Aspira Women’s Health CEO Valerie Palmieri knows it takes a woman in a high position to pay it forward, and she’s done just that with a wave of new executive promotions at the diagnostics company.
Kaile Zagger is now chief operating officer; Lesley Northrop takes on a new role as chief scientific officer; Diane Powis is chief spokeswoman; and Elena Ratner, M.D., is the new global chief medical adviser for clinical and translational medicine. The lone man promoted in this round, Gary Altwerger, M.D., becomes global deputy chief medical adviser for clinical and translational medicine.
Along with the executive changes, Aspira launched an awareness campaign for ovarian cancer risk assessment and disparities in diagnosis for Black women. A new website and video feature Palmieri and Ratner, along with a physician and a Black patient advocate, talking about the problem. They stress the importance of OVA1plus, an Aspira test the company says minimizes racial disparities in ovarian cancer by improving detection in Black women.
“We’re in the United States of America, and we’re still fighting to have a place in our healthcare, and it should not be that,” Shantana Hazel, patient advocate, says in the video.
The traditional ovarian cancer CA-125 test doesn’t take into account that Black women have a lower baseline for pelvic masses, Ratner said, so a diagnosis is often missed early on. Later-stage diagnosis means less favorable outcomes.
“Black women, and women of color in general, have a much higher mortality from ovarian cancer than Caucasian women,” Ratner said. “That mortality increase is due to many reasons, some of which cannot be changed, but a huge subset of this increased mortality is shorter prognosis.”
Several changes in the past year spurred the leadership moves. In June, Vermillion changed its name to Aspira Women’s Health to reflect its evolution toward gynecologic health. Aspira added endometriosis and pelvic mass monitoring products, while also increasing payer coverage to 53%.
Often the only woman in the room when meeting with investors, Palmieri, who became CEO in 2015, knows the importance of having more women on a board of directors, especially for a company focused on women’s health.
“We had a woman’s health company focused on ovarian cancer, and 100% of the management team was male and 100% of the board,” Palmieri said. Now, women are represented “50/50 on the board and 70% of the leadership team,” she added.
The next goal is to add more women of color to the leadership team. Palmieri is making that a priority, working with recruiters and specific groups to hire more women of color and include training to help them move up the corporate ladder.
“We want to be a company of inclusion, a company of fostering mentoring, especially women, and especially women of color,” she said.
With just over 60 people in the company, Palmieri knows they are fighting the big boys but is unfazed.
“I do think of us as underdogs, (but there is) just the power of this rock star, female team,” Palmieri said. “But our mission, in simple terms, is to enable early ovarian cancer detection for all ages and ethnicities.”
by Sharon Klahr Coey
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