My journey as a STEM entrepreneur — and the lessons I’ve learned on the way.
Marjorie Dixon, founder, CEO, and Medical Director of Anova Fertility and Reproductive Health, shares her story.
When people ask me how I got my start in reproductive medicine, I often tell them about my childhood. I was 7 or 8 when my fascination and love for biology started to develop. My dad was a scientist and taught reproductive biology. In the summers, I remember going to the lab with him and watching him work. He explained to me how to nurture a seed until it sprouts and grows into a strong healthy plant, and how a plant bears fruit like a woman bears babies.
I was excited about science — I’ve always been fascinated by biological systems — so I knew I would study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and that it would be medical school all the way. I am lucky to have been very supported by my parents and other people in my life. The reason we got cable when I was in elementary school was so that I could watch the first open heart surgery be performed. In high school, during a library period, we learned about the 10th birthday of Louis Brown, the first IVF baby, and I found an article about ‘the future of medicine’ that I must have read a dozen times. The meeting of science and technology, and how this would be needed for assisted human reproduction, had me hooked.
Barriers: They exist, but belief goes a long way
While I may have always had a clear vision for my education and career path, that doesn’t mean it was a smooth journey. I was lucky that the people that surrounded me, believed in me. While some did joke that I should be a lawyer because I’m quite a vocal person — I didn’t want to study law, I wanted to be a doctor.
One area that I did hesitate was about how I was going to learn everything I needed to learn to be the doctor I wanted to be. I was guilty of serially and consistently underestimating my abilities, which unfortunately women do too much of. My male colleagues never seemed to express or show the same hesitancy while learning: I think our tendency for self-reflection to lead to self-doubt is a major chasm for women to overcome, particularly in STEM fields.
“There is something we need to do along the education journey differently, so that girls and women believe that their place is in STEM. To reinforce that their place is to have tremendous skill.”
Education: How can we prepare our children
Speaking of education, I am so supportive of how accessibility has improved. While there are still incredible gender biases that exist, there are also concerted and systemic efforts to address this and change the outcome for the future generations of women in STEM.
On the flip side, I believe that the immediacy of knowledge in the upcoming generations poses its own problems. I have three beautiful children (through IVF!), and when I watch them access Google and the wide world of the internet to get an answer to whatever it is they are thinking about or working on at that moment, it scares me a bit. They get their answer, and then they move on. It is not a piecing together of different learnings to create a whole picture, which I am concerned is stunting the curiosity-related skills that work to slowly build knowledge over time, and deep understanding of systems.
While my love of science came from my dad, other characteristics that define me today I know that I developed through my mother and our community of ‘aunties’. The women who surrounded me, who were significant players in my life when I was growing up, were heads of university departments, leading government offices; women who were in charge in important positions. It was never a concept for me that I couldn’t be a leader, that I shouldn’t be outspoken. I had the good fortune of having a family filled with boisterous, inquisitive, well-spoken, thoughtful women — who at the same time could be kind, loving and nurturing aunties.
Mentorship & collaboration: Doing my part
I see it as part of my role as a female leader in a STEM field to act as a mentor to other women. If you see a spark, light the flame. There are no set roles for women. Girls are amazing, we are inquisitive, we are vocal, and we are scientists. Let’s tap into it, and encourage more women through mentorship to excel in STEM, in business, and in their personal lives — and especially when you dare to do it all.
You have a responsibility to set an example for the next generation of women. It is hard to be a woman. As a female CEO and single mom to three children, I have different responsibilities. It’s not that I can’t do it, but I have to make conscious choices and yes, certain sacrifices.
“We have so much to gain from working collaboratively, building community and encouraging each other. When you find great people, nurture that relationship and strengthen your network.”
That’s another area where I have faced critique along my journey. Being a Medical Director & CEO, I have to set aside time for the business while performing my duties as a physician. I also have to set aside and protect time for my children. They need to know that they are a priority to me, even as they see me work long and odd hours. They get to see me as a tremendously fulfilled, successful woman, who is not afraid to say that what I do is my passion and it brings me joy — just as they do.
We have so much to gain from working collaboratively, building community and encouraging each other. When you find great people, nurture that relationship and strengthen your network. Everyone has their genius — celebrate it, don’t be intimidated by it.
I’ll leave this question here: why are so many men practicing women’s health and infertility? Fertility clinics for the most part are private clinics in Canada, and women should lead more of them. Women should make more decisions within them, working together collaboratively. We can provide the medical care, and run the business.
So what can all this be boiled down to? I guess at the end of the day I would like to encourage other women to:
Dream big. Once you’ve finished, amplify it exponentially — and go for it.
Be strategic, make a plan, and work your tail off.
Don’t underestimate yourself, or other women, and don’t under-aim.
Thank you for letting me share my story, and until next time — get out there, encourage each other and dare to thrive.