After 12 years as a manufacturing engineer at the brake and wheel spindle bearings divisions of the General Motors in her native Ohio and Michigan, Marie Johnson spent 20 years in senior leadership positions at cardiovascular and orthopedic medical device and diagnostic companies. Johnson is the inventor of AUM Cardiovascular’s patented technology, which is designed to detect heart disease using acoustic signals. Before founding AUM, Johnson designed and launched the University of Minnesota Medical Devices Innovation Fellowship program, modeled after the Stanford biodesign program where she was a fellow.
MDO: What first drew you to medtech? When did you first know you wanted to be in the industry?
Johnson: I spent 12 years at General Motors in Ohio. My husband and I moved to Minneapolis and I transferred to a GM service parts operation in Edina. There are a limited number of things that can be automated and improved at a warehouse, so I had to change industries. I entered academia and stayed for a MS, PhD and three Post-Docs. All were focused in biomedical engineering/medtech.
MDO: What are some of the barriers women face in today’s medtech world, if any?
Johnson: Recently I was fundraising in China and encountered gender bias. The meeting included both men and women. The female marketing manager acted as a waitress and served the men lunch and drinks. During the post-lunch meeting one of the women said, “How can you leave your children at home while you do this?”
I appreciated they were honest about their biases, as it allowed me to understand their thought process. In the United States, people don’t talk about bias and are not in your face like the Chinese group – which leaves you wondering.
MDO: Describe your biggest leadership challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
Johnson: I tended to not think clearly when interviewing/hiring. After many bad hires, I’ve finally learned to listen very carefully to the person interviewing and to ask more questions about career and lifestyle goals.
MDO: Talk about your leadership skills. What is the most important lesson have you learned that has guided you in your career?
Johnson: After many years in academia, where you singularly plan and execute, it is not natural to include others. I had to get over myself and let others have a chance at success. I also discovered communication is key. Some people need more explanation and others little. When you’re in a leadership position you have to be willing to explain as much as is required.
MDO: In your opinion, what more can be done to promote greater participation of young women in the medtech industry today?
Johnson: Recruiting, exposure to other women in leadership positions and more hands-on in elementary, middle and high school.
MDO: What career advice would you give to your younger self?
Johnson: Move on from dead ends quickly.
MDO: Why is it important for companies to be more inclusive and have more women in charge?
Johnson: Women are trained to be more accommodating than men. My daughter’s tennis coach taught the girls to be aggressive and menacing with their opponents. I was pleased because it mirrored what my son was being taught in football. Women need to have role models and advocates.
For example, when I worked at General Motors the managers would invite the team to go boating and swimming. There was an immediate disparity based upon swimming suits – men wear longer shorts while women are much more exposed – even in one-pieces. If one chose not to be undressed then you had to miss the fun and sit on the side. The men would make comments that you weren’t fun or that you didn’t take part in group activities. Women would be more sensitive to this situation and provide alternatives.