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Personnel File - December 2007: women Executives

Christy Shaffer, President and Chief Executive
Inspire Pharmaceuticals Inc., Durham

Christy Shaffer can thank the board for knowing her better than she knew herself. With products on the market and a rich pipeline, Inspire Pharmaceuticals is one of the few true successes of the Triangle biotech scene. But without the board’s trickery, she never would’ve become its boss.

A pharmacologist, Shaffer, 49, was Inspire’s first employee, recruited to oversee development of drugs, including a treatment for cystic fibrosis. When the board approached her about the top job in 1998, she demurred, saying the company needed an MBA, not a Ph.D. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to read financial spreadsheets.’ I didn’t know what an IPO was, and they wanted to do one. I said, ‘Let’s hire a search firm.’” The board made her interim chief operating officer. About a year later, the consultant came back with a recommendation: her. Board members fessed up. The search mainly had been a ruse to let her get used to being in charge.

She grew up in the sort of do-it-all atmosphere typical of a startup. Her parents owned a small fishing resort in Tennessee. From March through September, the family worked seven days a week, doing everything from cooking meals to cleaning toilets. Shaffer finds herself applying their lakeside lessons at Inspire. Foremost is making everyone feel like family. She encourages Inspire’s 170 employees to bring their kids to work. She set aside a room, furnished with computers, so parents don’t have to fret — or stay home — if their children catch colds and can’t go to school or day care. Healthy kids are even welcome in the labs.

“My older daughter always enjoyed that when she was little. She’d see all these weird machines and beakers, and people would show her how they did things. Afterwards, one time she asked me if I made the most money at the company. I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘I don’t understand that. All you do is sit at the computer. Bill’s out there in the lab, making all the stuff.’”