sHeroes: “Never choose ‘inferiors’ as employees” With Author Dr. Hannah Sivak
By Alexandra Spirer
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Hannah Sivak, PhD founder of Skin Actives Scientific.
Sivak completed her doctorate research at the Institute for Biochemical Research in Buenos Aires (IIB), under the direction of Dr. L.F. Leloir (Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, 1970).Dr. Sivak’s second book, “The Scientific Revolution in Skin Care,” is available in both English and Spanish translated editions. She has published more than 60 papers internationally, including refereed journals and books on different aspects of biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and biotechnology. She was a Research Fellow at the Universities of York and Sheffield in the United Kingdom from 1980–1990 and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University from 1990–2002. She retired from academia in 2002, and now consults as a scientific advisor while overseeing formulations for Skin Actives Scientific.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Necessity. I came to Arizona without a job and, as a woman over 50, I was unable to find a job in academia (I did apply but I did not get to the interview stage). It would take a separate interview to explain why women over 50 can be too old for academia so let’s leave that for another time.
Looking for any employment opportunity I found an ad looking for a part time chemist/biochemist, to help with skin care projects. I worked as an advisor for this company for awhile but got frustrated when marketing would ask for scientific advice and then not follow on it. So, with my son pushing, I started on my own, in my kitchen, as if I had been in my 20s and not near 60. Scary!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This would probably be how we came to find out that epidermal growth factor, a protein we manufacture, could help alleviate symptoms of rosacea. We were selling an EGF serum for healing and anti-aging activity. We had customers use it for anti-aging and found that it was helping with rosacea. I eventually found in the scientific literature a possible mechanism for this effect (there are thousands of scientific papers on EGF), but the way we came to find this valuable benefit was communication with our customers. Indeed, I was introduced to several good ingredients through our customers, usually via our forum, which by now has almost 60,000 posts.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I do have a sense of humor but when I was just starting, I was too scared to find humor in my mistakes. I can still remember the dollar value to some of them, though.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We formulate new products following needs and requests from family and clients. For example, I formulated our Dream Cream when my grandson, then a baby, had a diaper rash. I formulated our Salicylic Wash because my daughter in law had acne problems.
I don’t let “fashion” and novelty push me. I examine the scientific evidence as it stands today and, using my experience, I decide whether to try an ingredient or not. But you can’t get me to use ingredient X just because “everybody” is excited about it. And I usually find that I was right: the fashion passes and yes, another miracle cure for wrinkles disappears in the horizon.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I think that education in skin care is the most valuable tool we are giving people today, and we give it for free. When I look at products from other companies, I can see that some are using ingredients that are bound to hurt the skin in the long run.
We also have projects to improve skin and hair care for people who are sick and undergoing a variety of medical treatments that are saving their lives but that, unfortunately have unpleasant side effects. I prefer not to give details because they would raise hope when we still don’t have the evidence in hand.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Respect the individuality of your associates but remember that you are a teacher. Teach. Lack of self-confidence is a waste of talent and expertise.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you will make them anyway, and don’t blame yourself for making them. Blame (and guilt) can be paralyzing.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Try to delegate but don’t let your people lose track of the main objective. You are the leader.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, my mentors Juana Tandecarz and Carlos Cardini, at the IIB in Buenos Aires. The science was good but also, they were good, very good people who respected me and nurtured me. I have been trying to “pass it forward” and I think they would be proud of me in that respect.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In two separate ways: in my little corner (my business, the people that work with us), I try to teach and make their life better in little ways. We spend more awake time with people at work than with people at home and I like to see people smiling.
In my work, our products are the very best: they really help the skin feel better and heal better and, of course, look better. I know that most of us are going to live to a ripe old age and we must take care of our skin so that it can do its job, to protect us from and link us to, the environment. Until the end.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. When you have to choose a person to work with, choose people who are better than you. Don’t be frightened of excellence. Many people choose “inferiors” as employees.
2. Don’t accept bullying. I did and I lost years of my life as a scientist.
3. It is OK to be scared of change, but go ahead anyway. I learned from my grandparents. I try to imagine my grandmother with her three young daughters in steerage but I can’t. Whatever scares me can’t be as bad as that.
4. The ivory tower is made of cheese. Many of us dreamt of a career in academia. For many of us, it was a mirage.
5. You may think you make choices but all too often the choices are made for you. I loved working at the Leloir Institute in Buenos Aires but I did not have the stomach to read every day about people snatched from the street or bodies found in the park where my children were playing. And then, I very much wanted to stay in Sheffield but then Margaret Thatcher closed the institute where I was working.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Scientific education; because it may help people make informed decisions about things as disparate as why you fall in love and how to choose your soap. Science has advanced so much, and yet many people are still making decisions based on beliefs that were current during the Middle Ages.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It used to be “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar”, from a poem by Antonio Machado. (Wayfarer, there is no road, you make the road as you walk).
Now, I think that “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be” (Douglas Adams) fits me better. It reminds me that perhaps I did not get what I wanted, but I got what I needed.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Nancy Pelosi. I wish I had an internship with her. She shows poise, strength and determination when confronted by bullies. I met bullies several times during my life as a scientist, but I was not prepared for them. I froze and I missed too many opportunities because I gave into bullies.