Join us for another episode of SheBoss, as we chat with Sonia Robinson, a thriving proponent of biotech and life sciences for the state of Alabama. Her decorated career came to a halt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being a single Mom of two young boys, this life event thrust her into a passion for understanding treatment options, resulting in her desire to make cancer ‘a thing of the past.’ She’s a survivor, an advocate, a community volunteer, and an overall badass who’s making great strides within our community and beyond. Pour yourself a cocktail and join us!
She Boss with Sonia Robinson
Megan: Hey guys, welcome to another episode of She Boss. I am super thrilled to chat with our guests today. Not only is she just an amazing inspiration in our community, but she’s also a dear friend of mine and I have admired her for many years. But before we get started, just to give you a little bit of information on She Boss, this is a video series that we do, we drop a new video every Wednesday and this is sponsored by Flourish. We’re a Huntsville based marketing and PR firm. And we have had the absolute honor of getting a chance to come into contact with so many amazing women throughout our journey. And so we figured that we would come up with a platform to be able to talk about them and talk with them and learn about them. That way, you can kind of hear their story, hear about some of the challenges that they’ve been through as a woman, as a mom, as an entrepreneur and as a business woman. That way you can kind of get a feel and understand that maybe some of those driving forces and some of those problems that you might have are not uncommon among a lot of women. So anyways, I’m super excited to hear about Sonia’s story today. But Sonia Robinson is joining us today. She’s the executive director of BIO Alabama, and has just an amazing decorated career. So I’m going to turn it over to her and Sonia just kind of fill us in on all things you.
Sonia: Hello, Megan and everyone else. Thank you for giving me a purpose today to actually fix my hair. And I’m trying a new lipstick color as well. I never wear lipstick, but when life happens on Zoom, you need a little color in your life. So I’ve started wearing at least some lipstick. Thanks for having me. I do have my pup here he might photo bomb on the video or I may have to hop up and move around as it is playtime for him. But appreciate the invitation to join She Boss and share a little bit about my story. I’m always happy to share and hopefully parts of my journey or something that I say will positively influence someone else. So thanks.
Megan: Start with your background sort of like where are you born? Did you go to school here? What your journey looked like as you got into your career?
Sonia: Yeah, I am Huntsville born and raised. I love North Alabama. I love Huntsville. This is my home and there’s my pup. I graduated from Madison County High School and then went to the University of North Alabama for both my undergrad and graduate work. After college, I landed my dream job after interning at Crestwood Medical Center. So graduated and started and I am going to get up and move because my pup is- wait, nope he’s sitting down. This is the pleasures of working from home. But after college, landed my dream job started at Crestwood Medical Center as the marketing coordinator, and absolutely loved it. Loved the healthcare environment, loved interacting with physicians and with patients and doing PR and community outreach for the hospital. I was there for eight years stay there for eight years and just loved every minute of it.
After Crestwood, I joined a company at the time Appleton Learning Corporation. So if you’re from Huntsville, you’re probably familiar with Appleton. Joined the team there, helped grow that organization and they had a successful pivot and launched a new business, which is now Spur and spent eight years there. So eight years since my tenure, if you will. While I was at Spur, I hit a major bump in the road in my life, something that I never really thought that I would experience. And at age thirty six, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And as you can imagine that that news is something that kind of knocks you back on your heels and causes you to really start evaluating your life and what your purpose is. And that kind of propelled me to start evaluating my career and what I ultimately wanted to do long term and really wanted to get back into healthcare in some way because I love my time at Crestwood so much. So here I am, the executive director of BIO Alabama and loving every minute of it too. So we’ll see if I’m here for eight years as well.
Megan: That would be a trend. So tell us a little bit about BIO Alabama and what you guys do there. I know it sort of brings together all the biosciences, if you will, in the state of Alabama. It really helps to kind of fuel that ecosystem. Tell us a little about what they do.
Sonia: Yeah, BIO, Alabama is a statewide organization and we serve to connect the biotech life sciences companies throughout our state. In the midst of a global pandemic, you really start to see the importance of collaboration and connectivity. The bioscience industry is one that thrives on collaboration. So in our state, we have incredible resources, from HudsonAlpha, to UAB, to Bio Ag and chemical organizations like Evonik in the Mobile area, they also have a Birmingham location. There are a lot of companies and business leaders who operate in the space. And we’re serving to connect that ecosystem across our state. It’s an important economic driver for our state and for the global economy. So ensuring that we’re on track, and we’re elevating, amplifying the work of our researchers and scientists, and business leaders.
