The bias breaker

Jennifer Byrne, Founder, Board Chair and CEO of Javara, Inc.

The path to the ultimate career is not always straight or free of challenges

Javara is an old Hindi word for tide, but what Jennifer Byrne, founder and Chief Executive of Javara, a clinical research company, is trying to do is quite new. She is focused on more than simply conducting clinical trials—she has her sights set on changing the entire industry.  Long playing the role of routine testing for new drugs or emergency examination of cutting-edge cures, the clinical trial, in Jennifer Byrne’s opinion, can do so much more.

“We believe that clinical research should be a realistic option for as many patients as possible, from the moment of diagnosis,” she says. “It should be part of the routine health care experience. We want to provide access to treatment options that otherwise would be unavailable.”

And while Jennifer’s innovative vision for her company is quite clear, the path to get there wasn’t.

Congratulations. Now what?

Graduating from Texas A&M with a Scientific Nutrition degree, Jennifer knew she wanted to do something in health care, but beyond that…clear as mud.

“As a little girl,” she says, “when I thought about being in health care, it was limited to being a doctor.” And back then doctors, at least the ones Jennifer was exposed to, tended to be overwhelmingly male. “Like a lot of people, when I came out of school, I just wanted to set the world on fire. I’m a big believer in childhood dreams. It’s interesting,” she continues, “as a young person, you’re told this narrative that with this degree, you can do this or this. But the reality is, there’s a whole horizon out there, probably less traveled, maybe less well-known, but still out there nevertheless.”

A friend of a friend introduced Jennifer to a doctor who, in turn, introduced her to the world of pharmaceutical companies and clinical research. Cutting her teeth on head-to-head comparisons between over-the-counter pain relievers, she went on to work with medications—commonly known and ubiquitous now—that were only in the early stages of development then.

“That first year, I was still really trying to figure out what I was doing, where I was going, and how it all fit into the broader landscape,” Jennifer says. “And when I look back on it now, I think there was actually a lot of benefit to that because I didn’t go into it feeling like I had a good handle on anything, and so I gave myself permission to be curious. Not just about my job, but where my job fit into the broader picture of research and R&D.”

CEO is fine, but…

“I knew I wanted to do something meaningful, and I knew I wanted to help people.” That double-sided North Star was all it really took for Jennifer. That’s not to say it was easy. There were a few interim steps along the way. Quite a few. First, lead a project. Then, get comfortable leading a project. From there, tackle leading people. And if that goes well—as it did for Jennifer—try your hand at building teams. And somewhere between the 15 and 20-year mark of her career, “I started really thinking, well, the next step here is leading a company.”

As employee number six in her company, Jennifer had literally learned from the ground up. The growth of the company mirrored that of her own career, and she eventually came to lead it as CEO. At one point, the company went from owner-operated to having shareholders, and Jennifer took on a fiduciary duty.

A crash-course in financial rigor followed; treasury, governance, a board, and all the rest of it. She survived, the next step had been taken, her goal accomplished. But she wasn’t done.

“I felt like I needed to be a good steward of someone else’s vision and creation, but the original idea wasn’t mine. I wanted to live the founder’s journey.” She wanted to start something herself.

Driving through doubt

Despite all she had accomplished, self-doubt remained the greatest challenge for Jennifer, especially at a time, at a level, and in a field when Jennifer, as a woman, was in the distinct minority. As it turns out, what helped her was her own immovable sense of responsibility for others.

“It’s not just about breaking through your own self-doubt,” she says, “but actually helping other people along in their own journey. And sometimes having to put the needs of others ahead of your own focuses you, enabling you to toss aside that fear of failure because otherwise, it’s going to hold back a lot of other people.”

Still, starting a company is hard. Really hard. “Having a foundation already in place that you walk into is extraordinarily different than having a Gantt chart that’s completely empty from day one and then figuring out okay, how am I going to make the least bad decision?”

With deep experience in a niche field, a strong line-of-sight from a regulatory standpoint, and extensive relationships across the pharmaceutical industry, Jennifer was more than equipped professionally. And, to help guide her along the way with those least bad decisions, particularly in the realm of financing, was her team of financial advisors, acting as thought partners and strategists all the while, as it was very important to Jennifer that she be able to self-fund her company.

The things that matter

“This might sound a little corny,” Jennifer laughs, “but I love people. I thrive on seeing people grow, develop, and explore. And to be part of actually watching people come to the realization that maybe they don’t have some of the boundaries that they thought they did, well, that’s pretty cool.”

Jennifer Byrne is the very definition of a people person. She does precisely what she does because of people. In addition to running Javara, Jennifer also established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Greater Gift as a clinical research philanthropic organization, which has donated hundreds of thousands of pre-COVID-19 vaccines to children in developing countries. (Javara was also extensively involved in Operation Warp Speed, the program established for the rapid manufacture, production, and dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines.)

So how does that people-first mentality translate into a leadership style in a very serious business where sometimes hard decisions need to be made?

In a word, balance. Jennifer leads the way she lives. “I think it’s important to stay tethered to those big-picture goals and be really intentional about how I’m spending my time. I believe in giving yourself permission,” she says. “There are things that are non-negotiable in terms of performance at the highest level. And then there are things that are okay being just good enough. You can’t be 100% in all ways.”

That holds true for Jennifer, and it holds true for her employees. “And this isn’t a woman thing,” she’s quick to point out. “This is an everyone thing. I don’t want anyone to be in a situation where they feel forced to have to make a hard choice. There are lingering bad effects that come with that.”

Jennifer Byrne has been blazing trails and breaking biases ever since her I-want-to-do-something-in-health care days as a little girl. And she’s doing it in a field that will only become ever more critically important in the years and decades to come.