‘We Ran Toward the Problem, Not Away From It' A Mom and Former Marine on Working During the Pandemic

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Maura Sullivan

Photo courtesy of Ginkgo Bioworks.

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April 23, 2024 at 1:15AM UTC

Increasing the safety of people and communities through biosecurity — that’s the goal Maura Sullivan is focused on every day. Sullivan is the Vice President of Business Development for Concentric by Ginkgo — a public health and biosecurity effort with the goal of providing testing capacity to organizations like schools, early education centers, and other congregant settings across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our team helped build the largest K-12 school testing program in the U.S. and partnered with the U.S. government to do COVID-19 testing in airports around the U.S., enabling and facilitating safer travel,” explains Sullivan. This wide reach is imperative, since as she tells us, “there’s no such thing as local without global.”

In addition to protecting people as a business leader and manager, Sullivan is also balancing her role as a mother. And she hopes her important work will make her a role model for her children. “I take a lot of pride in being a part of our team at Ginkgo,” she says. Her children help motivate her to continue this challenging work, too. Sullivan notes that she tells her team to imagine how, 30 years from now, when their children ask what they did during this crisis, they’ll be able to say that: “We did our darndest to fight, and we got up and worked our hearts out to keep our kids in school. We ran toward the problem, not away from it.”

To learn more about Sullivan’s fascinating work, as well as her advice for other women balancing work and family, we sat down with her. Here’s what Sullivan had to say.

First off, could you tell us more about biosecurity? How does biosecurity affect our daily lives?

COVID-19 is a pathogen, which is something that can cause harm. Biosecurity measures are the different mechanisms that can help keep us safer from biological threats, such as pathogens. 

To understand how this can work in practice, consider an airport. When you go through security, you go through a physical screening measure. Similarly, with biosecurity, there are ways we can test and monitor for biological threats that are dangerous to peoples’ health. Biosecurity measures help to monitor, prevent and ultimately protect the widespread impact of biological threats.

Next up, can we talk more about your leadership. What’s your leadership style and how is this reflected in your work?

Most of what I learned about leadership, I learned in the Marines. One of the principle tenets of leadership in the Marines is servant leadership — the notion that, as a leader, you’re there to empower your team, be a resource and be in service to them and to your mission. One of the things that I love most about Ginkgo is our mission to make biology easier to engineer. Being on the front lines, we wake up every day in service to the people around us and keep kids safer as a result of our work.

What are some key pieces of advice for other women (and especially mothers) who are moving into or want to move into leadership? 

Be very thoughtful about the organizations that you choose to dedicate your time to. 

When Matt McKnight, our Chief Commercial Officer, called and asked me to come to Ginkgo and help keep kids going to school safely, I wanted to help and take up this wonderful opportunity. But, one of the first things I said to him was, “I’m five-and-a-half months pregnant.” He responded, “That’s awesome; I’m excited for you. And that doesn’t change anything.”

The fact that Ginkgo was so excited about bringing me in speaks volumes about the company! My full-time hire date was May 10, and I gave birth on May 26. My experience should be everyone’s experience. I encourage women to not settle for less and to demand to be treated this way. This is what the bar should be — others should raise their game.

How do you think about making sure your own direct reports feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office? 

How I lead comes back to lessons about leadership in the Marines, with the first being the motto: “lead by example.” I try to always bring an openness, transparency and vulnerability to leading my teams. When I have people on my team who are also young parents, I show them that it’s not perfect, and we’re all trying to be our best. I think it’s important to be open and a little bit vulnerable about that. I think it's important that the people on my team can feel that their leader can relate to them and understand them and who is someone who's gonna make it work. Kids get sick, childcare falls through… these are just the realities of life for men and for women. The more that senior leadership can normalize interactions like these, the better. 

The second piece of advice is being an advocate for the community. Ginkgo has a new mothers’ room for pumping and is also very deliberate about making sure mothers and fathers know that the company is prioritizing being there for you. I’m very open about blocking my calendar when I’m on a pumping break and normalizing that behavior. 

Finally, it’s important for both men and women to take the leave that their organization offers. People watch what leaders do, so there’s a responsibility to model your values. That’s how you build trust among teams and organizations. It’s also how you get people who are excited to work with you because they are secure in their jobs and know the company has made a long-term investment in them.

Lastly, could you tell us more about the importance of networking with other parents? What are some tips and tricks for finding time for work-related socialization? 

Life is not about jobs, it’s about relationships. It's amazing what a team of people can achieve when they’re truly connected to one another beyond just a transactional relationship. Some of my closest friends at Ginkgo are fellow parents, and it’s those moments of shared vulnerability that ultimately translate into us being able to push and build those interpersonal relationships. I think it’s important to carve out time for relationship-building. 

One tactical example is, if we aren’t having frequent run-ins in person, we set up 15-minute calls three times per week with colleagues to just grab a salad or something. If we get at least one or two calls in a week, I can be a better leader and a better employee. It's those moments of experience and vulnerability that we share with one another that ultimately translate into really pushing one another's thinking and ultimately make the best decision for the business. 

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