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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

From a Dusty Desert Town to the Upper Echelons of Corporate America

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

By Claire Larson, guest contributor

©Copyrighted and Published on September 4, 2019

Allene and Albert Stephens are an African-American husband and wife not known to many outside of their hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Allene was a social worker. Albert was a military medic of 21 years turned entrepreneur. Back in the 1950’s they started an enterprise that would greatly benefit the world at large…their family of five daughters and one son. Theirs was a modest household. The best lesson they taught their children, however, was that with hard work they could become whatever they chose to be. There was never a question of whether Mr. and Mrs. Stephens’ children would go to college. They knew education, hard work and perseverance was the key to achievement. Illustrating this, Albert did not retire until the age of 82. Though all of the Stephens children are highly successful, this article will highlight their daughter, Myrtle Potter.

Myrtle has never even met the word “lazy”. From the time she was a young girl, she was always willing to put in the time and effort it takes to succeed. Her grades reflected her effort; they were always excellent. Her interests included politics and she took that interest all the way to the Girl’s State governor position of New Mexico. At the age of 16, she decided she was bored, told her parents she wanted to quit high school and wanted to start college. Always one to question the status quo, she also decided the area university was not her cup of tea. She then informed her parents she wanted to attend the University of Chicago and become a lawyer after obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science. The Stephens’, also parents to Myrtle’s five other siblings, weren’t quite so sure about this plan to obtain an education at one of the pricier universities in the country.

Myrtle decided to create the evidence that would convince her parents that she would not be challenged by the local university. She enrolled in 24 credit hours of junior and senior level courses at the local university in what would have been the beginning of her senior year in high school. Myrtle told them, “If I prove to you that I can do well in all of these courses, you have to help me go to UChicago. “ Her father agreed to this. She made all “A’s” except for one “B”. Living up to their end of the bargain, her parents took out a home equity loan to send her to UChicago but also told her she would have to help contribute. She took a job as a waitress the summer prior to her freshman year.

It was during my college years that I met and befriended Myrtle’s sister, Leah. In an environment where many chose to devote substantial time to extracurricular activities and suffer the consequences, like her sister, Leah was also always concerned about her coursework and her career, first and foremost. Her dedication to her goals paid off. She was offered a management position with a Fortune 500 company upon graduation and has continued to climb through the ranks since then.

It was through Leah that I met her sister, Myrtle. While attending college, I also spent my summers working, but as a nanny for various families on the East Coast. At the start of that particular summer, Leah let me know her sister had just let her nanny go and was looking for someone to quickly take her place. I jumped at the opportunity and quickly became aware I was in the presence of someone who would go far in life. The life lessons I learned from Myrtle still benefit me to this day.

Myrtle enrolled as a political science major but because she needed to work while attending college, she took a job during her sophomore year as a ward secretary at the UChicago medical center. She loved her job and continued into her junior year also working in the medical lab. At that point, she realized law wasn’t the calling she originally thought it might be, but also realized she was in her third year as a political science major at a very expensive school her parents had mortgaged their house to help her attend. She had found her calling but didn’t know how to bridge where she was with where she wanted to be. She began to take the small steps that get you to where you want to be.

Going into her senior year she started looking for a position that would take her from school into the workforce. Her first stop was the business college to look for an internship. She wasn’t a business major, but the administration made an exception to allow her to intern with IBM in sales. It wasn’t her first choice as she hated computers but what she got out of it was knowledge of business that she took to the next opportunity. It then dawned on her that she could take her love of medicine and marry it with business and turn that into something she loved to engage in every day. She called headhunters and told them she wanted to work in healthcare.

Her perseverance paid off and she got a job with Proctor and Gamble in their new patient care division…Selling adult disposable diapers! In all seriousness, she found it to be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs she ever had. It allowed her to give the customer dignity in healthcare….a theme that has followed Myrtle throughout her career. She was with P&G for several years and quickly got promoted prior to marrying her college boyfriend, James (who ironically graduated from Harvard in the field she had originally intended to pursue – law). They moved to the East Coast and Myrtle took a job as a sales rep with Merck. She was there for 14 years taking Pepcid from a prescription drug to an over-the-counter medication, as well as leading the marketing of Prilosec, making it the biggest selling drug in the world. She was one of the lead architects of the Astra/Merck joint venture (now AstraZeneca). The key to Myrtle’s success was that as opportunities became available, she never turned one down to learn something new about something she didn’t know. In fact, it seems the only opportunity she turned down was the chance to run a company at 28 years old. She was intelligent enough to realize that at the time she didn’t have the breadth of knowledge needed to do the type of job she expects of herself.

After gaining a substantial amount of experience at Merck, she was convinced to take a VP position at Bristol-Myers Squibb. She was quickly promoted to President of the Cardiovascular/Metabolics division, making her the first black woman to lead a major pharmaceuticals business unit. During her tenure, she was in charge of pricing strategy for all of the human health business and redesigned how BMS accomplished clinical development and commercialization. This changed how drugs were developed.

Another four years passed when Genentech called to offer her a one million dollar signing bonus and the positions of executive vice president of commercial operations, chief operating officer, and member of the executive committee. They had 13 drugs in the pipeline and needed the expertise she had gained via her willingness to take on any position that allowed her to add to her knowledge base. She was sought out because of her knowledge of how to commercialize drugs in a very efficient manner. She did exactly that with the cancer drug, Avastin and Xolair, an asthma drug.

In 2005, everything was going well for Myrtle career-wise. In her private life, Myrtle had honed the hobby of riding/jumping horses. That particular weekend she was riding in a competition. She was coming to the last jump and hit it at the wrong distance. She was thrown from the horse and came down on her shoulder. During her recovery she was given a medication to prevent scar tissue. She began losing hair, losing 30 lbs., skin peeling…. Then her lungs, liver and kidneys failed. She was told to put her affairs in order and let them know who should tell her children she had passed away. Thankfully, a doctor was found that correctly diagnosed what was happening…a reaction to her medication. The industry that she had given so much to, almost took her life. Once these issues were diagnosed and treated as a reaction, it took a year to recover. She couldn’t drive during that time because she couldn’t see well enough to do so; she couldn’t even write a check because she couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Once she recovered she had a choice to make: go back into corporate life or do something different. She chose to become an entrepreneur and started a company that gave advice to many pharmaceutical companies as well as the consumer on how to better navigate the medical system. (During her illness, it had become clear how difficult it can be for patients to get the care they need.) She’s done that for almost 15 years now but is now dipping her feet back into the corporate waters as the Vant Operating Chair for Roivant Pharma.

Myrtle’s rise from her humble beginnings as young black girl in a New Mexico school system ranked in the bottom quintile in the US to a much sought-after corporate executive of several of this nation’s largest corporations, illustrates how young girls in this country can aspire to become anything they wish through hard work, dedication to education, perseverance and the right type of support system. As parents we need to instill in our children this message: You need to be willing to work hard in school, learn everything you can about anything you can and apply all of that knowledge in the field you choose.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the website owner. Assumptions made in the analysis are not reflective of the position of any entity other than the author – and, since we are critically-thinking human beings, these views are always subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time.

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