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Star Power: Christine Poon

From the Star Power: Christine Poon issue of Capital Style
Once ranked the 17th most powerful woman in the world, Christine Poon has ditched retirement plans to run Ohio State's business school

She consistently earned her way onto the Forbes magazine list of 100 Most Powerful Women, heralded with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Sandra Day O'Connor-and at one point, well above Oprah and Queen Elizabeth II.

Yet Christine Poon, the vice chairman and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, would nonetheless sit and unassumingly read on the train ride into work. The world's highest-ranking woman in the pharmaceutical industry parked her car at the station instead of in the company garage with the executives who worked under her.

"No one would ever say, 'OK, this is one of the most high-powered women executives in America, riding the train like everyone else,' " said Jose "Zito" Sartarelli, Johnson & Johnson's company group chairman for pharmaceuticals in Asia-Pacific, Japan and Latin America. "Executives tend to congregate up. ... She didn't have a need for that. Very independent, very approachable, very special in that respect. Very unique."

And now, she's very uniquely Central Ohio's. Ohio State University, and specifically President E. Gordon Gee, convinced Poon, 57, to forego her planned retirement and instead take the reins of the Fisher College of Business. Less than a year into her tenure, she's already creating a one-of-a-kind collaboration program teaming Fisher with local businesses, and she's dreaming up plans to seek technologies or inventions from other colleges at Ohio State that Fisher students could commercialize.

As she recently sat in her sunny campus office, Poon, a minority woman who forged her way through a white man's world during an era of smoke-filled boardrooms, thoughtfully measured her comments, whether about her recent weekend getaway to Colorado or her venture into academia. It's almost as if one can see her think, as if no word will be wasted.

"For me, every day is sort of a thrill," Poon said. "I never thought I could find something to do that was more rewarding than the first 30 years of my life. But I suspect this could rise to that magnitude."

Gee was delighted to score such a coup. Universities are littered with people from the business world who think they understand how to act in an educational institution, he said. But Poon--who introduces herself as Chris and offers to hang the coats of guests who enter her office--listens as she leads, and has earned respect for doing so.

"She's just not an ostentatious or a bloated person in any sense of the word," Gee said. "She has the respect of her colleagues. She has the respect of our students. And she's interacting very well with our external community." Plus, he noted, there's the fame factor: "She brings enormous experience and star power."

Poon worked her way to worldwide respect (she hit 17 on the Forbes list in 2004) using an arsenal of talents--raw smarts, an insatiable appetite for knowledge, a tireless work ethic and what longtime colleague Sartarelli calls "emotional intelligence."

She honed those skills from an early age growing up near Cincinnati, where her parents--both first-generation Chinese-Americans--had high expectations for Poon and her six siblings.

Once, in elementary school, Poon brought home a report card with C's, excitedly showing them off, thinking that average was exactly what one should aim to be. Her father, an Army veteran and ophthalmologist, reviewed her grades and made one simple statement. "B's," he said, "are better." Average, a young Poon quickly realized, is never the goal.

Poon was learning lessons in leadership and compassion, too. As the second oldest of seven, she embraced her role as a leader, said her youngest sister, Jeanette Caruso. And as a minority, she figured out how to find her spot among other children, while developing what has become a lifelong willingness to understand others' points of view.

"She grew up in a place where I think she was the only Chinese girl in her class in grade school, and that means you have to find a way to fit in," said her husband, Michael Tweedle. "There's a barrier for you to overcome so that people both like and respect you."

Following in her doctor father's footsteps, Poon earned her degree in pre-med from Northwestern University. But instead of applying to medical schools ("Organic chemistry just mystified me," she laughs), she enrolled in graduate school at Saint Louis University to study biology and biochemistry. Soon, with another degree in hand, she packed all she owned into a Toyota Corolla and drove to Boston to work as a lab researcher for New England Nuclear, a young biotech company.

Never mentally satisfied--and without having taken a single business class for her first two degrees--Poon began MBA courses part-time at Boston University. She finished the program with a finance concentration, and her company transitioned her from the lab to the office.

Poon also found more than a passion for business there--she found her husband. Tweedle, a coworker on his way to becoming a renowned scientist in his own right (see box), was clearly intrigued. Poon, he said, has an "extraordinary ability" to focus. But he echoed others' sentiments that her emotional sensibilities are equally as stellar.

