sounds like you ended up somewhere different than you expected.
A: I was going to go be an astronaut. But then I didn’t get accepted into the aerospace engineering program. At 17, when that happened, that was life-dream crushing. From there, I knew I wanted to be an engineer so I just applied to the next program that made the most sense for me –engineering mechanics with an emphasis in biomedical engineering.
My father was a mechanic and had a bad neck, and he would never do any of the stuff the doctor said he should do, so I took an interest in how I could develop something that would make my dad not be in as much pain. I graduated fourth in my class.
If it weren’t for Jenni, nobody would know about my story. I have a friend here who I knew outside of business and we never talked about work. We eventually started talking about our careers (a conversation that eventually led to her becoming my Director of Business).
But the first time she showed up in our lobby, she saw that there are awards, patents, certifications and articles all over. (They’re in the lobby because that’s the farthest away they can be from my office.)
My friend said, “You’re a rock star!” And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said, “Look at all this stuff. I’ve never heard you talk about all this stuff.” I told her, “That’s because that doesn’t define who I am. That’s just stuff that I’ve been able to accomplish.”
Q: What helped you succeed in building Empirical?
A: You can’t do everything, so in addition to trusting people on your team, you also need advisors and people that mentor you. There are a couple of ways to find those mentors. A lot of my mentors were coworkers at my earlier jobs. When I told my grandfather that I wanted to go be an engineer, he said, “That’s fabulous. Go to a school that has a co-op so that you’re in a school that gives you on-the-job training.” My grandfather worked at GE after WWII. He said, “I worked with a bunch of engineers and they were not happy people. They all thought they were going to design the next space shuttle, but instead they were designing a screw for a dishwasher. Which is important, but not what they wanted.”
So, I picked a school where I had to do a co-op to get my degree. I worked with Johnson & Johnson and a biomechanics research lab. Those were my first mentors. Those folks already in the work place make an excellent opportunity for mentors.
Every step you take leads you in the right direction and every step you take will have an impact on how you perform in the future. A mentor of mine from one of my early jobs is now on my board.