Megan: So what role have you guys had with COVID-19? I would imagine you guys are probably busier than ever right now. I would imagine the folks at HudsonAlpha are too.
Sonia: Yeah, it’s been interesting to sort of watch that unfold. Folks working in bioscience are considered essential. So labs stayed open, people were continuing to go to work. As soon as COVID news started hitting the headlines, a number of companies across our state responded rapidly and responded in jaw dropping ways; through research, through therapeutics, through vaccine development. There are organizations in our state who are participating actively in a cure, or maybe not necessarily a cure is the right word, but a vaccine and therapies to overcome this global pandemic.
Megan: It’s insane. It’s crazy, what a couple of weeks will do. It’s just mind blowing to think about where we were just three months ago, you know, and to where we are now. I mean, the world has literally changed as we know it, and will never be the same.
Sonia: I agree and you kind of start to inventory your life and what’s happening and try to determine I’m trying to find as I’m moving around, trying to find a good spot in my house where my pup will be growling in the speaker of my computer.
Megan: Joys of working from home
Sonia: I love it. And I kind of lean into it as my dog and my kids and other life things are happening around you. I’ve been leaning into it and try not to be apologetic about it, because we’re going to look back on these videos and go, what was happening. And this is the way of the world right now. We’re making it work. We are seeing that moms can thrive with their kids in the house and not just moms, parents can thrive with the kids running around with the noise in the background. We all have just embraced it and this is the new normal and we are unapologetic about our lives because the line between personal and professional life is completely gone right now. So we’re seeing a glimpse of how people live and what their lives are like through Zoom.
Megan: Well, I think that new normal, that environment is really going to fuel these blended worlds, you know, as you mentioned, where I mean, you can’t really compartmentalize your professional life and your personal life and it’d be two separate things without one sort of bleeding into the other in some capacity. And if they’re unable to do that often what you get is a negative reaction, right. So being able to be comfortable with that being the new normal, I think will just fuel businesses to be more productive and culture to be stronger.
And I mean I’ve heard a lot of that recently with a lot of our clients who their culture has gotten so much stronger because of this, because they’re able to engage in a way that was much more authentic that you really haven’t been able to do. They get to know your dogs and your kids and whatever it might be, which I think just lends itself to maybe a little bit of a closer, personalized relationship that you didn’t really have before.
So, I want to talk a little bit about your career, because a lot of the women that we talk to, and a lot of the women that follow this series are in a situation where they are either entertaining, starting a business, thinking about that passion that really fuels them on a regular basis. And you and I spoke about this before we jumped on, but that thing that always keeps you up at night, where you feel as though you’re meant for something bigger, you feel as though you want to do something different with your life, but you just don’t know what to do or how to go about doing it or can you start a business? So many women have doubts in their mind about being able to do that, and what type of resources are available out there? How do you go about doing it? I would love to hear your perspective on that and your advice on that because you and I have talked about this before. We have similar journeys, I haven’t had quite the bump in the road that you have had, but we have similar journeys and similarities to things that we’ve experienced in the past. And I think some of those moments are those ‘aha’ moments that really transform the way that you look at the world. But tell me a little bit about that for you, and how you were able to take the high road and look at the silver linings when you could have very well gone the other direction, and maybe some pieces of advice for women who might be in a similar boat or just facing some challenges on their own.
Sonia: Yeah, good question. And I am not one to offer advice or say, “Oh, this is how I did it. So you need to do it this way”. Our journeys are all very different, but we can glean successes from others and model our approach after stories from others and in the stories that they share with us. Prior to breast cancer, I was just a normal person who wanted to buy for her children and have a great life, whatever that means. But we’re kind of in my tracks to say, “Oh, wow. This is the end”. And that sort of just puts you in a different headspace. But I also realized the importance of surrounding myself with really strong and supportive people, whether they were females, whether they were mothers, males, whoever they were seeking out and finding really strong and supportive people who could fill three buckets for me.
