I set off for five straight days at the annual JP Morgan healthcare conference last Monday, but on the way drove the carpool to my daughter’s high school that morning in a last ditch attempt to act like a responsible and caring parent. My poor daughter gets completely abandoned during JP Morgan week every year and, as she so aptly put it, it is a mixed blessing. When I arrived home finally yesterday afternoon she said to me that she likes that I am not there to tell her what to do, but not that I am not there to act as her personal assistant and laugh at her jokes. I must admit, she is pretty funny. Especially that part about the personal assistant.
Anyway, during my last parental act of last week, my daughter’s friend, who also happens to be a JP Morgan orphan (her dad is also a healthcare venture capitalist), asked me from the back seat, “So, are there many women at this conference?”
It was interesting to get that question from a 15 year old, as it certainly wasn’t the kind of thing I worried about at her age, probably to my detriment. In response I told her that I estimated that about 10% of the people who attend the JP Morgan conference and the associated 3-ring circus of meetings and parties are women, about the same percentage of women that are represented in the venture capital profession generally. She was not impressed, nor should she be. In a field where women hold many senior positions in actual US healthcare corporations, they are drowned out at this conference by the advancing horde of finance guys in red ties and the CEOs that love them.
The JP Morgan conference and the fanfare that surrounds it bring thousands of people to San Francisco each year. They fill every hotel lobby, taxi cab, bathroom stall and barstool within a 10 block radius of Union Square. Many people don’t even go into the JP Morgan conference venue itself, using the occasion of the event to set up one-on-one meetings with everyone they ever met or wanted to meet in the healthcare industry. I attended so many 30-60 minute meetings in so many different hotels that I suspect people are wondering about my true profession. If you were recruiting for The Bachelor tv show, you could simply stand among the hundreds of men sitting in the sun with their ties loosened in Union Square Plaza and it would take you 10 seconds to find your candidate.
Given the ample supply of men and the fact that the conference is conveniently situated at the exact center of the 10 best shoe departments in the city, you would think more women would be in attendance, particularly given the after-Christmas sales. However, like so many professional situations in which I find myself, not so much. Nevertheless, there were a few standout moments that gave one hope, particularly if one were of the lipstick-wearing persuasion.
I was invited to attend a Pfizer breakfast and what stood out from it was the number of women who held virtually all of the senior Pfizer positions. Almost all of the 100+ attendees were men, but the speakers and leaders, representing Pfizer’s venture cspital, innovation and other key corporate functions, were mostly women. You gotta love a room filled with men in rapt attention as the ladies told them how it was going to be.
I also attended a great women’s VC dinner along with about 28 or so others. What was particularly notable about the dinner was that I knew so few of the people there. I thought I knew most of the women in my profession, but apparently not. It was great to meet so many new and accomplished people and I can tell you that the banter was notably different from the other dinners I attended. The funniest part was the creative self-deprecating humor that people used when we went around the room each introducing ourselves. That is not often the way that men make their first impression on a room, at least not intentionally. It is a marked difference between men and women, I believe, in that men are more comfortable publicly touting their accomplishments by and large, while women too often underplay theirs. This was a room full of PhDs and MDs and people who had been instrumental in the creation of a myriad of famous companies and billions in market value, yet they often left that out of their personal introduction.
Fortunately women are also more likely to point out the accomplishments of their colleagues, so many intros were followed by shout-outs from others in the crowd reminding the other diners that the cool chick before them, in addition to being from Philadelphia or Boston, had changed medicine forever in some profound way. Very cool to see the support and lack of competition in the room and all around a very different vibe from other events I attended. The best dinner story was probably the one about how one VC partner and her female colleague use “boyfriend” terminology to characterize the stage and progress of their deals in their staff meetings. I have yet to hear any of my male colleagues refer to one of their deals in progress as being in the stage called “friends with benefits.” It was pretty hilarious. And yes, I confess that there was some talk about shoes and other essential accessories, as well as the blisters many of us had obtained walking from venue to venue, but it didn’t take away one bit from the discussion about healthcare reform or the state of life science venture funding. Mercifully, it was probably the only social event I attended where golf was not a critical part of the discussion agenda.
The overall tone of this year’s JP Morgan Lollapalooza was cautiously upbeat, I would say. There are a few promising healthcare IPOs in the pipeline and a lot of opportunity presented by the changing healthcare field. Good companies are getting funded and bankers are busy again. Times are still tough but unemployment is slightly better. Healthcare IT is all the rage and there were even some whispers about early stage investing slowly climbing again. There was so much action around the conference headquarters at the St. Francis Hotel (also known as the worst conference venue on earth unless you love being crushed to death like you were at Altamont for a Rolling Stones concert) that security was even stronger than the airport in Fallujah. You couldn’t even enter the hotel without a pre-printed approval email, bona fide healthcare credentials and a DNA sample. Apparently the sponsors were very concerned that the Occupy Wall Street crowd might show up given the high ratio of bankers, but fortunately the only place being occupied was Starbucks. With 99% of the attendees from the world of healthcare finance, the 1% were the dogs cruising through Union Square with their owners, who were forced against their will to stop to let the home-sick VCs and investment bankers pet their furry little charges. “Does your dog lead restructuring transactions?” “That is not my dog!”
Now it is time for all of us in attendance to dig the newly acquired business cards out of every orifice and do all that promised follow-up. As they say in the business, same time next year, guys. See you at Altamont.
This post also appeared in Xconomy on January 16,2012