A Transition at Arrakis

June 26, 2018
Michael Gilman, PhD, CEO, Arrakis

Earlier this spring, Russ Petter – our Founder and CSO, very much the heart and soul of Arrakis, and a guy I’ve known for nearly twenty years – told me he had something he wanted to talk to me about and how about we do it over dinner. I didn’t think twice about it at the time. Over the years, I have had many long and delightful dinners with Russ. Sometimes we talked shop, sometimes we focused on the trivial, and sometimes we went deep. But we always ate well, typically Italian and often accompanied by a decent bottle of Nebbiolo.

About a week before the dinner, I start wondering what the heck this was about. So I asked him. He basically told me that he’s not dying, his family is fine, and he’s not going anywhere. But beyond that, I’d just have to wait.

On the appointed evening and at the appointed hour, I arrived at the restaurant and found Russ at the bar. When it comes to restaurants and airports, Russ’s habit is to arrive ridiculously early and that evening was no exception. We sat down at our table and Russ got right to the point.

“I can summarize the issue here in two words. I’m trans.”

I responded, “What?”

I mean, that is not a hard sentence to parse. But my response betrayed just how unexpected that particular piece of information was.

So he repeated himself to make sure I got it. And what followed was, of course, another lovely meal and pretty much the most fascinating dinner conversation I can remember. This is Russ’s story to tell, but I’ll just say that, while I was always a fan of Russ’s prowess and creativity as a medicinal chemist, his sharp mind and quick wit, his ridiculously vast working vocabulary, and his out-there iconoclasm, my admiration for him deepened markedly over the course of the evening and as I continued to reflect on his experience in the following weeks. To sense at an early age that something was not quite right, to wrestle with that understanding over decades while living out your personal and professional life, and then in your sixties to actually do something about it is, well, wow. My own working vocabulary fails me.

Characteristically, Russ, whom we’re now getting used to calling Jennifer, had developed a deliberate and thoughtful plan for how to communicate and actualize his transition in the professional world. At the time of our dinner, only two people outside his personal world knew. One was Heather Lounsbury, our VP of Ops and Russ’s long-time partner-in-crime at Avila and Celgene prior to Arrakis. The other (weirdly) was our outside patent counsel. Later that week in the office, Russ shared with Heather and me a proposed timetable for when he’d inform the rest of the Arrakis management team in one-on-one conversations, when we would tell the rest of the company, a firm date at which he would become Jennifer full-time, and which events in the crazy interim he would attend as Russ and which as Jen.

We’re through all of that now and I’d like to reflect briefly on what it’s meant to Arrakis and what we’ve done to ensure that Russ’s transition to Jennifer was as smooth as possible for him and for Arrakis employees, for whom Russ is a beacon and a magnet.

The first order of business was purely paperwork. We had to ensure we had appropriate HR policies in place and that our health insurance plan covered any special issues that might arise. We enlisted an HR consultant to help us understand and anticipate any issues that commonly arise during workplace transitions. We enlisted our PR team to help. Aside from this post, we were not planning to make a formal announcement, but we wanted to be prepared for any inbound inquiries. And, although it may seem like a dorky thing, we needed to make changes to our website – changing “Russell” to “Jennifer” throughout. (But not everywhere, by the way; that turned into a very interesting discussion about what elements of our website are immutable history that should not be changed.)

Then we approached the day for the company-wide announcement. Heather and our office manager, Emily Perry, organized a company happy hour on a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. The early hour of the event, 2 pm, triggered much hilarious speculation among the team about what was up. I can assure you that no one called this one.

About twenty minutes into the hour, over a lavish spread of sushi and other munchies, Russ pulled some notes out of his pocket and began – a bit nervously, it must be said – to tell his story. I will never forget that day. I don’t know what I was expecting – that people would get up and quit en masse? – but the spontaneous outpouring of support and the joyful nature of their response was an amazing and beautiful thing. It quickly became a celebration. When I finally left around six that evening, most of the team was still there, gabbing and laughing.

Jen tells her story to the team

Gender transition is, obviously, a deeply personal and private matter for the transitioning individual. But it has an outward face as well. Our goal was to minimize its impact on our business while acknowledging and even celebrating what it means for Jennifer.

I’m pleased and gratified that everyone at Arrakis has taken the news in stride and gone about their normal business. We all still stumble a bit over Russ/Jen and he/she – Russ’s wife Cathy tells me it gets easier when she’s actually dressed as Jen (OK, I have to tell you that was a confusing sentence to write). But moments that might have been awkward are instead just occasions to laugh together. And, so, we move on, each of us making our own small transition as Jen moves forward with hers.

The women of Arrakis
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