By Natalie Snyder Bode and Emily Hoffman
Welcome to the second interview in our blog series, Women in Leadership. We had the pleasure of interviewing Elyse Dickerson, CEO and Founder of Eosera, Inc. Elyse and her business partner, Joe Griffin, founded Eosera several years ago. Eosera is a biotech company focused on improving the lives of millions of people around the world. The company’s first product, Earwax MD, is a patent-pending topical drop that treats impacted earwax, an often-overlooked condition that can lead to hearing loss and discomfort in the ear.
Prior to founding Eosera, Elyse spent 13 years in the big pharma industry. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a recipient of many technology awards, including the 2018 Top Women-Owned Business. Elyse is also very active in the community, serving on the TCU Healthcare Advisory Board and Fort Worth Country Day School Board of Trustees.
EMILY HOFFMAN: What was your dream job growing up?
ELYSE DICKERSON: I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to be. I was very competitive and athletic and I had the drive to succeed. In third grade, my teachers told my parents I couldn’t read and they needed to figure out what classes to place me in. I was in the public school system at the time, and they did all sorts of testing on me. I remember being so embarrassed and ashamed, thinking I was stupid because of all the testing. My parents felt what was showing up on the tests and in the classroom was not mirroring the potential they saw in me. That started a journey of being diagnosed with dyslexia. Back then, dyslexia wasn’t mainstream like it is now. Fortunately, my parents had the means to hire tutors. I would go to a tutor two to three mornings a week before school, and I remember being so embarrassed I didn’t want to tell anybody.
NATALIE SNYDER BODE: How confident were you?
DICKERSON: I was confident in sports, but in academics, absolutely not. I was a slow reader. I had to work harder and find ways to cope, but I did manage to earn A’s and B’s. I learned quickly to surround myself with really smart kids and learn from them. During my junior year of high school, my mother had me do aptitude testing as a way to plan for college. My scores were really high in visual and structural things, which suggested architecture and design would be good for me. I’ll never forget what the testing administrator said during the debrief of my results. He said he didn’t believe I could make it through a five-year architecture program or even a four-year college. I ended up graduating from Notre Dame in three years.
HOFFMAN: That’s impressive! Did you send them a picture?
DICKERSON: I remember my mom wanted to send them a letter letting them know I went to Notre Dame and how well I was doing, but I’m not sure if she ever went through with it. Because of what the Test Administrator said, I was too intimidated to major in architecture, so I chose a degree in graphic design. I always had doubt in the back of my mind because I had been told by others that I may not succeed. Even though my parents said I could do whatever I wanted to do, deep down I had to prove it to myself. Grit and determination has led me here. If I could get through that, I could get through anything.
SNYDER BODE: Before you started your company, what kind of culture did you want to create?
DICKERSON: Our company culture is based on Conscious Capitalism, which believes business should be a force for good in the world and have higher purpose over profit. Our purpose is people. We put people first in every decision we make. This includes stake holders, employees, patients, and investors.
HOFFMAN: Does the need to drive revenue growth ever conflict with Conscious Capitalism?
DICKERSON: There are decisions that would be easy decisions to make, however, they may not be the best decision for our employees or our investors. We turned down investors who wanted to make changes to terms when we were already halfway through our capital raise or who demanded a board seat even though we said throughout the process that was not part of the offering. Luckily, I had smart friends from the investment world who told me you can always find money, but there is “good money” and “bad money;” we didn’t just take a big check if it went against our values.
SNYDER BODE: You have said you knew you were going to do something with healthcare. How did you decide on ear wax?
DICKERSON: We decided to let the market tell us what the needs are instead of just creating a product and forcing it into the market. We spent quite a bit of time talking to any doctor or healthcare professional that would meet with us. We talked to geriatricians, pediatricians, ophthalmologists, EMTs and more. Ear wax impaction was the condition that came up with almost every specialist.
Healthcare companies that focus on the ear are really focused on how to restore hearing or hearing devices. Patients were going in for a medical procedure to have the ear wax removed, which is painful and time consuming. So Joe and I spent nine months in the lab at UNT Health Science Center reading medical literature and patents. We even had our own form of artificial wax to use for different tests. We would buy full pig heads to get skin to build our wax, because pig skin is very close to human skin. I was in the lab shaving off pig skin to create our official wax! Eventually, we were able to harvest human wax for testing. Nine months later, there emerged this formulation that kept working over and over. We officially launched our first product, Earwax MD, on April 17, 2017, and the product hit the shelves at CVS a few months later.