"She's very sensitive to other human beings, and she's a good listener," he said. Watch her at a dinner party, he suggested--she'll be as comfortable talking with people at one end of the political spectrum as the other.

"I think it's just a matter of wanting to understand other people's point of view," he said. "She still has her own point of view, and it's not likely to change unless she gets new data. But I think it comes from an openness and a desire to understand where other people are coming from and what's important to them."

Poon's rare knowledge of both science and business, paired with the other attributes she long cultivated, propelled her to a job with biopharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. She climbed until she was running all of the company's international companies.

Eventually, she was snagged by Johnson & Johnson, the world's largest medical devices company, which runs more than 250 operating companies in 57 countries and creates everything from drugs to lotions.

She earned a reputation as an inspirational leader with a brilliant mind who genuinely cared for others, never losing herself in her role, Sartarelli said. She would engage in high-level strategy discussions about China, he noted, and then delve into the specifics of how the company was assuring that patients using their products were getting the support they needed. "The endearing side of success is when you get your hands dirty," he said. "Then they embrace you as a leader."

Poon insists that being that high-level leader was not a goal she consistently worked toward. "For me, it was never about, 'I have to be the CEO' or 'I have to be the vice president'," she said. She aimed instead to be challenged, helpful, progressing.

It's not surprising, then, that when asked what she is most proud of in her career, she doesn't talk about job titles or Forbes rankings. She talks about watching the success of employees she mentored. She talks about how 50-percent fewer people are dying of cardiovascular disease than when she first began in the industry. She talks about how she visited HIV clinics when there was no hope of survival and about how now, most people with the disease are living--and living well--for years. She talks about how products her companies have made have alleviated pain and allowed patients to see a child born or a daughter married. "If you can measure your success in millions of lives saved," she said, "you should rest easy."

That is, if she ever lets herself rest. Since retirement has been put indefinitely on hold, Poon isn't getting the relaxation she had at first envisioned. But this, she believes, is better. She is just a drive away from egg roll Sunday with her sister, and close enough to retrieve her nephews for weekends of Buckeye football or Blue Jackets hockey.

While she's still working fulltime hours, she's based at home, not globetrotting for significant stretches. And though it's difficult squeezing it in, she and her husband are finding weekends to spend at their vacation home in Colorado, where they ski and golf. Next up? Poon hopes to take a few language courses at Ohio State so that she can converse with her parents in Cantonese.

That certainly won't surprise her youngest sister, who, despite a 15-year age gap, is particularly close with Poon. She's proud of her sister's achievements, sure. But it's difficult for her to see Poon as anything but the older sister she admired-and the aunt her sons adore.

She recalled once walking into her basement and finding Poon in a huge cardboard box with a gaggle of nieces and nephews running around her, laughing. "She's almost like a kid to them. When I ask, 'Who do you want to invite to your birthday party?' She's always one of them," Caruso said. "Like she's one of their friends."

So it goes that one of the world's most powerful women, who is now training the next generation of business leaders, plays in discarded refrigerator boxes with the same self-assurance she had when unassumingly riding that train. And the best part might be that Christine Poon doesn't care who knows.

"The most important thing you can be in the work world is just to be yourself," Poon said. "Celebrate the fact you are different--and make the difference count."

A Woman's World

When Christine Poon's career began, she was typically the only woman in business meetings--something she's happy has changed. "I've gone from the time a meeting would be smoke-filled when you were done ... to a place where it's rare to be the only woman in the room," she said. But why, she asked, does Forbes need a list naming the most powerful women? "We ought to hope for the time we don't need a separate list for women," she said. "Because that will mean it's not just representation in numbers."

We've Struck Gold

After Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee convinced Christine Poon to forgo her planned retirement and instead come to Ohio State, he discovered she had a husband who was also interested in a job at the university.

According to Poon's comical version of the story, Gee rolled his eyes and asked for a resume. Then, he realized her husband is Michael Tweedle-a rock star in the science world who, among many achievements, invented a product used in MRI imaging. "Now we have to find a job for Mike Tweedle's wife!" Gee proclaimed.

His version is a bit different. "As soon as I saw his name," Gee recalled, "I said, 'We have struck gold.' "

Tweedle is now working as a professor teaching radiology, and he is the Stefanie Spielman Chair in Cancer Imaging for the Stefanie Spielman Fund for breast cancer research. Poon and Tweedle have been married 27 years (five if you count actual nights spent together, Poon jokes). The couple lives in Bexley.