Women at MIT Sloan Profile: Cheryl Clarkson SF'90

Women at MIT Sloan profile
Cheryl Clarkson SF ’90
Current position: CEO, SkinHealth Inc.™

Departing from the traveled road.

Entrepreneurs become entrepreneurs for all sorts of reasons. Some want to be pioneers. Some want the thrill of growing a thriving enterprise from the seed of an idea. For me, entrepreneurship was a mission launched by a personal crisis.

I had been finding terrific satisfaction moving through the ranks of a large corporation. I’d served as the chief executive of three medical device companies and was one of the first women ever to be named to head a publicly-traded company. I’d earned my MBA as a Sloan Fellow and was on a Fortune 500 CEO track. By the age of 40, I’d accomplished much of what I’d set out to do.

Then my sister—my only sibling and my best friend in the world—was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I quit my job to manage her care. We sought help from the best medical experts and the country’s best hospitals. We tried experimental protocols. But the reality was that her diagnosis had been a death sentence.

At the age of 40 she succumbed to the disease, which claims 7,000 lives a year, including many young people in the prime of life. In fact, malignant melanoma is the second leading cause of cancer death in women under the age of 40.

Making an impact on women’s health.

I had always been idealistic, always interested in combining business with making a difference. Here was an incredible chance to do just that. I could spread the word about the importance of protecting ourselves from solar radiation. I could bring breakthroughs in skin care to people—including sunscreens based on the latest scientific research that would protect them from developing skin cancer.

In 1999, I launched SkinHealth™. What started as a consulting practice working with dermatologists on skin cancer prevention quickly evolved into a entrepreneurial venture involving retail stores offering the full spectrum of skin care services, from sun screens and other skin care products to spa and medical treatments. I am proud to report that our sunscreen was voted best in class four years in a row by Health magazine.

Of course, this was a highly risky venture. I probably never would have done it had I not had the personal passion and the drive to do it. I would have seen too many roadblocks. The logical part of me would have said “no way.” But I was driven. I saw no other option but to succeed and so I did.

Lessons learned as a Sloan Fellow.

What made this radical career switch possible was passion, experience, and preparation. The last I earned as an MIT Sloan Fellow. I entered the program at a juncture in my life when I’d achieved many of my goals, but I knew I couldn’t go further without a formal business education. Being in a technology-oriented business, MIT made sense.

As a Sloan Fellow, I learned things I never expected—a comprehensive overview of economics, how world economies function and how they’re interrelated, how mathematical modeling can be applied to complex tasks. Most important, I learned real world lessons applicable to real world businesses.

Less concrete but just as valuable, I learned about the other fellows. The MIT Sloan Fellows Program is a fantastic melting pot of different countries, backgrounds, cultures, and values. People from warring nations working closely together on common goals. I’ve been out of the program for more than 15 years, but I am still close friends with other fellows. They impressed me then, and they impress me now.

MIT Sloan, my professional experiences, and my role as an advocate for my sister prepared me to take on the enormous challenge of SkinHealth™. I knew I could lead people and organizations, but in this phase of my life, I wanted to be a leader in skin cancer prevention and in skin health, within the marketplace and within society. I feel I am making a difference to the world and I can honestly and enthusiastically say I love my work!