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Values Proposition

Values Proposition: Danguole Altman ’85 on Career and Family 

In this series, leaders tell stories about drawing on their core values in critical moments. We talked to Danguole Altman ’85, founder of Vapogenix, about the choices she made as she led multiple companies and raised a family.

Danguole Altman with her family

Danguole Altman ’85, second from right, and her family. Photo courtesy of Danguole Altman.

The Values Proposition series is made possible by The Forrest E. Mars, Sr. Fund for Values and Ethics in Management.

Is it possible to be fully committed as both an executive and a mom? Among her many roles, Danguole Altman ’85 has been mother to four children, CEO at three firms, and a founder of companies in the life sciences and healthcare services. We spoke with her about the ideas and values that have guided her in choices about career and family.

I remember the exact moment. Eighteen years ago, I was standing with my team at the airport in Houston waiting to fly to a dinner meeting in Austin. I saw a woman about my age with two little kids. They were all looking out the windows at the luggage being loaded onto the plane. The kids had all types of questions. It was my nth trip of the week, and I wasn’t seeing my own kids at all. Valuing family is core to who I am, but so is working hard and persevering in the face of challenge.

I was the CEO of a physician practice management company. Physicians see patients all day, so management discussions tend to be 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. meetings. I had founded the company and raised $18.5 million to grow it. We were expanding despite difficult industry conditions. We’d built a good team. There were no ominous clouds on the horizon, but my life was crazy.

I had two kids when we funded the company. Later, I became, unexpectedly, pregnant with twins. For a time, we had three nannies: a Monday through Friday, 9-5 person; a part-time nanny a few nights a week, so I could get some sleep; and an au pair from Lithuania to make sure the older kids were learning the language. We were lucky enough to be able to afford the help.

I know women who have a bunch of kids and are CEOs too. It can be done. In some cases, their husbands stay home. That wasn’t right for us. But there are lots of arrangements that can work. The industry, your family situation, how old the kids are—it all plays in.

That day in the airport, I knew. As much as I felt responsibility to the investors, and as much as I felt professional desire to continue to grow, I knew being there for my kids was at odds with leading the company the way that it needed to be led. So I resigned. That conversation with my lead director was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. He was tremendously supportive. He had kids; he understood.

I never regretted the decision, but I wouldn’t be honest if I said that I didn’t feel some guilt. I had a lot of respect for our investors. Even though the company was doing well, and it was a good time to leave, I was the only woman CEO in their portfolios. I hated the idea that any of them would think, “We backed her and she quit to spend more time with her kids.” At the same time, I did want to spend more time with them. What would I tell them years later? “I didn’t spend time with you because it was more important to show somebody what I could do”? That didn’t make any sense to me.

My husband was also really supportive; that makes a huge difference. We come from different backgrounds but have similar values. It’s something he and I have shared from the beginning. He grew up in Texas in a small town with 350 people; his parents had lived through the Depression. My parents came to this country when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. I grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a first-generation American. We lived with my grandfather. He had been a very successful entrepreneur in Lithuania. When he arrived in the U.S, he had to start from nothing in his late 50s. He did manual labor in a Domino Sugar factory. He would always say, nobody can take what’s in your head and what’s in your heart. The lessons of family, faith, patriotism, studying hard, working hard, excelling while staying true to your values, empathy for those that don’t have much, and resolve to push ahead—those formative values shaped me as a kid, and definitely still come into my decisions.

“While it was a difficult decision, spending more time with my children when they were young but continuing to work in a less demanding role was absolutely the right thing to do and allowed me to step back in a senior role at a later time.”

When I stepped down as CEO, it was very important for me to continue working some. I’d been in the industry long enough that without soliciting business, consulting engagements developed organically. That allowed me to work from home, being much more present for my children, while maintaining my career.

I did consulting work for six years. When the twins were in second grade, there was a new opportunity. Dr. Allen Burton and Dr. Phillip Phan, who were both faculty members at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, saw the potential to develop a topical, localized, non-opioid way to treat pain. At the time, it wasn’t much more than the glimmering promise of a first patent.

I joined them as co-founder and CEO of Vapogenix. Over 10 years, we’ve gone from raising seed funds to Series C to being close to completing our phase-two proof-of-concept trial in humans. There’s interest from the military and for post-surgery pain treatment of wounds. And the technology could eventually be applied to a lot of different types of localized pain. It’s very exciting.

The twins left for college this fall. Their older siblings have both finished. One is working in New York. The other just started graduate school. After years of balancing schedules so that my husband and I could both be involved in the family and our careers, becoming empty nesters is a new phase for us.

I also am in a transition with Vapogenix. The next pharmaceutical approval phase needs someone with a pharmaceutical background leading things, so I recently stepped down as CEO. I continue to consult and am still involved in a couple of areas where I’m the lead inventor in some method-of-use patents.

All these changes have me thinking back. Recalling that moment at the airport and the choice to resign as CEO, while it was a difficult decision, spending more time with my children when they were young but continuing to work in a less demanding role was absolutely the right thing to do and allowed me to step back in a senior role at a later time.

Department: Values Proposition