Robin Siegel Lakin: Back to the Stage – Just What the Doctor Ordered!

Robin LakinWhen your heart’s not into something, it doesn’t matter how lucrative or practical a path it may be, you’ll never succeed if something else is tugging at you. Robin Siegel Lakin has twice tried to lean into a conventional career when all along she knew she belonged on stage.

As a young teen, the Brooklyn native spent her weekends trekking into New York City to study acting at the Strasberg Theatre. When she wasn’t in class she was auditioning. She landed parts for AT&T, Maxwell House, Hardees, and more. “I had a great agent early on and so I got steady work. I even did a couple of spots on soap operas. I loved it.”

It was a bit surprising, then, that at 18 she decided she should go to college and major in accounting. Guess how long that lasted?

“I stayed in college for one year. What can I say? I was very good at math and science, and so I thought it would be good to have a practical skill to fall back on. But I missed acting.” (more…)

Dr Phil Pizzo: Founder of Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute

Phil PIf Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the founders of PayPal and still two of most influential Silicon Valley investors, believe life extension technologies are the next wave of hot Silicon Valley start ups, then it’s a good thing that other forward thinkers in Silicon Valley are spending their time focusing on how to improve the quality of our longer lives.

As a medical doctor, researcher, and educator, Phil Pizzo has always been drawn to the transformative power of research.  Earlier in his career, he led changes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the treatment of children with cancer and AIDS, pioneering techniques that are still used today. And he used those examples to persuade a new generation of aspiring doctors to consider the field of pediatric research when he served as Pediatrics Chair of Harvard Medical School and then Dean of Stanford Medical School.

Pizzo attributes his mission-focused approach to his fundamental belief that anyone can produce great change when it’s needed. As a child of the sixties, he witnessed significant cultural transformations take place, and he believes we are on the cusp of yet another — we are no longer living in the era of a single career that leads to retirement at 65, but rather people can live two or perhaps even three professional lives. And at 69 years, Pizzo has launched his own second act, leading the charge to help people, corporations, and educational institutions make that cultural transformation a reality.

The brainchild behind Stanford University’s Distinguished Career’s Institute, Pizzo has foreseen his own reinvention for nearly four decades. “As a young intern in Boston, I met some extraordinary people in medicine who had had great careers but weren’t really ready to move on or in other directions. But they had nowhere else to go; so they were hanging on, and it was then that I vowed I was never going to do that.”

Born in the Bronx, NY into a working class family – his mother was a part-time beautician and his father worked two jobs, selling women’s coats and as a check out person at the race track – Pizzo was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “So I was immediately a success,” he jokes “a relative success of course.”

He earned full scholarships to undergrad at Fordham College in New York City, and then another full ride to the University of Rochester Medical School.  He moved to Boston for his clinical training, and it was there that he became much more interested in the fundamentals of research as he specialized in hematology/oncology and infectious diseases. In a few years, he was recruited to work at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  It was a supposed to be a 2-year stint but ended up lasting 23 years.

“That was a big part of my life. I had the opportunity to put together the pediatric department at NIH, and we played a large role in developing AIDS and cancer treatment protocols in children. And it provided a significant imprinting for me about the power of research to improve lives.”

Pizzo loved his work in Bethesda and could have stayed for longer, but a new  challenge was concerning him in the mid-90’s…the lack of pediatricians who were focused on careers in science.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been mission oriented. I’ve always been led by the question, ‘how can you do something that’s going to change the world in some way?’”

So for the first time, Pizzo sought out a job rather than being recruited into one. He decided to return to a medical school teaching assignment, and wound up in Boston as chair of the Pediatrics Department at Harvard.

Happily ensconced at the ivy league university, a call in the Spring of 2000 came totally out of the blue asking if he would be interested in becoming the Dean of Stanford’s Medical School.  “I said no at first. It seemed so foreign to me.”  But he eventually agreed and served as Dean for the next 12 years. “It was a terrifically exciting time — leading a medical school and center that was going through a lot of transitions.”

Stanford was an exhilarating change for Pizzo. “It’s a very exciting and entrepreneurial campus and the acceptance of failure around trying new things is very much in the culture. It’s about trying to be transformative.”

But even as Pizzo loved Stanford, he remained committed to his own career 2.0 always remembering his pledge as an intern to acknowledge when it was time to move on. We spoke with Pizzo about his decision to finally take the leap.

Phil P_2You loved your role at Stanford, so how did you decide to leave?

After 10 years there I made the decision that I wouldn’t go beyond 12. Even though I had stayed in medicine and science my whole career until that point, I had moved around a lot. I like change and I like to engage in new activities and challenges whether it’s in research, academia, advocacy or public policy.

Going back to my time in Boston, the seeds were sown for my career transition early on.  I witnessed incredible individuals being moved aside and I made a resolution at that point that I would not let that happen.

How did you figure out what that transition would be?

