Innovate May 2018

CEO Profile: Sue Washer, AGTC


Written By: Emily Stolberg

Sue Washer never planned to be a CEO. Growing up she dreamed of being a veterinarian. That dream brought her to Michigan State University, which she attended for the highly esteemed veterinary school. How did Washer, a
girl from New England who dreamed of working with animals, grow up to become president and CEO of Applied Genetic Technologies Corp. (AGTC) in Alachua County?

“Opportunities came by and I have always been somebody who steps into the gap and tries to do better,” said Washer. “It happened because of that, not because I sat down one day and decided I wanted to be a CEO.”

Washer’s parents valued education. Her mom was an elementary school teacher and her dad was a well-read minister. Washer was always interested in math and science, so her aspirations to become a veterinarian didn’t come as a shock. What she learned early on in her pre-veterinary studies was how much she liked working in labs. This prompted her switch to pharmaceutical life and sciences, which led to a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry.

Washer went on to work at large pharmaceutical companies, Abbott Labs and Eli Lilly & Company. It was at these organizations where she began to notice that there was a gap in the industry: There was a need for people who could keep up with science talk, but also knew business.

“They [science and business] are two very different languages,” Washer said.

It was this chasm in the industry that inspired Washer to go back to school for an MBA to be the padding in that gap. Washer attended the University of Florida and became one of the first graduates from the Warrington College of Business Entrepreneurship Program.

With the entrepreneurship program under her belt, she joined small, startup pharmaceutical organizations, but in the sales and marketing sector this time. She said the founders of the companies were all science and no business, so they felt comforted that she understood the science they were trying to develop.

Washer’s cleverness in combining two industries she is passionate about is one of the many reasons she is a successful leader and woman. In recent years at the University of Florida, the ratio of men and women in science courses has become closer to 50:50. However, she said in terms of women in leadership positions like herself, equality has yet to be reached. She said the amount of female board members, CEOs and investors is low and definitely a work in progress. “The only way to change it [the lack of women in leadership positions] is more women willing to be able risk it, push forward and take those positions,” said Washer. “But it also takes the men to accept that someone once gave them their first break, and they owe that to someone else.”
Washer said everyone wants people with experience, but also mentions that people can’t get experience unless one person is willing to give them their first job.

“The same is true in executive leadership,” she explained. “Someone has to be willing and able to give women their first opportunity, and women have to be willing to take it.”

However, Washer said being a CEO is not for everyone.

“There is no one to point to when things go wrong other than yourself,” she said.

And in her industry that happens often. Life and sciences has a 92 percent failure rate, so for those uncomfortable with failure, Washer advised that this is not the field to be in, and the same goes for many startup companies.

“Many companies only last three to five years, but the employees and founders gain rich experiences and bring those experiences with them to their next company, and that is important to carry,” Washer said. “Failure is important.”

On top of being comfortable with failing, Washer said a good CEO needs to be someone willing to listen.

“I’m not a CPA, I don’t know every technical affair,” Washer admitted.

In order to be an exceptional leader, one must listen to his or her team members and get them to see eye-to-eye. It isn’t always possible to get a common consensus, so a CEO must be unafraid to make final decisions, explain why those decisions were made and ensure every team member understands the rationale and gets on board so the company can move forward.

“I think it’s a fallacy that only one personality type is fit for a CEO position,” said Washer.

Of course, go-getters and extroverts have the abilities to become great CEOs, but Washer said that some CEOs benefit from being more introverted and behavioral-oriented. As long as one is able to get a group talking and cooperating, it can be just as viable to have a quiet, soft-spoken CEO as an outgoing one. The important part is getting team members to share their ideas with one-another.

As CEO, Washer is traveling two-to-three weeks per month. Her favorite places to go are Tuscany, Italy and Northern Michigan, a favorite location of hers since her undergraduate years.

“I live in a smaller town, so getting the big city experience and then coming home is nice,” said Washer. “Experiencing new things and meeting new people is great.”

Keeping an open mind, relishing in new experiences and giving back are key factors that create a successful leader, said Washer. She gives back to the innovation hub and often gives guest lectures at the University of Florida. Washer also serves on boards of different trade organizations, which involves CEOs working together to try to improve the world and mentor one-another.

“If you become isolated as a leader, then you aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world,” said Washer. “You don’t have people questioning your choices and making sure you evolve with the tools and techniques of the time.”

Washer’s influence as CEO shines through the culturally and educationally diverse staff and overall open working environment at AGTC. The office is constructed in a way that encourages communication across fields and creates a friendly, comfortable community. There is even a sound-proof game room where employees can relax on the couch, play video games, foosball or do a puzzle. Washer said the room is also host to end-of-the-day happy hours every once in a while to boost company morale.

Washer may have grown up loving math and science, but she has transformed into a noteworthy leader who never forgets the importance of every member of the team. Whether CEO, CPA, researcher, sales associate or assistant, Washer makes sure every member in AGTC has a voice and uses it.

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EMILY STOLBERG is a senior public relations student at the University of Florida. When she isn’t writing, Emily is traveling, playing with her dog or eating Chipotle. Emily is known for her love for London and ability to binge watch Netflix shows freakily fast.

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