September 21, 2022

Member Spotlight: Bench International

How Bench International Uses its Expertise in Executive Search to Help Advance Diversity and Representation in the Life Science Industry

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month this September, we are highlighting Latino and Latina leaders in life science. Linda Sierra has a career in the industry spanning 30 years and she’s worked in business development and human resources at a variety of biotech companies, from startups to pharmaceutical firms, and diagnostic and publicly traded companies. For the past decade she’s been devoted to executive search and recruiting as the senior vice president of business development at Bench International, which specializes in finding top talent for life science companies. She advocates for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in life sciences, especially on companies’ boards and C-suites.

Linda prioritizes giving back and serves on the advisory board of several charities and community organizations, including: MANA de San Diego, a nonprofit that offers young Latinas mentorship opportunities, scholarships and educational programs; Life Science Cares in San Diego and the Bay Area; and Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood. She also serves on the boards of the Biocom California Institute and LifeHR Network. Linda grew up in Fresno, moving to San Diego at 7 years old, and says that although her company is based in La Jolla, she and her family reside in Bonita to remain close and connected to her community in the South Bay.

You have a long history in human resources and in business–what is your career journey, and how did you get into the life science field?

In 1992, I started at Cytel Corporation as a legal secretary and stock plan administrator. That was really fascinating—all the patents, technology, nomenclature—was fun for me. But I got to interact with HR quite a bit on the employment agreements. Fast forward to 1996, I was invited to move to South San Francisco by Cytel’s former general counsel to help start an AIDS research company.

I said that I would move from San Diego only if I was able to go into HR full-time, and he said ‘yes.’ I made the move and became employee number five of a startup. We ended up launching a product, taking the company public, and it was acquired. That’s how I got into biotech and life sciences, and I knew that I never wanted to leave the industry—from ‘92, I’ve never strayed.

In almost 30 years, 18 of those were in industry and the past 12 have been in executive search: our executive search company is 100-percent focused on life science. That was very intentional, in fact, because I wasn’t looking to move out of HR and biotech. Executive search is really exciting because you learn about a new company and their technology, and there’s never a dull or boring moment.

Hispanic Heritage Month marks a time to celebrate our rich culture and contribution our people have made to building this country. It is a source of pride for us as we are highlighted. Representation matters and acknowledging our people’s social, economic and cultural contributions to this country serves as a beacon of hope and inclusion.

What is your favorite thing about life sciences?

It’s the technology, constant curiosity, and the passion for solving problems. The fact that they’re solving unmet medical needs. This industry is helping people live, helping people heal. When an illness touches our family us or our family and we don’t have a way to address it, it’s devastating.

I loved talking to the scientists at biotech companies. They were so passionate about what project, disease, and therapeutic area they were working on, and I just got so much energy from that. I enjoyed recruiting for these companies because I could share the story about how passionate these people are.

It’s known that companies in the life science industry are struggling to find talent. What are you seeing from your vantage point?

Many qualified candidates are coming into the interview process already in the late stages of talks with other companies, and they might already have an offer in-hand. We’re having to speed things up to compete. We’re transparent with our clients, telling them, ‘This person is an ideal fit, but they also are entertaining one or two other offers.’

Also with virtual work, people have been able to interview easily: they just hang up from one call and do another video call, and that’s how the interviews are happening. It’s been hard to retain people, because they’re able to jump if they want to. Right now the markets are a little bit difficult, and people are holding onto their money. They’re [companies] not doing hiring freezes, but they’re waiting to see what happens with the market before they keep building.

What is your company’s current biggest challenge from the perspective of executive search?

Despite the significant economic turndown, it remains very difficult to get candidates to accept that in these challenging times they need to have a greater degree of E-Q [emotional intelligence] when it comes to negotiating compensation. Companies, for very good reason, are trying to stretch their dollars through these rough waters. Creating an acknowledgment of mutual trust and commitment that when the money is more fluid, everyone will be bettered by it, is often escaping candidates. Bench tries very hard to ensure that every dime our clients spend on candidates is money well spent and further works to ensure the candidates have the same mindset.

Can you share any current executive searches that your company is involved in?