Number one, we all need a cheerleader, we all need someone who is rallying around you and saying, “You are great, and you can do whatever you want to do”. Find yourself a cheerleader or many because you need them. Find yourself the critic and I say critic in a way you need someone also in your life, who is willing to tell you the not so good things, who is willing to provide constructive feedback on your blind spots and your shortcomings. And you have to be in a position to really accept that feedback. Because that’s probably some of the most important feedback that you’ll get is that difficult, like here is where you fall short because until you know that you’re not able to really overcome those barriers or your or your blind spots. So you want your cheerleaders, you want your critic and then you need someone who doesn’t really know you to be this objective, third party voice in your head who is sharing the way that they would go about doing something or almost like a coach.
So I had my cheerleaders, of course my mom and my sister and my close girlfriends were all there to cheer me along. I had a mentor, who really served as that critic who provided me that really tough feedback for me to help me fill those gaps that I had. And then I went out and hired an executive coach, when I was evaluating my career pivot. You don’t necessarily have to hire an executive coach you can find someone to fill that gap. But I hired an executive coach, and I had folks say, “Why did you hire an executive coach? I mean, you’re a professional woman, you’ve had a successful career, why do you need an executive coach?” Because I wanted to really go to that next level. And having that third party person sit down and give me a roadmap and prescribed process to follow, helped hold me accountable. And when I say career pivot, this is when I made the decision to leave Spur. I took about seven months off and knew that I wanted to get back into health care or Bioscience in some way, given the experience that I had going through breast cancer, that’s why I wanted to get back there. So I spent those seven months researching the industry, having conversations, working with an executive coach, meeting with my mentor every other week, to really evaluate the path that was right for me and decisions that I made were right for me. And decisions that I knew I wanted to look back on in five, ten years and go, “I made the best decision with the information that I had in front of me at the time”.
Megan: I love that so much. And I have so many questions and comments about that. But if you haven’t had a chance to watch Sonia speak previously, one of your underlying messages is to put yourself first. I love that so much, because I think that not only as women, but as moms and as professionals, it’s all about everybody else. And then you get sort of taken care of at the bottom of the list. And there’s just no way that we can be the best version of ourselves if we don’t put ourselves first. And I love that talk that you give because it really highlights the fact that you just can’t be at your full extent and you can’t give 100% of yourself to other people if you don’t take care of you to begin with. So I’m curious about that journey that you had with the executive coach, what was the biggest surprise that came out of that that you learned about yourself that maybe you had no idea that was like, “Holy cow, I do that” or just surprises that maybe came out of that that you were just wondering where they were before?
Sonia: I wouldn’t necessarily say there were any surprises. My executive coach helped me focus my attention on what I really felt my purpose was in life and really build a framework around what that looks like. She also helped me understand how to say no and to be selective in how I went about applying for jobs interviewing for jobs during my pivot. I had to write down what was important to me and put things in buckets and grade any job description that I reviewed, any interview that I went into. I had to grade that based on what my personal items were of what was important to me. So she helped me really focus that and I also started a little consulting business on the side.
As I approach projects from a consulting standpoint, volunteer work and community engagement is very important to me. So as I evaluate volunteer opportunities, I use this formula to help me decide if this is where I need to be spending my time. Time is a fixed resource. I have learned through training and of course correcting myself that my time is very valuable, and I have a limited amount of it. So what I choose to invest my time in is going to be exactly what I want to be investing my time in. And my personal criterion for that is, from a volunteer work standpoint, is associated with cancer research or cancer patient advocacy, those are my two metrics, if you will, or two attributes that must be involved, and then community engagement, as well. So, leadership development, community development is another area that I try to spend my time. So that helps me really focus my volunteer efforts.
From a consulting standpoint, I want to take on projects that light a fire in me that I know will better our community or better our world. I don’t want to just take on a consulting gig, because it’s a consulting gig. So I’m very selective there on what I take on. Therefore I don’t maintain a lot of consulting clients throughout the year, just maybe one or two throughout the year.
And then from a BIO Alabama perspective, I joined BIO Alabama because I had a personal passion for learning biotech in the bioscience world. I’m not a scientist. I am a marketing and PR sales professional. But elevating and amplifying our bioscience community in our state requires those skills. So I don’t have to be scientific, I don’t have to be a researcher to be involved and be engaged.