When I began thinking about it a long time ago, I thought I would do a PhD in history. So for 40 years, I have read history as a hobby. But fast forward to when I really began thinking about it more seriously, I had this epiphany that I probably wasn’t alone. When your career has run that 20- to 30-year gamut, which is the traditional amount, you oftentimes don’t have a clear path to follow next. And that’s what really led to the formation of what is now Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Why do we need a program like the Distinguished Careers Institute?

Frankly, because everyone is out of sync with reality – not just traditional businesses but everyone. We’re caught up in the 20th century narrative that says you do something for a career, and then retire at 65. That may have worked when most people died at 68, but those days are gone. That’s not the narrative that the people living through the experience are having today. Many people have to continue working because they need the money, but – even if they don’t have to – many people want to keep working and they want to try new things.  They want the intellectual stimulation, the community and the sense of purpose.

What are the goals of Stanford’s program?

Well, I began formulating this idea about three years ago and then two years ago I heard about Harvard’s Advanced Leadership program. It’s a very seminal program that broke ground, but there are pretty big differences in the way the Stanford program will work. What we have in mind is much more about personal transformation. It’s a year-long program, initially for 20-25 participants or fellows. We’re going to take them on a scholarly path in a chosen field – there are nine potential paths to choose from like education, energy, engineering, health and healthcare, the arts and more—they cover a whole array. Once you pick a path, senior faculty members mentor and guide you to probe deeply into a field that is quite different from where you’ve gone in the past.

The other part of our program is community building. We will bring people together for faculty forums, transformation series, deep-dive think tanks and more and couple that with evening social events as well. We are really aiming to build a community among the fellows. And then we’re building into that counseling and career placement services with Stanford and external search firms. We will also look at ways of making this a multiyear experience. If we’re successful and personal transformation later in one’s career becomes a national effort, then you can envision that the dialogue can shift and change around this topic.

Why is a University the right body to spearhead this kind of cultural change?

The way I see it is that universities and higher education play a critical role for younger people today. And I’m interested in universities scaffolding that experience for midlife – meaning from the 50’s to early 60’s. If you look at it that way, people have almost as much time for their second career as they did for their first career.

But here’s where universities can and should play a role.  Without a path, many people panic and don’t know what to do, they hang on longer than they should in their current jobs, or they retire early and squander their time and just react to things that come at them rather than actively shaping the next path.

I’m really interested in the transformation of higher education at large, and the program at Stanford is just a start.

How can and should other educational institutions play a role?

By necessity, to begin with, the Stanford program will be very small and elite to a certain extent, but the bigger issue is how we can use what we learn at Stanford to engage community colleges and other institutes around the country. Most people will not have the opportunity to take a gap year at Stanford. I have many family members approaching retirement age who would be unable to do it.  But they ought to be thinking of other ways to approach retirement, and we should be thinking of how to use all kinds of higher education to help people reroute and recalibrate their thinking as they get older.

As a medical doctor, what role does your interest in public health and medicine play in this?

People are going to be living into their 90’s and beyond, and I’m interested in paving the way for what’s going to happen in 2050 when that’s the norm. I won’t be around then but I’m interested in creating a legitimate, clear path where people can say, ‘I’m going to take time and probe deeply and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.’ The second part of the Institute’s work will be to look at the public health angle or repurposing your life and career in middle age. If you couple a new direction of purposeful living, value-based and goal-directed, with a recalibration of health and wellness programs, you could potentially attenuate some of the chronology of things that occur over time.

So that’s the big question – is this the start of something that can have an impact on how people live and their health in old age?

That is the big question indeed. Will programs like this make life in older age happier, and healthier and less debilitating?   From a public health point of view, I think if we can change the paradigm, I believe it will have a huge public health impact.

Who else needs to be on board to really change the culture?

What we need to do is change the narrative for employers across the board and that’s the next phase of this. At DCI, we are now beginning to meet with corporations and having dialogues with them. Right now they are in the mindset of ‘we need to get rid of people at certain points to make room for new people.’ But what I’m envisioning is that these people will broaden the pie – they won’t take jobs from new entrants. They may create new jobs some of which we haven’t thought about yet. New opportunities will unfold and people will approach them with different needs.

What can you accomplish starting this at Stanford as opposed to somewhere else?

Stanford is a great place to be doing this… if I were at a state university in the middle of the country, the chances of having this kind of engagement with corporations, the public health world and others would be much different. Being at Stanford helps tremendously in the facilitation of that dialogue. We’re very fortunate to be a part of that. But we don’t want to limit these opportunities to just few places. We hope for novel programs emerging from those universities and colleges across the country and around the world.

So what’s next?

We are ahead of the curve right now. The way change happens is that ideas transform behavior and we’re currently already beginning that transformative phase. Twenty percent of the US population will be 65 by 2030, and that’s a plurality of people whose views are going to be important. I’m focused not on what happens in the next five or ten years but paving the way for what happens in 2050 or 2100. I’m obviously not going to be around to experience it personally but I’m interested in planting the seeds.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, the 2015 Class is now filled but positions are available for 2016. See for more details.

Dr Shami Feinglass: The Doctor of BMX

Photo courtesy of Kay Ohta

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.

Photo courtesy of Kay Ohta

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.