Robin Washington: Appreciating Possibilities

Gilead CFO Robin Washington’s work adds hope for suffering patients and promising students
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BY LISA KISER


Robin Washington, BBA ’84, was ranked sixth on The Wall Street Journal’s 2014 list of Top Performing CFOs in the S&P 500. She has also been named one of Treasury & Risk’s 30 Outstanding Women in Finance and Black Enterprise's 75 Most Powerful Women in Business.

Washington is the executive vice president and chief financial officer of biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc., where she oversees the global finance and information technology organizations. Along with her roles at Gilead, she serves on the board of directors at Honeywell International and Salesforce.com.

She says, “My job is very dynamic. I work at the intersection of science and business in a regulated environment, which is complex, never dull, and constantly changing.”

Washington is also personally dedicated to making a difference, especially in business and ensuring that others get access to a business school education.

As her career progressed from executive positions at PeopleSoft to serving as CFO of Hyperion Solutions (which was acquired by Oracle), before ultimately landing at Gilead, she saw opportunities to address a pressing business issue: lack of diversity.

“Diversity is a key competitive advantage. Getting different types of people and perspectives engaged in the decision-making process is so important. We’re gradually seeing more diverse role models in business, but we’re still not where we need to be. We need more diverse representation at the senior management, C-suite, and board levels around the world.

“The best thing we can do in terms of diversity and inclusion is simply to insist that more is better. Statistics show that diverse workforces are more productive and demonstrate enhanced performance, which translates into improved long-term shareholder value.”

Washington spent time with Gilead’s HR team looking at statistics for her organization. While they found gender parity at the more junior levels, women serving in more senior roles was much more limited. She decided to take action.

Washington has long tried to be an informal mentor, or sponsor, to women and minorities during her career. “The majority of my senior staff and personal sponsors have been male, and they are great, but I felt responsible to sponsor and create a more diverse pool of leaders better reflecting the global environment we operate in and the patients we serve,” she says.

Washington established the Women’s Leadership Forum for the CFO organization, which houses finance and IT. The forum works on skill development and facilitates discussion with female leaders from across Gilead and outside the organization.

“I want the women in my organization to hear the stories of success and failure experienced by these leaders in advancing their careers and balancing work and family. The more you expose individuals to challenges they can relate to, the more you motivate them and allow them to realize that they too can be successful. It really inspires them as they travel along on their personal and professional journeys.”

Washington’s own journey came with its fair share of unexpected turns. In fact, she came to the University of Michigan with an intent to study English as a pre-law major, but an internship at Manufacturers Bank led her to apply to the business school.

Washington was passionate about her change in direction, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. “I got my first C ever in accounting and was really devastated. I had trouble relating it to ‘real life,’ but accounting is the language of business. It’s a really critical skill.”

She continued her journey undeterred, becoming a Certified Public Accountant and earning an MBA from Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management.

Washington really wants others to follow in her footsteps, and decided to do her part to encourage students from many different backgrounds to pursue business school.

Washington established the Moyer-Washington Foundation Endowed Scholarship Fund for Ross BBA students from underrepresented high schools in honor of her late father, Alex Moyer Jr.

“My dad encouraged me to pursue accounting,” says Washington. “He was a successful entrepreneur who viewed education as the key to empowerment for any individual in the world. I want to do my part to sponsor students so they can get the same University of Michigan education that was so valuable to me.”

Washington grew up south of Detroit, in the city of Ecorse. She attended boarding school in Ohio, where she learned to interact with different cultures and appreciate the diversity of her classmates who hailed from as far away as Honduras and Iran. She continued to flourish among the diverse student population at U-M.

“The Black Business Students Association was a fantastic resource,” recalls Washington. “We had individuals come back and tell us about their success. Students need exposure to leaders with similar backgrounds and to hear about their journeys as they decide what they want to do.”

Regarding her own interactions with students, Washington says, “I want to let students know if you work hard anything is possible. My Michigan education was very much a part of my success. I am honored to give back and see others benefit from the education that I got.”