Pictured above, left to right: George Korfiatis, Provost and University Vice President and Adrienne Choma, Esq., Saladax Biomedical, Inc.
Adrienne Choma’s route to success as a co-founder of the firm Saladax Biomedical, Inc had its share of twists and turns. After starting her professional life as a lawyer, she worked her way up the ladder at several corporations, including a major international pharmaceutical firm. Along the way, she learned the ins and outs of marketing, manufacturing and business development, building the skills and knowledge that would eventually help her co-create Saladax.
Despite her roundabout path, Choma believes all her experiences taught invaluable lessons that helped drive her forward. She shared those lessons in an appearance at Stevens Institute of Technology on April 1, hoping that her example would help young people — women especially — anticipate and prepare for a lifetime of real-word challenges.
Choma’s talk, before a full-house in the Babbio Auditorium, was the fifth installment in the Provost’s Lecture Series on Women in Leadership. The series, a showcase for the achievements of prominent and successful women, offers an opportunity for speakers to share their experiences and inspire a new generation of leaders.
Noting that Choma is a long-time resident of Hoboken, Provost George Korfiatis said her appearance is also part of the University’s effort to capitalize on the talent and energy of people in the local community and foster an ongoing exchange of ideas between Stevens and Hoboken. “This symbolizes the synergy between Stevens and Hoboken,” he said.
Choma distilled her experience into three essential lessons: 1) Listen to your inner voice and follow your passion. Don’t be afraid to change your life’s plan if it turns out not to be the right one for you; 2) Approach everything as a learning opportunity. Don’t wait for someone to hand you your dream job. Pursue it with commitment and hard work; 3) Roll with the punches. “Make lemonade when handed lemons.”
Choma’s varied career began to take shape during her college days at Rutgers University, when a part-time job as a receptionist in the Essex County Public Defender’s Office in Newark inspired her to go to law school. (“I got to know every armed robber, rapist and murderer in Essex County on a first-name basis,” she joked). Initially, she practiced at a private firm, but later she joined the law department at Hoffman-LaRoche, the global pharmaceutical giant.
After a number of years, she left the legal field but remained at Roche, where she took on new responsibilities in areas such as planning, regulation, research and development, marketing and manufacturing every few years, often with little experience but with a strong determination to learn and to master her assignment.
“What I wanted to do was build my knowledge and experience in all the various corporate functions that would make me a good CEO one day,” she said. “Mentally, I was building my resume for CEO. Most of the jobs I took were lateral in title, since I was already a VP. And, compensation was not much different. But the risk and hard work I took on were very significant in each new position.”
Choma is proud of the company for investing so much trust in her during the 1980s and ‘90s, when women were still relatively scarce in senior leadership positions. But when Roche moved much of its United States operation to Indianapolis, Choma decided it was time to leave the company and strike out in a new direction.
Eventually, she and a former Roche colleague, Salvatore Salamone, founded Saladax. They had an idea that was “simple and elegant” – a test that would allow doctors to tailor the dosage of chemotherapy drugs to an individual patient’s needs far more precisely than standard methods. They were both experienced and determined. They quit their jobs and became full-time entrepreneurs. They expected a quick rise to success and eventual acquisition by a major pharmaceutical or biomedical firm. They had no idea how tough it would be.
Raising funding was an ongoing issue. Economic development support from the Pennsylvania and money from friends and family got them off the ground. But when they needed money to advance their business, they found that most doors were closed to them.
“It still pains me when I pull up my list of over 150 venture capitalists that I tried to engage in our early days, with no success,” Choma said. “The rejection was painful and demotivating. And I wasted a lot of time trying.”
Eventually, Choma and her partner caught a break, born of their own willingness to take chances. Desperately in need of operating funds, they were on the verge of signing an “onerous” deal negotiated through an investment banker. But they decided instead to take another stab at raising cash on their own. They managed, through social connections, to obtain funding from a French investment group. A trip to Paris sealed the deal.
“We gave our pitch, we laughed, we joked, we ate, we drank and we walked out with a commitment for $4 million,” Choma recalled. “No due diligence, no torturous five versions of Excel spreadsheets. Just me, Sal, eight Frenchmen and $4 million. It was really one of the best days of my life.”
Saladax Biomedical survived its infancy and is now a decade old. Choma has stepped away from the company’s day-to-day operations but she remains proud of its ability to adapt and evolve. The company has met challenges by branching into new product areas, reassessing its business model and striking partnership deals to help it survive and grow. Discussions are underway with with potential acquirers. Choma and her associates have indeed learned how to make lemonade from lemons.