And as I’ve gotten a little more familiar with our bioscience community, and actually yesterday just announced BIO Alabama bringing on our first intern, summer intern, I’m really excited to have her on board. My goal in this internship program with BIO Alabama is to say, “Hey, biotechnology students in our state, chemical engineers or biology majors, having the skill set of marketing and sales and PR is just as important to you as a bench scientist because you might join a startup you might join a small startup and having those skills will be great for you as you’re working in a startup”. But also to students who like me, I wasn’t necessarily interested in math or science in high school, that’s changed as I’ve gotten older. But there are paths for professionals in the biotech community that’s not necessarily research or scientific focused, we need all disciplines to make bioscience work. So kind of elevating the awareness there that if you are a marketing professional, if you’re in sales, there could be opportunities for you in helping us grow the bioscience community in Alabama.
Megan: I love that so much. It takes a collaborative effort, and it does take all types and I completely agree with you, you don’t have to be subject matter expert in a very specific lane to have a big impact on something that is as impactful as what you guys are doing. I mean, you can have the technology all day long, but if you don’t know how to communicate it to a broader market, and get it out there and raise the awareness, you’re going to struggle, I guess is my point. So that’s awesome. Congrats on the new intern to you. That’s really exciting.
Sonia: So you had mentioned when I normally speak and I love to share my story and how my theme is typically- put yourself first. Man that sounds like the most selfish thing that you could say, as a mother or as a wife or a partner to someone, as a daughter to say I am number one. But in fact, it’s the most unselfish thing you can say because in order for me to be the ultimate mother to my children, I have an eleven and seven year old boys, both boys. For me to be the ultimate mother to them, I have to be my best. In order for me to be my best I have to be taking care of myself. And that hit me hard when I’m facing a double mastectomy and being basically out of commission as a mom for a couple of weeks because I’m recovering from a big surgery. That hit me again when I had to make the decision to proceed with chemo. And the ultimate reason and what led me back to me making those big health decisions was the fact that I was a mom. And I had to make the most unselfish decision, I didn’t want to do chemo, I didn’t want to lose my hair. That just wasn’t something that I was looking forward to doing. But I had to make- it was my responsibility as a mom to make that decision to put my health first and set myself up for the lowest risk of recurrence possible, because I want to be my boys’ mom for a really long time. Through that, I learned that rest and self-care is a word that gets tossed around. You think moms are at the massage parlor or whatever they call it now and you know, getting manis and pedis all the time. Self-care goes beyond those things. Self-care is meditation, self-care is exercise and moving your body self-care is paying attention to what you’re putting into your body and how you’re fueling your body. I’m not always the best at that but there are things that we can do as moms, as professionals, to put ourselves first, so we can be the ultimate and so our headspace is in the best shape possible to support and care for those around us that are important. That’s what I mean, when I talk about putting yourself first it’s not about leaving and going to the beach and doing spending all your money on a brand new car or whatever, it’s about really making sure you’re you are the best person that you possibly can be for those around you.
Megan: So I would imagine, and I’m making an assumption here, but I would imagine that this is probably one of many pieces of advice that you would give to your younger self. But tell me how you have changed as a mom, from before you were diagnosed to after? How has that changed you?
Sonia: So looking at my younger self, I have a 13 year old niece. And I see her as my younger self. But how it has changed me as a mom, I am very intentional with the time that I spend with my children. Do I spend 24/7 fully engaged with my children? No, because my boys are their own selves, they need time to themselves, they need time with friends, they need me very differently now than they did when they were infants. And that’s going to continue to evolve. They’re going to need me differently when they’re teenagers, when they’re out of school and then college, so life evolves like that. I’m being very intentional with where they are in their life and how they need me. So I can show them I am raising gentlemen, that I am raising really good dudes who have a love for life, who are surrounded by people that they love and that love them. And that I try to put them on a path to make really good decisions, they’re not always going to make really good decisions and that’s okay. And that would probably be some of my biggest advice to my younger self or to my 13 year old niece- is you are going to make mistakes and that is okay. There is nothing that you could do that would prevent me from loving you, right? Like my kids, there’s nothing that they can do to where I won’t love them. But I hope that we have that relationship to where if they do make a mistake or they have a difficult or challenging experience that we have that relationship that they can come to me and say, “Hey, you know, mom”, or Hey- my niece calls me big Nani, “Hey, big Nani like what advice do you have? How do I need to navigate this? How do I overcome this obstacle?” And let’s work through it together because there’s nothing that you can’t overcome.
