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Spotlight Series: National Leadership Council member, Willie T. Reaves, Jr.

By Aparna Paul

NLC member, Willie Reaves, 2021
Society's National Leadership Council Member, Willie Reaves Photo courtesy of Willie Reaves

Name: Willie T. Reaves, Jr. (ISEF 2007, 2008)
Job Title: Chief Business Strategy Innovation Officer at Biotechnology Innovation Organization
About Willie: Willie heads product development for a software platform that connects life sciences companies to facilitate investment & drug development partnerships.
Education: B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Emory University; Certificate in Disruptive Strategy from Harvard Business School Online

What does leadership mean to you?     

Leadership is the combination of doing what is right while understanding that you don’t know everything. It’s about identifying incredible people, empowering them to do great work, and providing guidance and vision to ensure the team is successful. At the same time, distinctive leaders must look past titles and responsibilities to acknowledge the human element because the ability to genuinely connect with people—and admit when you are wrong—is what separates managers from leaders.

As the world faces a pandemic, a climate catastrophe and numerous other scientific challenges, what are some steps you think the Society can take to address science literacy and support for science?

I believe the Society stands ready to build on a century of achievement by continuing to reach underrepresented students through its equity and outreach initiatives, as well as by supercharging our world’s future scientists through programs like the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. In the era of 24/7 media and often short attention spans, I also love the Society’s use of Twitter to highlight the impact of research and remind us that there is a human face behind every project.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

I love that I can see the practical impact of my work every day. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of not only the biotechnology industry but also of the life-saving work that happens when companies partner with each other. It’s a privilege to be a conduit for those partnerships.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it to you and what was it?

My dad has always said, “Do your thing, man.” Only recently did I come to appreciate the wisdom and profundity in that simple phrase—you get to choose your path, figure out what “your thing” is, and pursue it relentlessly. In my case, I have been interested in tons of different things, and that has led me on an interdisciplinary path, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Is there a book that has made an impact on your life? What is the name of the book and what impact did it make?

The Courage Solution by Mindy Mackenzie changed the way I think about leadership. I had the pleasure of meeting the author, and she emphasizes the simple but thoughtful steps that each of us can take to create positive peer relationships at work, become more self-aware, and build & lead effective teams.  

Did you have a favorite mentor as a young person? What difference did that person make in your life and your approach to problem-solving?

I was blessed to have had amazing mentors and supporters while growing up. One in particular was my neighbor, whom everyone called Uncle Dave. He was a community leader who led with humility and helped me through some tough situations. I’ll always remember our conversations about how the best thing I could do in most any situation was to respond well to other people. While this wasn’t what I wanted to hear when I was frustrated with someone, I think Uncle Dave primed me to become a better leader and better person.