What I can share is that right now we’re doing our second board search for Illumina. We placed Scott Gottlieb onto their board in 2020–he’s a former FDA commissioner, and we’re really proud of that. We also have two other board searches open for Pliant and Veracyte in the Bay Area, a chief medical officer for Otsuka, Cardiff Oncology, and 3T Biosciences. We’re searching for the president of oncology for Poseida Therapeutics here in San Diego, having just placed the president of gene therapy there. We’re also doing a CEO search for C-Path and just completed the CEO search for Cellics Therapeutics, chief scientific officer at 3T Biosciences, as well as an SVP of finance role for them. We have a lot more open, but those are the highlights. We have a lot of openings on the East Coast, as well (we have an office in Cambridge) and in Europe with team members scattered throughout the country.

What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome in your career?

One of my biggest challenges has been being a Latina, and many times the only one in my biotech company during my 18 years in HR in the industry. While this has been a challenge, I’ve been able to turn it into a strength. I come into the room as an underdog and at times have been discounted because of it. However, it is also what makes me shine and provides the lens of diversity that many seek. I consider it to be one of my greatest strengths now. Things are changing slowly, and inclusion is happening more and more.

How can the life science industry address diversity, specifically the lack of Hispanic representation in its workforce? A 2021 report from the Pew Research center shows that nationally, Hispanics make up only 8 percent of the life science workforce and occupy 8 percent of STEM jobs.

We’ve got a long way to go. Here’s the issue, since I have insight through Mana de San Diego: Our girls are really interested in being a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor—they’re not thinking about being a scientist. They don’t even think about biotech as an industry, as a career for them. I’m trying to build the bridge between the communities of color and life sciences–because not only do we have the scientific jobs, such as chemists and biologists, but we also need people in IT, HR, facilities management, project management, and marketing.

I always tell kids to consider biotech and life science as an industry to work for. The salaries are typically higher, and you also get a bonus and equity. But they don’t think like that, mainly because they don’t know enough about life science. We need to get kids thinking about STEM from a young age, so that when they get to college and they do consider industries, they consider life science.

In our population in San Diego, 44 percent are Latino/Latina. So why not get our people trained up to be able to work in our biotech companies? We have a shortage of employees, right? I believe Kite Pharmaceuticals did that in Santa Monica: they didn’t have any other life science companies in the area to pull talent from, so they cross-trained. They partnered with a city college nearby, and they even cross-trained aerospace employees to learn biotech. Why not train who we have right in our backyard? We’ve got great minds that we can develop.

At what point did you decide to use your skill set and position to enact change for more representation in the industry?

A few years after I got my start in executive search, I would interview candidates and noticed that candidates of color would open up to me because I’m a Latina. They would say, ‘I don’t want to interview at that company, the whole executive team and the whole board are white males. I don’t feel like I’ll fit in there, I won’t belong, I won’t be included.’ I was honored [that they shared this with me], but it also made me realize how things are perceived.

I started to have a heightened awareness about looking at a company’s board and executive team [when recruiting]. For my clients, it’s getting to know who they are and what their background is. I also started compiling a list of women executives who are ready for board seats, and also a list of (men and women) executives of color and underrepresented groups. I accomplished this by reaching out to people and having lunch or coffee, whatever I could do, to get to know them and find out where I could slot them into different [board] seats. I’m known for meeting with people–whether I have a job opening for them or not, I still meet with people because eventually we will have a seat.

We’ve got so much work to do–we only have 3 percent of women of color at the CEO or board level. It’s growing a little, but not enough.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you, and why is it important that we celebrate it?

Hispanic Heritage Month marks a time to celebrate our rich culture and contribution our people have made to building this country. It is a source of pride for us as we are highlighted throughout the country. Representation matters and acknowledging our people’s social, economic and cultural contributions to this country serves as a beacon of hope and inclusion. My uncles on both sides of my family, and my father and step-father all served in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, proudly representing Mexican Americans who love this country deeply. In 2013, my step-father co-led the effort of the Logan Heights Veterans Memorial, which sits just off I-5 in Chicano Park in Barrio Logan.

What’s the greatest piece of advice you can give to future life science leaders?

Be inclusive. Like a kaleidoscope, it takes so many facets to create a beautiful picture. Build your company to mirror your community and you will be able to attract and retain your team. Seek out those who shine. They won’t fit your job description perfectly, but they are the ones who get things done with no excuses. They refuse to fail. They rise to every occasion. I’ve seen it time and time again. I’ve seen CEOs create roles for candidates because they got it. You know who they are! They will galvanize the team and you will get more out of everyone when you hire these outstanding candidates.