Gender issues, giving birth, discouraging advice - Sophia Twaddell wouldn't let any of it derail her career. Today, as Fleishman-Hillard's biotech head, she epitomizes the power of dedication.Back in 1989, Sophia Twaddell, then group manager of marketing communications for Baxter Healthcare, was rehearsing her opening speech for the "Baxter the Future
annual national sales meeting to several of her colleagues, when she began having contractions. She casually dismissed herself, drove to the hospital, and gave birth to her third child. Four days later she was on a plane to Phoenix to fulfill the engagement.
"That was just what you did in those days,
says Twaddell. "Women constantly had to prove that they were as good or better than all the guys. And if that meant getting up four days after you've had a baby, then you did it."
The story is a poignant example of her remarkable character and dedication to her career. "I was always impressed with the strength of her personality, without forfeiting femininity,
says her sister-in-law Martha Twaddell.
To Sophia, however, that 1989 meeting was significant for one reason only, and that was the birth of her son.
Long before Twaddell was facing gender issues head on, she was already learning about healthcare. Her mother, a physiologist, was in the National Institute of Health (NIH) and often talked about clinical trials at home. "I learned a lot of it through osmosis,
Equipped with a masters degree in medieval literature from Northwestern, but not the slightest desire to become a professor, she decided to follow what she had learned about at her own dinner table, and went to work for American Hospital Supply (AHS) in 1978. Twaddell was hired as a secretary - the same position that the other three women in the company held at the time. It did not take long for AHS to realize that they were underutilizing a valuable resource by having her type letters. Within months she was working in an operating division and spending time in the operating room.
Enamored with this hands-on experience, Sophia sought counsel from a Northwestern professor on the prospect of going back to medical school, only to find herself highly discouraged. "The professor I talked to said that it would ruin my marriage and any chances of having children," Twaddell recalls. "He said I would have to give up my life because I would be 32 by the time I got out. He was saying it as if I would be practically dead. There were so few opportunities as a female."
But Twaddell was determined to create opportunities for herself, regardless. After her three-year stint at AHS, she went to work for Sieber & McIntyre (now McCann), a Chicago-based medical advertising agency. While there, she got a chance to try her hand at what developed into a real passion - film producing. A half-hour film for physicians about the effects of calcium on the heart, for which she won a Golden Cindy Award, was the first film she ever produced.
A few years later while she was at Baxter, she produced a documentary on volunteerism for high school and college students - at the time she was a volunteer herself for the Junior League of Chicago. Make a Splash.
Volunteer was discovered by PBS, ran nationwide, and was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning three. Twaddell received an award for independent producing. "The Emmy was in a bookcase in my living room for the longest time until my oldest son took it in for show-and-tell. It came home in two pieces. Last year, my husband pulled it out and got it fixed. He said, 'I know you're not impressed with it anymore, but I am.'"
After dedicating several years to the talent that awarded her a now intact Emmy, Twaddell was recruited to run communications for Vector Securities International, a healthcare and biotech-focused investment bank. "This position really allowed me to leverage my experience. Working for a financial institution, I learned how research and banking are connected."
In October 1999, she heard of a job opening at Fleishman-Hillard as head of healthcare in Chicago. An ideal opportunity to combine her healthcare knowledge and Wall Street connections, she signed on right away. Roger Longman, editor of In Vivo magazine and a longtime friend, says, "PR people don't generally understand the companies they work for nor do they understand the business side of things, but Sophia does. It's partly because she has worked on all sides, but also because she is an adult. She is not afraid of being honest, which is not always a PR kind of characteristic."
Today, as head of Fleishman's bio-technology practice, Twaddell feels she is in a spot where all of her background has fallen into place. "Every bit of experience has come in handy at some point. It all comes flooding back to you when you need it. That is what it means to be a seasoned counselor."
And she is more than happy to be back on the agency side. "What I love about PR is having multiple clients. I don't know if I could ever work on the other side again because I need the intellectual challenge."