Megan: That’s such a great example to your kids to be able to see you thriving, fail, you know, stumble, fall, whatever it might be, get back up and just do it again. You can have these dreams all day long and you can have these thoughts about whether it be starting a business or whatever the case might be. But if you don’t take some of those risks and try things that you’re either fearful of, you’re scared of you don’t think you’re going to work out, you’re never going to be able to know what the outcome will be if you don’t try. So being okay with making mistakes and failing, I think is a great piece of advice that a lot of people don’t understand if they haven’t been through that before.
Sonia: When it comes to business, like making mistakes, you want to make responsible mistakes, right. So if you’re thinking about pivoting and starting your own business, perhaps you need to moonlight if you’re currently working, and have a great job and a great source of income, maybe you moonlight on the side to build up this business dream that you have. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, there can be parallel paths. Today, we can all enjoy parallel careers. It doesn’t have to be one track. And there are multiple things that we can do. So I would encourage women or men out there, who are evaluating a business idea, start it and moonlight on the side, you don’t have to put everything in one basket. And then once you’ve built up some revenue, or income or funding sources that allow you and provision that path of focus, then make that change. But don’t risk because financial stability is, for me, very important. I don’t want to have to worry about money. And my mentor when I was evaluating my career pivot, he advised me he said, Sonia, while you are- I called it sabbatical, just because that sounds fabulous, while you’re on sabbatical, your monthly income your or your monthly expenses, you need to get those as low as you possibly can, from the amount that you’re spending on groceries, eating out, had to give up my mani pedis, you know, those things, those are decisions because we have lifestyle creep, right. Our income grows and with that our lifestyle improves and we have all of these things that we enjoy doing. Well, transitioning to evaluating a career pivot, you have to make those really tough decisions on okay, if I’m going to make this work, if I really want to put myself on this path, what decisions do I have to make to ensure that I’m making responsible decisions for myself and for my family that have a good upside potential?
Megan: I love that. I think you are perfectly suited to help us in this next question that I have for you. But while you’re moonlighting, you don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to have the whole kit and caboodle ironed out full blown business plan. I mean, you want to start somewhere, and you want to have some ideas and resources that you can lean on. But you don’t have to have all that stuff figured out. But there are phenomenal resources in our community specifically that offer those types of things. So why don’t you share with us a little bit about some of those? I know you are very well versed in them.
Sonia: Thank you so much for asking, because one thing about being an entrepreneur, and I don’t necessarily classify myself as an entrepreneur, I have a consulting gig on the side but to be a business leader, in general, to be the executive director of a BIO Alabama, even, I don’t have to know everything, I can’t know everything. I lean on people who have skill sets and expertise that I do not have. And I purposely seek those people out and surround myself with people who can fill my gaps.
So same with starting your business, you do not have to know everything, and it would be impossible for you to even know everything. Seek out those resources, develop and build a network of what I call a network of trusted advisors. There are folks in my- Do people even say Rolodex anymore?
Megan: I don’t think so.
Sonia: There are people in my Google contacts that have a very specific skill or a piece of knowledge that complements what I’m trying to do. And I keep a wide variety of folks in my network. And I heard someone speak and I can’t remember exactly who it was now but this person spoke about how people come into your life, and are in your life for seasons. Some may stay for a very long time, some may stay for very short steps, but they’re there for a purpose. So keep your eyes open for people who come into your life maybe for a season, who can help you navigate where you are in your life. And so there are folks that I go back to even my Crestwood days, which has been over fifteen years ago, people that I’m still friends with that are professional advisors for me that I reach out to and I engage with in conversation. I meet people. I love meeting new people, and every day, I have the opportunity to meet someone who can teach me something new expose me to something different, and surrounding yourself with a diverse group. It may be the advice that I would give, I don’t know if that makes sense. But having a group of diverse folks in your network, who share diverse thoughts, if I’m making sense right now, like diverse ways of thinking about things, is important.
