Reflections of an Immigrant CEO 

Posted April 23rd, 2020 by Gerhard Koenig, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Talent

This blog post was written by Gerhard Koenig, CEO of Arkuda Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

When I discussed the topic of writing about my experience as an immigrant biotech CEO with Bruce Booth, I had not yet imagined how the global COVID-19 pandemic would change our lives. I initially hesitated to submit it, now that we are in the midst of this crisis  – after all there are more important topics we should focus on. But, maybe it is good to get one’s mind off COVID-19 for a few moments.

Like many biotech professionals, I immigrated to the US for the opportunities. I wasn’t running away from anything, but running towards something better, something more exciting. I arrived in this country in the early 1990s after my postdoc at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. I accepted my first position as a lab head and bench scientist at Bayer AG in West Haven, CT. Over the years my professional career evolved in the typical manner of many scientists who work their way up through the pharmaceutical industry’s R&D ladder: lab head, group leader, program leader, large pharma department head, then CSO. After a 13-year role as CSO for FORUM Pharmaceuticals, I joined the Atlas portfolio company Quartet Medicine in 2016 as CEO. Quartet’s mission was to deliver novel non-addictive pain medication, and they had just entered into an exclusive option deal with Merck. After we closed Quartet (see blog here), I stayed with Atlas as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and in February 2018 I co-founded Arkuda Therapeutics, together with Duane Burnett, who worked previously with me at FORUM. I have been the CEO of Arkuda since its founding.

As I reflect on my path thus far and the exciting journey still to come at Arkuda, I wanted to share some things I learned from my experience leading a US biotech company from the perspective of someone who was born and raised abroad, with quite a different cultural background than many of my colleagues. The US is a nation of immigrants, with its culture always enriched by them; it never was static nor should it be in my opinion. I deeply cherish the enhanced experiences I was able to gain from the very diverse backgrounds of the individuals we are privileged to have in the larger biotech community. For me, that is truly what this country should continue to aspire to be. Especially in times of COVID-19 we realize how interconnected we all are.

Directness doesn’t always translate.

As a CEO you’re ultimately responsible for guiding other highly motivated team members to achieve the best possible outcome. The communication of goals, milestones, achievements, as well as challenges and how to overcome them is critically important to the team, in particular, managing the balance of what to say, when to say it, who to say it to, and how to say it. Subtleties make a big difference.

My natural tendency is to be very candid and direct. Typically, I don’t hold back with stating my opinion – a fact that I’m sure my colleagues would validate. This is fairly typical behavior where I was born and raised, and extends from childhood all the way into corporate culture. In corporate Germany you’re expected to say what you really think and not beat around the bush in order to be valued and respected. Modern German scientists are trained to challenge and tend to be less deferential as compared to those in the US. (Germany’s recent history might be the reason, but I’ll leave that up to the historians to ponder.) Yes, the German corporate culture is much more formal, but questions are direct and people are not shy about disagreeing with you. In the US, on the other hand, similar behavior might be perceived as rude, too direct or impolite, especially if it’s coming from a more junior person. As a CEO raised in a different culture, I have found this challenging at times, since I am culturally conditioned to expect strong opinions from my team members.

Overall, to bridge the cultural divide, I have learned to ask trusted advisors (i.e., intuitive US-born colleagues) about cultural norms, sometimes pertaining to the most mundane details. A simple example: I’ve sought out advice about which holidays should we celebrate and which are important for days off. I have learned to ask people who have different backgrounds than myself, to make sure I gather as diverse a perspective as possible. It is easy to think “why worry about all that stuff – don’t you have more important things to do… just delegate it.”  I have found, however, the questions I’ve asked have allowed me to better understand my colleagues and to have a better sense of the pulse of the company. When I demonstrate to my employees that I’m open to advice and any input I’ve seen that my colleagues will often open up more generally. I have learned to listen very carefully, and I believe it has made me a better leader. This has served me well also during our ongoing COVID-19 crisis. All of us have to learn and adapt constantly. Careful listening to our people at Arkuda has helped me to stay in touch with the pulse of the company. Thus, my initial perceived cultural disorientation has evolved into a stronger sense of shared direction and purpose that I now enjoy with my Arkuda colleagues. The resulting communication culture we have at Arkuda is reflective of the true melting pot culture we have which we all can be proud of.

How was your weekend?

Another major cultural difference between Germany and the US is the mixing of private and professional life. In Germany, they are kept strictly separate. In the US, there is much more mixing. Germans usually leave their work behind when they leave the office. It is not uncommon for German business leaders to have two cell phones; one for personal use/family and friends, and then another phone for work purposes.

In the US to connect you are expected to ask your colleagues about their family life, and then you are expected to reciprocate with what’s going on in yours. While I still have not adopted the typical American office decor of having pictures of one’s partner, kids and pets  (although to be fair, our dog is in my Slack profile and coincidently I do have family pictures visible on my Zoom view right now), I did have to learn the art of water cooler banter: the “how was your weekend?” question. I’ll admit it took me a while to open up in that way, because, again, personal banter is atypical in German corporate life. But after living and working in this country for many years I’m now able to naturally engage in topics such as mischievous toddlers, moody teens, and sharing the various ways in which we deal with working from home, realities excellently described in a recent blog by Aiofe Brennon. Over the years, I have learned a lot about my colleagues and their lives just by sharing personal stories with them. It has allowed me to connect with them better and these interactions have certainly enriched my life.

