Allonnia CEO Nicole Richards on Changing What It Means to Be a Woman Leader

In recent years, there has been a noticeable improvement on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) front across the biotech space, particularly around women occupying leadership roles. However, there’s more work to be done, as women in the space make up roughly 50% of employees, but just 34% of executive teams (and 20% of CEOs), according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Today, I’ll amplify one of those exemplary voices: Nicole Richards, CEO of Allonnia, who’s creating the next generation of bioremediation solutions. She is a former chemical engineer with nearly 30 years of leadership experience in water treatment, mining, and pharmaceuticals. She’s now helping Allonnia take on critical issues while reeling in an impressive $90 million in investor funding since 2020.

Still, Nicole has seen gender-based discrimination during her ascent from the lab to the boardroom. I sat down with her recently to discuss her experience and insights for aspiring women executives. What follows is an edited version of our discussion.

How would you describe your approach to leadership? 

For me, it’s about being authentic, being myself, and not trying to portray a certain image. Age helps with this. I'm at the point where I am who I am—my experiences shaped me, and I'm confident in that.

What did you learn early on as a woman CEO that holds true today?

You often hear, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ I hate that, partially because it only applies to women. You never hear that about men. Why do we have to fake anything? It’s so demotivating. I want to break the trend of people using that phrase. As women, we don't have to fake it as leaders. We're in a role for a reason. Let’s think about trying to get to the next level – and not fake anything.

<split-lines>"As women, we don't have to fake it as leaders. We're in a role for a reason. Let’s think about trying to get to the next level – and not fake anything."<split-lines>

What’s something about leadership you wish you’d known 10 years ago?

If someone doesn't like me, I'm OK with that—I don't need to be liked. It’s about confidence and self-trust. One of the things that has really helped me: Someone asked me to assemble a two-page board biography. I challenged myself to identify my three strengths and three passions. I began filling in why they are actual strengths – and what roles/experiences contributed to them. It became an exercise in discovering how I built up these capabilities. It was life-changing for me, it built my confidence, and I wish I had done it earlier in my career. I refer to it monthly and remind myself what I'm good at and why.

I shared data in a recent LinkedIn post about how women leaders tend to receive feedback that is overly personal, shallow, or biased compared to men. Have you experienced that sort of double standard in your career?

I started working a long time ago, and the world has changed a lot. My first job interview was typical for the early ’90s. You’d hear: ‘We don't like to hire women because they go out and have babies, and they don't come back. When are you planning on having children?’ Talk about demotivating.

Have things changed enough?

It's easy to look back and say things are great now, but they still are not where they need to be. What has been most frustrating in my career is when feedback is couched as a concern. For example, I wanted to lead a particular business unit—I had been leading others—and I was excited about it and the technology. But the president said, ‘We would never let a woman lead that business group. That’s a good old boy’s network there, they are going to eat you alive, and I wouldn't put you in that position.’ He couched it as, ‘I'm protecting you.’ That sort of stuff keeps you from progressing in your career compared to your male counterparts. Shouldn't it be up to me to protect myself? It took me years to prove that I could do that as well as my male counterparts.

<split-lines>"It's easy to look back and say things are great now, but they still are not where they need to be."<split-lines>

That has to be frustrating.

You're not playing on the same field, so how can you compete when you don’t even have the same opportunities? There are moms with young children who are traveling, and my first thought is, ‘I know it's hard to travel with young children,’ and I have to catch and stop myself. Because why would I say that—I wouldn't say that to a guy. It feels like concern, but it's just me repeating the same subtle bias that is impactful, though it may seem harmless in isolation.

<split-lines>"You're not playing on the same field, so how can you compete when you don’t even have the same opportunities?"<split-lines>

That takes us to pay equity. Women are less likely than men to ask for what they want or need. Is it accurate to assume there needs to be a mindset shift on both sides?

My daughter—who just graduated from college—recently got a job offer and wanted to know how to ask for more money. My answer: ‘You lay out what you want and why.’ But my husband had a different answer: ‘Just say you want this, you don't need to say why you deserve it. Just say I want this salary and these benefits.’ We think so differently. She went with her dad's advice, and she got what she wanted.

Last question: What are you most excited about right now? 

I’m thankful to be where I am in my life. I call it ‘my last third.’ It has taken me a long time to figure out what I'm passionate about, and how I can apply my skills. Working in the chemical industry and having a family that was in the coal industry, I'm passionate about the environment. I use our tagline all the time: ‘Waste is a failure of imagination.’ I'm excited about creating less waste in my own life and tying that into Allonnia. I love what I'm doing, the company, and the smart people who have chosen to work with me.

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