Myrtle Potter

Executive vice president, commercial operations, and chief operating officer, Genentech

Nationality: American.

Born: 1958, in New Mexico.

Education: University of Chicago, AB, 1980.

Family: Daughter of a restaurant owner and a social worker; married; children: two.

Career: Merck 1980–1996, vice president of Northeast Region Business Group, 1993–1996; Bristol-Myers Squibb, 1996–2000, vice president for strategy and economics, vice president of Worldwide Medicines Group, vice president for sales, president of U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics Group; Genentech, 2000–, chief operating officer.

Awards: Bristol-Myers Squibb Leadership Development Award; Woman of the Year Award from Healthcare Business Women's Association, 2000; Fortune magazine, no. 18 on list of Most Powerful Black Executives in America, 2002.

Address: Genentech, 1 DNA Way, South San Francisco, California 94080-4990;

■ In 2000 Myrtle Potter was offered a million-dollar bonus to join Genentech, the world's number two biotechnology company. At two major pharmaceutical companies, Potter had gained a reputation as a leader who could bring good drugs to market and turn them into blockbuster success stories. She joined Merck right from college and moved from sales to marketing and business-planning roles during her 14 years with the company. At Merck she succeeded in making a struggling ulcer remedy (Prilosec, marketed by AstraZeneca since 1998) one of the best-selling drugs on the market. Potter joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1996 as vice president and advanced to senior vice president and then to president of a major group. With that company she brought a high-cholesterol drug (Pravachol) to the billion-dollar mark on the market.


Myrtle Stephens Potter grew up in a large family in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She later attributed her team-building business skills to living and coping in a home with five siblings. Potter told Time writer Chris Taylor that with "six kids in a two-bathroom home, if you don't work in shifts and make trade-offs, you can't get out of the house in the morning" (December 2, 2002). She also developed a focus and a competitiveness that materially contributed to her rise from an entry sales position to top management.

Potter's professional drive can be traced to her early experiences in Las Cruces. Her father, retired from the military, started a small business that became successful. The family moved to a new neighborhood when Potter was in her early teens, and she found herself one of only four African American students in a school of five hundred. It was not a comfortable environment for the family. Potter's parents told their children to ignore the racial problems and to focus on studies and extracurricular activities. Myrtle Potter excelled academically and convinced her father that she should go to college. She was accepted to the University of Chicago, and he remortgaged the family home to help her.


At the University of Chicago, Potter took a part-time job at the university hospital and became interested in medicine. She also persuaded the university's Business School to let her take an internship in business at IBM that was generally reserved for MBA students. The rewarding experience at IBM convinced her she wanted a career that combined business and medicine. On graduation from the University of Chicago, she took a job as a drug representative for Merck. She was soon promoted to an analyst position, but after a bit more than a year her managers told her she did not have the intellect to do the job and that they planned to demote her.

Potter disagreed with the managers and asked them to show her what they wanted. She also went to the human resources department. After that the managers did not question her abilities again. "As an African-American woman I was really going against the grain," she said to Cora Daniels, author of the "Most Powerful Black Executives" article in Fortune (July 8, 2002). Daniels described African American women executives, including Potter, as of necessity fiercely competitive and more openly ambitious than their male counterparts.

Potter pressed for more responsibilities at Merck, even accepting lateral moves to broaden her experience. In 1991 she was put in charge of a $4-billion joint venture between Astra and Merck to design a business plan and to do it within six months. The appointment met with skepticism within Merck, but in just eight weeks Potter designed a business plan that led Prilosec to become the world's best-selling ulcer medicine.


In 1996 Potter went to drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she started as a vice president of strategy and economics and soon moved up to senior vice president of sales, U.S. Cardiovascular/Metabolics. She was then promoted to president of the $3-billion sales unit, making her the first black woman to lead a major pharmaceuticals business unit. She was hired by Bristol-Myers Squibb to reengineer their drug-development pipeline and worldwide commercialization of products. Her successes in making billion-dollar drugs out of Pravachol (for high cholesterol) and Glucophage (for diabetes) attracted the attention of Genentech executives, who enticed her to join the company in 2000 as executive vice president of commercial operations, chief operating officer, and member of the executive committee.

Myrtle Potter credited her success to her ability to leverage high-performing teams—which, she told Noel Tichy ( The Cycle of Leadership , 109), "nine times out of ten gets you ten times further than doing it by yourself." Colleague Claudia Estrin described Potter as not an easy person to work for, although Estrin noted that Potter freely gave credit to someone else when it was due. Noel Tichy wrote that Potter put people "out of their comfort zone."

See also entries on Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Genentech Inc., and Merck & Co., Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

Bell, Ella, L. J. Edmondson, and S. M. Nkomo, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity , Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

Daniels, Cora, "Most Powerful Black Executives," Fortune , July 22, 2002, pp. 60–80.

Potter, Myrtle S., as told to Eve Tahmincioglu, "A Deal with Dad," New York Times , November 23, 2003.

Taylor, Chris, "Myrtle Potter: COO Genentech," Time , December 2, 2002.

Tichy, Noel M., and N. Cardwell, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win , New York: Harper Business, 2002.

—Miriam Nagel

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