Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.
Hello wonderful women of Ellevate. My name is Angela Gillespie and I currently serve as chief operating officer of Real Chemistry, a purpose-driven global health innovation company working from the bench to the bedside to make the world a healthier place. We provide expert services in digital marketing, creative and communications, along with clinical trial, health economics and outcomes, and value, pricing and access advisory expertise – all powered by proprietary data and technology that deliver comprehensive health solutions. In my role as COO, I lead with empathy and humanity as my North Star and act as the connective tissue between my organization's people and our business operations.
I'm also an evangelist for accelerating gender economic equality and advancing the role of women in leadership. I'm honored to serve as Vice Chair of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s Global Board of Directors where I work together with a cadre of amazing women to transform the healthcare industry via practices that help female talent realize their full potential. As a working mom in an executive role at an organization whose workforce comprises nearly 70 percent women, I use my voice and position to support women in staying in or returning to the workforce in full force – with a means to achieving both professional success and personal well-being.
Tell us about your favorite Ellevate Network memory or success story. Why are you a member?
I am new to the Ellevate Network and have been consumed with exploring the array of valuable, actionable resources available to members, from podcasts, articles and videos to amazing roundtable discussions and top-notch networking pathways -- such great content produced by super-star women! I look forward to getting involved in my local Ellevest Network chapter as well as participating in my first-ever Mobilize Women event in June.
What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
I have had many interesting twists and turns in my career, but one of the most pivotal and memorable moments was when I decided to “tap out” and give myself a mid-career sabbatical. I had reached a point where I began to feel one-dimensional: I was living to work and not working to live. I had no work-life integration and had not trained myself that life is a marathon and not a sprint. After a lot of restless nights, and conversations with my husband, we made the choice to take a year off. We sold our home, I took out a student loan, and I pursued my love of science — but in a very different form. I enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu’s Patisserie and Baking program and spent a year understanding the science and art of baking — 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 11 months. It gave me time to enjoy working with my hands, creating, inventing, brainstorming, exploring new concepts and flavors, new chemical reactions that when put together could either create something dismal or something new and wonderful. It was a challenge to use my brain in a different way, but it also gave me the pause I needed to learn how fulfilling my soul with passion wasn’t really work at all, but created a life well intended.
I knew I had a gift for blending art and science, and my career in healthcare communications was just that. I love using my communications skills to translate complex problems into easy-to-digest concepts, and I can “feed” people what they need to live a healthier life. The year away taught me that my passion really was around creating change in the world through writing and that I love mixing art with science just as much as I love mixing communication with medicines. I had to step away from work (and run up debt) to understand that I had to be passionate for my work to fulfill me.
What are some career challenges on your radar?
As we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, I am focused on what employees will expect, want and need in a post-pandemic world. I'm busy with my leadership team reimagining our office spaces, our approach to the average workday and how we'll use the latest and greatest technology to drive innovation within the walls of our organization.
What project have you worked on that you’re most proud of? Why?
Last March, barely into my new position as COO, the pandemic escalated and overnight our organization - like most others - instituted a global work-from-home policy. However, this defining moment accelerated my connections to staff and my insights about what people would need during and post-COVID. Realizing the pandemic would not end quickly, my greatest concern was ensuring our staff were comfortable and felt supported. After an analysis of what the company was saving on in-office costs like beverages, catering, internet access and holiday parties, I formulated a plan to provide additional services and equipment to reduce employee stress and improve their work-from-home environment. Some of the key programs we have launched over the last year and of which I am most proud include: 1.) A partnership with Amazon to launch a first-of-its-kind Company Store, providing staff with an allowance to buy workspace furniture and technology that met their individual home-office needs. 2.) A program to help employees prioritize their personal and mental health needs, like a later start to the day to have a family breakfast, a mid-day break for exercise, or a schedule that allowed for distance-learning supervision. 3.) Mental health support including tele-counseling sessions, access to a mobile coaching and therapy app, and real-time virtual meditation sessions. 4.) Discounted/subsidized tutoring to support parents of school-aged children navigating distance learning. Upon launching these various initiatives, I spent my evenings diving into a myriad of email responses from staff about the support programs. I felt like Santa Claus! People felt a sense of relief, support and pride that their organization was giving them what they need in order to survive and thrive - all while doing the work they are passionate about.
We’d love to hear more about your career path. What led you to where you are today?