Megan: Well, you know, it’s kind of like that old thing I remember hearing about this, where you kind of look through. It’s kind of silly, but you kind of look through your friends on Facebook and you do like a clean sweep. I mean, those people who you surround yourself with, if they’re not propelling you in some way, supporting you in some way, being that sort of, unbiased constructive criticism giver, you know, when you need it the most. I mean, you have to be able to surround yourself with people that are helpful and insightful, and are positive and don’t drain you and pull you down whatever the case might be. And I think it’s a really great point from a professional standpoint, do an assessment of yourself as an individual, and if there are things that you want to achieve, but you’re lacking, like you said, skill sets, in one or two areas, find those people and build relationships with them. I think that’s such an amazing piece of advice, because I think oftentimes, people are afraid of doing that and feel as though they have to be the ones to sort of learn all of that and be experts in something as opposed to recognizing what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at, and just leaning on people around you. And I think primarily here in North Alabama, the entrepreneur community as a whole is just so supportive. And you know, there are so many different opportunities where you can just ask questions, and ask for advice, and whatever it might be, we are very lucky here. But that’s a great piece of advice, just to help anybody in that phase of their life.
Sonia: And there are a number of professional organizations, The Catalyst Center for Entrepreneurship is a great resource for folks who are exploring starting a business, you have professional organizations, like the Public Relations Council of Alabama, where if you are a PR professional, or you’re interested in PR, then get involved with that organization that’s going to expose you to so many professionals in your area that you can then start engaging with and learning from. Urban Engine is another really good example of how our community supports entrepreneurs, supports young professionals and professionals at any stage in your career.
Megan: Yeah, completely agree. Sonia, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I think your story is just so beautiful and there are a million more questions that I could ask you about your journey as a whole. I think it’s really beautiful to see and hear about sort of, I don’t want to say a transformation, but you just sort of go through life, doing your thing, clocking your time, whatever it might be. And then something happens that is a complete wake up call. And unfortunately, it takes that wake up call to really transform and unveil that better version of you that maybe has been there for a really long time but, just hasn’t come out for whatever reason. We shouldn’t, and I say this as a whole, we shouldn’t wait for that moment to happen to make those changes. You’re living proof that time is of the essence and it is very limited and you don’t get any more of it. And I know that our kids are going to be off to college. And it’s like, “wait a minute, what happened?” I so appreciate you sharing your story. And you’re such an inspiration to so many men and women for that matter. I have a last question for you actually, tell me a little bit about; what does Sonia get excited about, that’s coming down the pipeline for you in the next year, six months, five years, whether that be a personal thing, a professional thing, stuff going on with BIO Alabama, that is just amazing. What gets you really excited to think about right now?
Sonia: Part of what is consuming me right now and this may sound really bizarre. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I only have my children for ten more years. So my oldest son will graduate high school and the next what six years and my youngest son will graduate high school in ten years. So I only have ten more years and I say that really serious, but we all know sort of that transition that kids make. So the next ten years for me is really focused on my children and continuing to build a really strong relationship with my dudes as I call them because they will be my- I mean they are my legacy. So why do I need to be doing every day to ensure that I’m building a stronger and stronger relationship with them? Professionally, wow I don’t know a lot can happen in ten years. I want to continue growing and expanding my knowledge skills and abilities within the bioscience space just because I think there’s a lot of good that can be done. But I want to be in a room with people who were much smarter than me. To hopefully one day look back and say, “what was cancer?” ‘Was’ being the key word there.
Megan: I love that, awesome. Thank you so much.
Sonia: Thank you, Meghan. This was fun.
Megan: Yeah, you are amazing. I hope Chase has calmed down a little bit. I’m surprised we didn’t see his face a little bit more
Sonia: Sorry about the move around earlier in the video. But hey, this is life.
Megan: This is the new normal so it’s totally fine. Yeah, it’s totally fine. So, alright Sonia, thank you so much. And we’re definitely going to make sure that we include info on how people can find and support BIO Alabama, because you’ve got membership for folks who can join and help fund some of the initiatives that you guys are doing and a lot of exciting stuff happening there and HudsonAlpha and it’s awesome that’s in our own backyard. So congratulations to you for that role and everything that you’ve achieved and thank you again, so much for taking the time out to chat with me today.
Sonia: Thank you. Have a good rest of the day.
Megan: Alright, thanks you too, bye.