Seattle-based biotech company Aptevo Therapeutics is trying to find a cure for cancer—but a “healthy” cure, notes Shawnte Mitchell. As senior vice president and general counsel at Aptevo, Mitchell tries to make sure employees have everything they need—from legal documents to the company culture—to continue with their groundbreaking work.
When Mitchell first set foot on the Stanford University campus in 1995, she was convinced that she would one day become a physician. She majored in biological sciences and even took the MCAT, but after graduation she took a gap year that brought things into focus for her.
“I was in New York, and I knew a lot of people there who were in medical school or their residencies or were already doctors,” Mitchell recalls. “I realized that while I was really passionate about medicine, I wasn’t as passionate about actually being a physician. And that’s a career that you really should be passionate about.”
Mitchell still wanted to be involved in healthcare, even if it wasn’t as a physician, so she enrolled in JD program at the George Washington University Law School in 2001. Upon graduating, Mitchell was offered a position as an associate at Ropes and Gray LLP, which boasted a premier healthcare law practice. But it was when she transitioned to the in-house legal department at Emergent BioSolutions that Mitchell was able to transform her legal career.
“I learned all about the things that pharmaceutical companies need to do to keep the doors open and the products developed,” Mitchell says of her tenure at the biopharmaceutical company. “I learned about supply chains, biologics manufacturing, master services agreements for consultants, how to assist with marketing, and all of the other internal machinations that are needed for a pharmaceutical company to do what it does.”
“As general counsel, it’s my job to help the business look under every rock possible to make this product work.”
Very soon, Mitchell’s talent and expertise caught the eye of Marvin White, a former board director at Emergent BioSolutions and the current president and CEO at Aptevo Therapeutics. In fact, when Emergent BioSolutions began planning to spin off the company to become Aptevo Therapeutics in 2015, Mitchell says, “I reached out to Marvin, told him I would be interested in being the general counsel, and asked if he would consider me for the position. After internal consultation with Emergent senior management, he gave me the job.”
Officially founded in 2016, Aptevo Therapeutics is a publicly traded biotech company that specializes in building immuno-oncology therapeutics. “We make antibodies-like molecules that use your immune system to target cancers,” Mitchell explains. “The idea is that, because it’s your own cells that are mobilizing the attack against the cancers, it should be healthier than chemotherapy or radiation.”
Unlike the large pharmaceutical companies that offer dozens or even hundreds of different products, Aptevo focuses exclusively on this antibody technology, Mitchell says. And because Aptevo only has one product in the clinic—one priority—everyone at the company has to be committed to making that product work, despite the inevitable challenges they face along the way.
“We’ve had a number of setbacks where some of the product candidates we thought were going to be great didn’t turn out that way,” Mitchell acknowledges. “We’ve had to pivot and exercise a lot of patience and flexibility. As general counsel, it’s my job to work with the business as it looks under every rock possible to make this product work.”
Mitchell is especially, and personally, proud of that sense of resilience while in her role as head of HR and corporate affairs when Aptevo first spun out of Emergent. “We’re like the little engine that could,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “We don’t wallow in setbacks: we look at what happened and try to learn from it.”
But those setbacks do make it more difficult to keep employees engaged, Mitchell acknowledges, which is one reason why she prioritized the professional development of each and every Aptevo employee, from the receptionist to the CEO, even instituting a leadership training program within the organization.
“Caring about people is important to us,” Mitchell remarks. “We want our employees to think of themselves as owners of the organization—but if you’re not happy with your work, if you don’t have opportunities for growth or a manager who empowers you, you’re not going to want to help figure out ways to make the business better.”
This culture of caring for all people at Aptevo and helping them be the best they can be reflects the company’s fundamental mission, Mitchell says. At the end of the day, Aptevo not only aims to care for all people who are afflicted with cancer but to do that in a healthy way, a way that helps those people be their best selves without any fear of the debilitating side effects typically associated with cancer treatments. And every opportunity to learn is one step closer to a cure.
Take Charge of Your Career—Creatively
Throughout her years in leadership roles, Shawnte Mitchell has learned that women need to go after what they want—but creatively. “Be open to nontraditional ways of doing life so that you can get done what you want to get done,” Mitchell advises. “Maybe you need a different travel schedule or more work-from-home flexibility. Just take control of your career.”