I started my career in consumer marketing, working on car launches, new cell phones and kid’s toys. On 9/11, I was in New York for a conference when the Twin Towers were attacked and the world — and my place in it — immediately looked and felt very different. It took me over a week to get home: first I took a four-day trip to Chicago via Greyhound bus, then I rented a car and drove to Oklahoma where my father had driven from Los Angeles to meet me. On that trip, I had a lot of time alone to think about what I wanted to do with my life, what these life-changing events meant, and what I wanted to do to contribute in a positive way to the world when so many were suffering.
I began doing research and found a firm solely focused on healthcare, which I found inspiring. The firm was willing to take a chance on me, and I promised to help them shape their plans to go direct to patients based on my knowledge of consumer engagement. I spent the better part of a year with an anatomy book under my arm going from meeting to meeting. I took that role in April 2002 — and believe each day that I work in this business a life is impacted. 9/11 gave me a life that I believe is “work worth doing.”
Fast-forward a decade and I was working for Real Chemistry (then called W2O), running its San Francisco office and West Coast Healthcare Practice. I took a 5-year hiatus to work in-house for several leading large-cap and start-up healthcare companies, and re-joined the firm in 2016, serving in various senior leadership roles. And in 2019 I became the organization's first COO, a role that involved a 180° shift in mindset for me – from highly creative to highly functional.
What legacy do you hope to leave through your work?
My ultimate goal as a leader is to unlock as many people's potential as I possibly can - urging them to be passionate about their work and to always think bigger, bolder and differently. Additionally, as part of my legacy I hope to have helped as many women as possible rise into positions of power, encouraging them to achieve greatness by leading with the BRAIN (where our ideas and strategies live), the GUT (where we get our courage to put ourselves out there and execute) and the HEART (what signals to others that we actually care).
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
I thrive on evolution and change and my transition to COO has been anything but traditional. Having been with Real Chemistry as both an employee and client for the past 15 years, I have a solid understanding of what employees need. I place myself in the shoes of my colleagues on a daily basis and am laser-focused on delivering “white glove service” to every corner of the organization, systemizing and streamlining operations to make the staff experience more positive and productive. I look at the “employee experience” in a holistic manner - starting during the recruitment phase and continuing even after people leave the company. My theory is that if people have positive, end-to-end experiences, they will be the biggest evangelists for the company. Bottom-line: I feel that I am exactly where I need to be in my career at this given moment.
What would you say your personal superpower is?
My self-defined superpower in the workplace is authentic connection. I'm always amazed at the power of gratitude - how a simple “thank you” or "I value your insight" can change the trajectory of a person's work experience and connectedness and drive productivity, engagement and loyalty. I take a genuine interest in the people around me and always recognize - with gratitude - the efforts of my colleagues and their unique contributions.
Is work-life balance a problem for you? What is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
I like to look at it as work-life integration instead of balance per se. As a working mother of two very active boys, I have found this year to be a complete 180 when it comes to integrating work and home. However, I've become quite adept at creating and maintaining boundaries as well as finding the silver linings. I have learned to prioritize my self-care in order to support my immediate family, my extended family and my employee “family.” I block my calendar to make sure I prioritize exercise, family meals, distance learning support and my career, and I am committed to focusing on each during their respective time. Additionally, another trick whereby I have reaped significant reward is booking “Zoom-less” calls on Fridays so I have at least one day where I don’t have to be “camera-ready.” This schedule has supported my physical health and mental health on a daily basis - especially over the last year.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
As a young professional, I was taught that “Playing it safe is for sidewalks and swimming pools. Take the risk — what do you really have to lose?” That has stayed with me and guided my career through epic failures (of which I’ve had many), but also incredible successes. As I approach any tough decision, I always ask myself, “Will I play it safe? Or will I take the risk?” This simple question gives me the power to be brave — be bold — and to take the big chances on myself. That is where I believe we find the defining difference between having a great life and an exceptional one.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Chief Operating Officer
Angela Gillespie is COO of Real Chemistry, a purpose-driven global health innovation company working to improve outcomes by placing people, data, and technology at the center of the solution. Equal parts big-picture visionary and real-world pragmatist, she works to drive efficiencies, facilitate change management, orchestrate collaboration and empower 1,700+ staff across the organization. An evangelist for accelerating gender equality in the workplace, Angela serves as Vice Chair of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s Global Board of... Continue Reading
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