HOFFMAN: What challenges outside of the lab did you have to overcome in starting up the business?
DICKERSON: Money is always the big focus for any start-up. We entered a business pitch competition in Dallas hosted by Comerica Bank and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center for a chance to win $50,000. I worked diligently for months on this presentation, and we won! That was our first outside seed money. We got a lot of press coverage, and as a result, investors started calling us and we had to scramble because we weren’t ready for investor money yet. We quickly figured out how to write a term sheet and got a lot of coaching in a short period of time. We put together a financial model and advisors told us to double the amount we thought we’d need. As the business got going, managing the cash flow was really challenging. For example, with big retailers, they don’t pay you up front and can hold money a long time. I’ve seen firsthand why so many small businesses go out of business – they just run out of money.
SNYDER BODE: What is your long-term goal with this business?
DICKERSON: To expand our product line. We just launched Earwax MD, Earwax MD for kids, Wax Blaster MD, Ear Pain MD and Ear Pain MD for kids. We are launching Ear Itch MD at the beginning of next year for dermatitis and allergies. We have also already launched one for cleaning dog’s ears, Earwax PET. Our goal is to meet the majority of over-the-counter ear care needs. Long-term, it would make sense to sell the product line to a big company that can easily take it global. We have had people call us from other countries wanting the product, but we just can’t do it right now with the amount of money it takes to market and get all the registrations done in other countries.
HOFFMAN: Switching gears, a big part of this blog is to help empower women. What is the most significant barrier to female leadership and how do you overcome that?
DICKERSON: So much that held me back was fear, and it wasn’t until I recognized my fear that I could then step through it. I feel like sharing my experience is part of my job now. I had a fear of the unknown and losing my salary as the primary breadwinner in the family. I had a huge fear of failure because of that self-doubt which all of us have.
SNYDER BODE: What advice would you give a woman who wants to advance to an executive level?
DICKERSON: The relationships we build all come full circle. You never know where relationships will lead. Give of yourself generously. More than likely, some relationships will make a profound difference in your career and maybe in other ways in your life too. Also, I am very conscious about helping other women rise up. My whole life I have had this mindset that it’s not just about me. I think every person I meet can have an influence on me and I can have an influence on them.
HOFFMAN: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?
DICKERSON: When I think about my daughter who is 10 years old, I worry she is going to face a lot of the same challenges I have in my career. I don’t see change happening fast enough. Leaders across industries will have to start making conscious changes now to how they hire, promote, and pay women, if we have any hope for real change. This is not a problem that women alone can solve. Women can give voice to the problem, but it will take all leaders to step up to see meaningful change. When I talk to men, I like to put it in terms of their daughters. I ask them, “Do you want your daughter to experience this?” It is usually a big wake-up call. It’s hard for men to connect with women’s issues in the workplace in general, so I have found the best way is to talk about the next generation, especially their own daughters.
SNYDER BODE: Do you feel like women’s issues are getting better at all?
DICKERSON: Slowly, but surely. I’m so proud of all women involved with the “Me Too” and “Times Up” movements. But I kind of stand aghast that this is a surprise to men. So many times I hear from men, “There is no way that is true.” I counter with, “Are you kidding? Do you know how many stories my friends and I have?” This is everyday reality, but I think generations of women have kept quiet due to fear. The reality is that until more women are in power and have money (money is power), we will continue to see an imbalance.
HOFFMAN: How do you balance the family with work?
DICKERSON: I don’t like to work at night or on the weekends, unless it is urgent. I believe the work will be there. There is always going to be more to do. When I step in the door to my house, I have to leave that behind me. I try not to check my computer or my phone when I am with my kids. When I am with my family and I like to spend quality time with them. It comes back to a conscious decision to be present with your family.
SNYDER BODE: Did your mom work outside of the home?
DICKERSON: My mom started a business out of our home when I was in the 5th or 6th grade. I was interviewed once and they asked who my hero is; I told them my mom is my hero. When she started her business, she was going through a mid-life crisis and didn’t know what she was going to do with her life. It was the best gift to give me, to see her pursue her dreams and start a business.
HOFFMAN: What has you excited you about the future?
DICKERSON: Everything! I try to tell my employees the same thing. Your work is your life. There is a whole misconception of work-life balance. That implies that work is not part of your life. It is. You need to find that joy in your work and your life – it all comes full circle. I believe the possibilities are endless. I have no idea where any of this leads, but it is a great journey, and it’s fun. I have an awesome family right by my side.