Whose Voice Do You Listen To? Advice From A Standout Woman Entrepreneur

Maria Flynn went back to Chicago’s Booth School to become an entrepreneur. She figured out she most … [+]

One of the prevailing myths in the United States is that of the lone hero entrepreneur, the tough-as-nails founder who bootstraps his way up. (The bootstrap myth is almost always centered around a man).

But, consistently, interviews with real entrepreneurs reveal a different story. Maria Flynn, whose company Orbis Biosciences was recently aquired by Adare Pharmaceuticals for an undisclosed sum, is a case in point.

Flynn is unusual in a few ways, as a woman CEO, leading a DeepTech company. As an entrepreneur from the middle of the United States, her story hasn’t gotten the attention it might have if the company were located in Silicon Valley or New York. Orbis is headquartered in Silicon Valley.


But her story is all about context. She grew up on a farm, with supportive parents and two brothers to compete against. Her education led her to the University of Kansas for civil engineering and Stanford University for environmental engineering, and the University of Chicago – Booth School, for an MBA. Along the way, she had a career in pharmaceutical company.

By the time two entrepreneurs, Bo Fishback and Cory Berkland approached her to be the third member of the team at Orbis, she was ready. The company has patented technologies to manufacture uniform particles used to make oral and injectable medicines. Uniform particles are particularly important in drugs that have an extended release time, as long as 18 months. Among the people who benefit are the elderly and people with throat cancer, and kids who have a hard time taking medication.

Within her first two years at the company, Flynn took over the CEO role.

It’s not unusual for men to have support on their paths to company-building – what are accelerator and VC firms, after all, but giant support networks? But it is relatively unusual for men, in interviews, to so readily identify the roadblocks they faced and the people who helped them climb over.

One of the key roadblocks Flynn faced was the difficulty in raising money, which both she and Fishback ascribed to her being a woman. Rather than throwing herself against a brick wall, she leveraged her knowledge of the scientific world to win more than $9 million in grant funding for Orbis over the years.

Flynn had a key mentor, a retired pharmaceutical executive named Terry Shelton. She talked to him at least weekly, she said. She also had a supportive husband and a mother-in-law who cared for the couple’s three children during the 12 years Flynn was working on Orbis.

And at a key turning point, when she was deciding whether to put herself forward for the CEO role at Orbis, she turned to her mother for advice. “If you’re doing the work, take the title,” Juanita Stecklein told her daughter.

Flynn said advised other entrepreneurs to look to their support networks.

“If I could equalize all of us, to give all of us a chance, I would look at this question,” she said. “Who are the voices in your head, either voices from the past you carry with you, and who are the voices around you now? Who plays those supporting roles and what are they telling you?”

Co-author with venture capitalist Seth Levine of The New Builders and founder of Times of Entrepreneurship, I write about turning points in the lives of entrepreneurs and


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