At 83, Julia Levy is a towering figure in B.C.’s business and scientific communities. In 1981 the microbiologist founded what was later called QLT Inc. with four male colleagues, after one of them told her that the Vancouver biotechnology company needed the antibody technology she had developed at her UBC lab. Over the next two decades, with Levy as chief scientific officer and then president and CEO, QLT developed Visudyne, a novel drug for age-related macular degeneration, and took it to market. At its peak, the company was treating some 500,000 patients a year and posting more than US$600 million in revenue.
“We were lucky,” says the plain-spoken Levy in her apartment overlooking Stanley Park. “We had the first treatment ever for this ocular condition. We’d already struggled; we’d been in existence for 20 years before we had that success, and we made plenty of mistakes in the early years. But if you’re going to progress, you learn from those mistakes.”
Levy, who came to Vancouver from Singapore during the Second World War, says she decided early on not to be a kept woman. Her example was her mother, who had to work because Levy’s father was traumatized from his years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
While earning a bachelor’s in bacteriology and immunology and a doctorate in experimental pathology and immunology during the 1950s, from UBC and the University of London, respectively, Levy had no illusions about the roadblocks that female scientists faced. “We accepted that as women that it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have to deal with a lot of harassment,” she says. “You accepted that OK, men are dominant; you have to prove yourself better than them in order to get anywhere. That wasn’t too hard.”
Things improved for Levy, whose many honours include the Order of Canada and EY Entrepreneur of the Year for the Pacific region: “Once you start getting higher among the echelons, that harassment gets much less because men are scared of you.”
Levy led QLT from 1995 to 2002 and served on its board until 2006. How does she see her legacy? “There’s an inordinate number of women in senior positions in [Vancouver] biotech companies than there might be in other cities, and I think that’s possibly due to my success,” says the board member of non-profit Ecotrust Canada, who has directed or advised 13 startups. “And I’m very proud of the fact that we did it here in Vancouver, because it was a most unlikely place for having the kind of success we had.”
How can we get more women into STEM?
“There has to be a wilful decision made on the part of leaders, and they’re mainly men,” Levy asserts. At QLT, senior management was gender-balanced, she says. “I think management meetings and management works better when you get the yin and the yang,” Levy adds. “The views of different kinds of people is probably extremely important in making the right decision.”