I have also learned to bond through sports. Professional sports are a sort of social glue in the US, especially the Boston area, which connect people of all walks of life. Talking about the games at work, especially on a Monday morning is an easy way to connect with your colleagues and is an easy way to avoid talking about more fraught topics like politics and religion. I also love to talk about those too, but recognize that it can make people uncomfortable, especially when coming from somebody in a leadership position.

I’ll admit that I initially knew very little about US professional baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey (and their seasons seem to go on, and on, and on, forever). I don’t follow sports much. My old motto: “I do sports; I don’t watch them.” However, as an immigrant CEO operating in the greater Boston area with extremely popular and successful teams like the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins, it was imperative that I brush up quickly. I still don’t understand the rules of baseball though I haven’t really tried. Basketball is pretty straightforward, but the playoffs last about three months, or at least it seems that way. I do now understand that American football doesn’t really involve the feet in the European football sense, that it stops every 2.5 seconds or so, and sometimes it seems like the best discussions come from what new strange rule is now applied.  While you wait for the replay and listen to the interpretation by the panel of TV experts as well as hearing about some abstruse statistics on specifically just that last game which also lasted just about 2.5 seconds.  I’ve learned I need to at least know the basics, like how the home teams are doing, when the Super Bowl is, what were the best Super Bowl commercials, which teams are playing in the World Series, etc.

Although it has been an extended adjustment period for me, in this world where the line between work life and home life is becoming ever more blurred – something even more relevant in times of COVID-19 (office, kitchen, office, kitchen, …), the German in me more clearly sees the importance of the Monday morning discussions about the weekend/the big game as a key way of maintaining strong connections with my colleagues. However, I will still need to consult with my team regarding whether I am still obligated to keep up with Tom Brady now that he’s playing for Florida.

Don’t tell me what school someone went to – tell me what they did 

While I’ve become increasingly skilled with water cooler banter, there are definitely things in the US I’ve never gotten used to. One in particular is what I perceive to be an obsession with what university one attended. Only in the US can I attend a cocktail party and someone who is 40+ years old is still talking about what college s/he went to. And only in the US are people still asking me with all my years of experience what college I attended. Very strange to this stranger in a strange land. It is as if what one did from 18-22 is the most defining accomplishment in his/her life. For me, growing up in a country where education is basically free and paid for by government tax income it wasn’t so important where you went to school; it was much more what you did with the education.

I’ll acknowledge that the UK and France certainly have their elite universities but as far as I know (please feel free to disagree with me) for the majority of Europe the universities don’t have such a huge discrepancy in reputation. Yes, there may be certain universities with stronger reputations in certain areas of study, but we all get over it once we start working and have proven ourselves in the field. Having had two kids go through the process and observing what they had to do and what their peers and some of their parents do (!) to get admitted to certain schools I am, frankly, appalled. Mix in the legacy principle, that donating to some schools further increases one’s chances, or the idea that sending your kids to hundreds of hours of private lessons in some new sport which is not yet mainstream but increases your kids chances to make them a more attractive candidate and I’m baffled! As the new American I would say, not sure this is right. The German in me would say, this is wrong. Admittedly, I found this to be more evident in New England, and I experienced it less so during my time on the West Coast.

With this as a backdrop, as we’ve recruited at Arkuda (and in my experiences hiring at previous companies), I’ve certainly viewed applicants much more through the lens of their accomplishments than through the halo of the prestige of their education. To be clear, I have nothing against prestigious universities, and the US has absolutely spectacular research institutions at top notch universities. Certainly, in biotech R&D we are hugely profiting from our proximity to such training grounds, especially here in the Boston area. I just make no assumptions on the quality of an individual solely on the basis of this information about them.  Maybe this is just the immigrant in me, who came here for opportunity, believes in the American dream and wants to allow the American dream for everybody despite what circumstances they were born into. Many can make it here and you don’t need to be from a certain family, neighborhood, school, or whatever – just be excellent at it, show good attitude and work hard at it.

Over the years, I’ve definitely had to work at adapting my cultural norms to better suit my adopted environment. Fortunately, I think I have been able to at least partially assimilate, and I believe this balancing act has ultimately served me well and has made me a better CEO. Most importantly, it has enriched my life and I am grateful for it. That being said, I’m still not sure you can get me to sit through a baseball game, but if you want to watch the next soccer match at the World Cup, I will join you and I will support my adopted home country, the US, (as long as they’re not playing Germany – then I will probably be on the side which truly plays better).


I would like to thank Andy Hu for proof reading and Donna Rigg, Serena Hung, Jim Lanter for editorial comments and suggestions. 

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