Verge Genomics CEO: Why I urge my employees to share their fears and vulnerabilities—and do the same with them



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Alice Zhang is CEO and cofounder of Verge Genomics.

I started my biotech company Verge Genomics out of graduate school in 2015. We use artificial intelligence to treat some of today’s biggest unmet medical challenges, including ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and metabolic diseases.

In the company’s early days, I was told that “scientists can’t run companies,” or “you need drug development experience to be a CEO.” But it was exactly my naivete that allowed me to build a different kind of culture, one that has allowed us to innovate faster and incorporate technology more deeply.

At Verge, we have become obsessed with building a conscious culture that chooses authenticity over fear. For us, a great workplace means focusing all our energy on meaningful work alongside exceptional colleagues, rather than getting caught up in drama. As one scientist at Verge shared with their manager, “I can do good science anywhere, but Verge is the only place I can practice conscious culture.”

Candor

This might sound fluffy to some, but fear grips most corporate cultures: fear of losing control of the outcome, looking stupid, or being judged. This leads people to think it’s “not OK” to express their inner-most judgements, beliefs, and emotions—all of which naturally arise during the course of any relationship. Instead, they withhold how they truly feel, withdraw from the other person, and find evidence to affirm their beliefs.

Withholding creates serious problems for teams. Relevant information isn’t shared. The best decisions aren’t made. Once decisions are made, people aren’t fully aligned, leading to the “meeting after the meeting.” Most importantly, when people withhold, it drains their energy and creativity. They may start venting to each other to avoid conflict. It costs them deep, authentic connections with each other as people relate in increasingly superficial ways.

At Verge, we choose candor and vulnerability over withholding. We practice revealing our inner stories, emotions, judgement—not because we believe we’re right, but because we want to come back into connection with each other.

Five years ago, Verge was going through a hard time. Employee morale was at an all-time low; people were leaving. I tried different solutions to improve morale, but each seemed to make the situation worse. Exhausted and beaten down, I got up at the next company-wide meeting and spoke from my heart.

“I feel heartbroken and scared,” I said, as tears rolled down my face. “This is my first time going through this and I feel like I’ve failed you. I’m normally the person who has all the solutions, but I need your help.” I thought that everyone would leave because the CEO was supposed to be strong and have all the answers. Instead, employees rallied and chipped in with solutions. We revamped our meetings to better communicate across the company and brought in external support to help us crystallize our mission, vision, and values. I learned that effective leadership doesn’t need to look like pounding your first on the table, or telling everyone that you’re crushing it all the time. Sometimes the most compelling and sustainable way to motivate is to simply be vulnerable.

Radical responsibility

Blame is another way that fear shows up in corporate cultures. Blame is a powerful motivator. When something doesn’t go the way we think it should, and we become stuck in fear, we begin to blame ourselves, others, or the system. People start seeing things as being “done to them,” or they may take more than their share of responsibility to avoid conflict. We’ve all been there: Scientists may blame finance for not understanding what’s important. Finance may blame engineers for not caring about our bottom line. “Management” gets blamed for not being transparent. The system gets blamed for making senseless rules.

At Verge, everyone takes responsibility for what is occurring. Responsibility is not assigned, it is taken. When you join Verge, you commit to taking radical responsibility for the circumstances of your work. There are no “problems” to blame people for, only learning opportunities. From this mindset, scientists take responsibility and speak about their needs earlier. Finance takes responsibility for educating the company on what’s important to the business. Management finds ways to communicate more clearly, earlier, and administrators commit to listening more and legislating less. When teams end blame and see themselves as fully empowered, real breakthroughs occur and teams function more skillfully and efficiently.

In traditional corporate environments, acknowledging emotions like fear and anxiety comes across as hysterical or unhinged—especially for women. But at Verge, allowing people to understand themselves better and face their fears has led to less externalizing blame on others. When free from the urge to blame others for the emotions surfacing within us, we can fix those things internally. This has made Verge a low-drama company, with minimal office politics.

Why does this matter for running a business? Needless energy is wasted in the workplace when we suppress how we feel or create recycling drama from blame. When we release this energy, we can reinvest it into the things that matter: innovation and science. When we get to the root cause of the issue, rather than seeking temporary relief, we can find more effective and permanent change. In procedural work, the best teams are only 2 times better than average. In inventive work, the best are 10 times better. There is a huge premium on creative, effective teams of the best caliber in industries like biotech, where innovation is the lifeblood of growth.

At Verge, our employee engagement score, a measure of how motivated people are to further the company and stay, puts us in the top 10% of U.S. companies according to findings from the most recent Gallup survey of U.S. employees. Our departure rates are nearly half industry averages and most of our founding leadership team are still at the company. And today, we are one of the few AI drug discovery companies to have developed a drug from platform to clinical trial entirely in-house, at one-fourth the cost of traditional drug discovery.

Is this causation or correlation? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. If I’d known about all of the daunting technological challenges and entrenched biases I’d have to overcome—including being compared to Elizabeth Holmes for simply being a woman scientist—I may have thought twice about starting Verge. But looking back, my naivete was in fact my biggest asset. It allowed me to unwittingly build a radically different culture—one allowing for scientific discovery to flourish, and for us to potentially create a better future for patients.

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