Shamiram “Shami” Feinglass loves a challenge, and God help you if you think she’s not up to it. The five-foot-tall, mother-of-two medical doctor has, in the past year, added nationally ranked BMX racer to her resume, the perfect accompaniment to policy-maker, med tech executive, and public speaker.
“Frankly it all started as a lark, but by challenging myself I realized I can do it. And in doing the unexpected, I can be a role model for women and girls and an inspiration for others to take risk and own their choices. I can use myself as an example of attaining the seemingly unattainable. If Shami can do it, so can you!”
A native of San Francisco, Feinglass graduated from Smith College with an AB in Biochemistry. She was certain she would go on to study molecular biology but after one summer as an intern at Genentech, Inc, quickly realized that “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life talking to rats.” After some soul-searching during that summer, she switched to health policy and became a lobbyist for a non-profit education association in DC.
Feinglass spent two years as a lobbyist working on health, education and computer technology issues. Attending many discussions on health policy, she found herself surrounded by lawyers. “I knew I had to go to medical school. If I was going to do a decent job in the field, I would have to become a physician policy-maker. There were just so many lawyers at the health table, but not a single doctor.”
So off she went to grad school at Emory University, getting a Masters in Public Health and continuing on to medical school. Throughout her grad school career, she stayed close to the policy community in DC, working with the Carter Center on the inclusion of mental health care in the Clinton healthcare reform package and with US Medical during the Olympic games in Atlanta. She moved to Portland, Oregon, to do her residency in internal medicine while simultaneously doing public health policy work at the state level, with a focus on teen health and prenatal care for pregnant migrant farm workers (yes, you read correctly, interning as a doctor and doing public policy work). From there, she moved to Seattle as part of the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program to study access to mental health services for teens. “Most of my clinical time was spent in homeless teen clinics. It’s a population that has real promise if they can access the right services. I really felt I could affect more people in need if I helped the underserved and didn’t have to charge for my services or rely on the income.” Feinglass’ path became clearer to her after Seattle. From there, she entered the U.S. Public Health Service (the Surgeon General’s Corps) and then headed to Medicare where she felt she would make a difference as a physician policy-maker in government.
For the next seven years, she was responsible for making decisions on what Medicare would cover for seniors and the disabled across the US. It was during this time that she had her two children, and, just to keep things interesting, did a second residency in preventive medicine at Emory University. “So it’s not always the best of attributes that I strive for constant stimulation and fear boredom. I’ve always been interested in the learning curve and the challenge. Once I’ve mastered something, I’m interested in learning new things while I continue to focus on whatever that job is at that time.”
From Medicare, Feinglass moved to Zimmer, a large medical device company, as their VP Global Medical and Regulatory Affairs. “I went there because I was really attracted to the international business exposure and the opportunity to learn about non-US health systems,” she explains. Managing a large team on many continents and multiple time zones for 4.5 years was highly challenging but something was missing, “While I was senior enough to make decisions and help move the culture around, I wasn’t taking as much risk I wanted to,” Feinglass says, “so I took a pause. It was a bit scary but I wanted to take a self-imposed ‘time out’.”
The pause gave her time to explore something even the energetic doctor never imagined she’d take up.
While attending her 7-year-old son’s BMX event, Feinglass’ enthusiasm impressed a woman at the track who joked, “Why don’t you train to race BMX during your break from work? If you start now, you could compete next year.” Feinglass did a double-take and answered, “Are you crazy? I’m too old for crashing to a fiery ball of broken bones on a bike with no gears. And besides, I am super competitive so if I am going to do this, I need to be ready this summer.” The more she tried to convince the woman she wasn’t interested, the more she realized she was. The dearth of women in the sport made the challenge even more compelling.
In case, dear reader, you are not aware, Google defines BMX as “organized bicycle racing on a dirt track, especially for youngsters.” A “dead sailor” in BMX jargon is a jump gone wrong that might land you in the “melisha” but if you “kill” a “quarter pipe” and “shred” the competition you just might end up on the “X-Games” or nowadays even the Olympics. Got it?
With no time to lose, Feinglass started looking into how many races she would have to do to make sure she would place at the state and national level. It was doable. As a 45-year old woman, Feinglass got a kick out of the reaction from the competition when her name started appearing on boards before the race. “I loved the look on the boys’ faces when they would ask ‘Feinglass, who’s that guy?’ and I’d answer ‘Don’t worry, you’ll probably beat me but I’m still going to come up the track on your heels so watch out!’”
It was never quite a fair race for Feinglass but she has become a poster child of what is possible for women in their forties if they are willing to take a risk: “Whether they are boys or girls, the 17-year olds will lap you all the time! For me, it was all about showing that I could do it as an ‘old lady’ when I frankly had no right to be starting this sport at all. At least as a doctor, I can diagnose my own broken bones. It was a personal challenge and something I could do with my husband and son. But my daughter remains thus far unconvinced.”
And now Feinglass has made it her personal mission to get as many girls and women interested in the sport as possible. She approaches the mothers and sisters of the competitors at any track she races on asking if they want to give it a try and helps host girls-only days at her local track. Some of the moms have been inspired to give it a go. “Last week, a woman said to me ‘you know, Dr. Feinglass, I watched you on the track and I think you’re totally nuts but if you can do it, so can I.’ That has been the best part of all this. After only one year, we’ve seen more than double the number of females participating at our local track.”
Feinglass is currently ranked number 2 in her class in the state of Indiana. She competes nationally (and in Canada) and ranks in the top 30 of all female BMX racers in her category. “I haven’t heard from Go-Pro yet but I’m sure the call is coming,” she laughs.
Although she raked in a whopping $24 in Pro-Am official winnings in her first year, surpassing the career earnings of her son and husband, Feinglass is not likely to make money from BMX racing. But the experience has been transformative and made her rethink what she wants to do next. “I will admit, it is amusing to me to be a middle-aged mom doing my children’s sports but it’s also the role model piece. I want my legacy to be that there are more women in leadership positions, not just in medicine and the corporate world but also in sport. If I can inspire women and girls just by seeing me on the track – and not always doing that well – to get out there and maybe even lead on that track one day…well that’s fabulous. And I bet they will be leaders in other areas of their life too. I loved ballet as a child but with a little inspiration, maybe I would have loved judo!”
So, after a little personal research into what other non-traditional sports she could affect, she decided to start Tae Kwon Doe with her daughter. “I literally decided on a Friday to start and competed one week later, I won my group!” OK, full disclosure, all three white belts – Feinglass, an 8-year old boy, and a 10-year-old girl – got medals.
As she considers her next career move, at the very least Feinglass has great fodder for her public-speaking events. Regardless of where she lands, she’s committed to pushing boundaries for women. She tells you straight up, “Hey, this totally middle-aged, not-very-athletic doctor took up BMX racing one year ago and now she’s a state champ. What do you want to do today?”
Tips from Dr Shami Feinglass:
- Try to widen your comfort zone. Be ready to take on more risk. Be comfortable with some level of chaos and uncertainty.
- Don’t rush to take the first job that comes your way. Try to understand how the job fits into your legacy versus how your legacy fits with job.
- Thinking and transformation come from taking a pause.
Do you have some suggestions for the next Feinglass sports challenge? Leave your comments below.