A Finance Expert Found Her Calling in the Life Sciences
At Charles River, CSVP Shannon Parisotto has carved out a career that has taken her from accountant to senior leader
Shannon Parisotto, CSVP of Global Safety Assessment at Charles River, often tells friends and colleagues that she grew up at Charles River Laboratories. Indeed, she has spent the majority of her career there, primarily at our site in the desert city of Reno, Nevada. Her father is an electrician and her mom a school administrator who works in the front office. She has one brother.
Finding a niche as a finance expert in a company filled with PhD scientists has been an upward and ultimately satisfying experience for Shannon; she credits Charles River’s willingness to provide opportunities for employees to grow. She also is proud of to the company’s mission of improving lives; Charles River worked on 85% of the novel drugs that reached the US market last year.
When she graduated from the University of Nevada-Reno with a degree in accounting—a credential that offered an entry to all kinds of industries—she knew she wanted to “work somewhere that made a difference.” She thought about the Reno site, which was then known as Sierra Biomedical before Charles River acquired it, but was unsure at first.
Shannon eventually was convinced to join, and she quickly advanced up the ladder, into roles with greater responsibility and breadth, drawing on her expertise in business and management. In her current position, she is responsible for leading the company’s global Safety Assessment organization. She remains focused on developing its people and positioning the business for continued, long-term growth and success. Digitization is one of her key projects, so is improving the lines and venues of communication with our scientists on the frontlines.
Eureka met with Shannon for an hour-long interview, shortly after her promotion and with COVID-19 an ever-present reminder of how company norms have changed. Here are her edited responses.
Eureka: You have talked a lot about digitization. Why is this important for Charles River?
Shannon: I can't do anything unless it's an app on my phone. That includes having an electrician come out and do some work. I find them, schedule them and do everything on my phone. That's the way the world is going, including Charles River. At some point our researchers are going to be like my kids. They are both in their 20's and they look at email like, "Oh my God mom, you're so archaic." I think that that's how our customers are going to see us, too. So we have to completely change how we interact with our customers and ourselves, how we share information, how we communicate with each other. We have to get simpler, especially with our customers. More and more companies are biotechs that want ease and flexibility. We need to have certain digital platforms in order to do that. You can't keep doing things via email. You can't keep doing things via systems where you then have to manually upload data to a portal. People want things instantaneously.
Eureka: Do we have the technology to do this?
Shannon: We have the technology, but it’s about the processes. I mean, you just don't buy a software system and you don't just plug it in. We'll have to fundamentally change some of our processes and the way we do things in order to streamline it and be able to use tools. We'll also need to take a hard look at our data and the type of data we collect.
Eureka: You have talked about the importance of connecting with employees who are working at the frontlines of research. How does a company as big as Charles River, with 90 sites around the world, do that?
Shannon: Even though we are big, it doesn’t mean we aren’t structured in a way to maintain our connectivity. The regional structure we have in Safety Assessment, for instance, is specifically geared towards that, to not make us feel so big, like the ability to have round tables and one-on-one meetings. When I go out to a site, I want to connect with the various technicians to keep a pulse on what’s happening there. One person can't do it all, of course. It takes a village. And it starts from the top. Because Jim (Jim Foster, CEO) creates that atmosphere, it continues to thrive at the different levels in the company, so I think that makes a difference. If you didn't have that leadership and you didn't feel like that mattered, then it would be harder.
Eureka: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced personally and professionally during your career and why?
Shannon: The downturn in 2009 that we experienced, specifically in Safety Assessment, was very challenging. We were building a really great business, a really great service offering I would say. We had done expansions in Shrewsbury, Reno and Shanghai and had acquired companies throughout the year. Then the market took such a drastic downturn and it happened so fast, and it took so long to come back. We had to make some really, really difficult decisions for the business in order to try to preserve what we had built.
Eureka: Can you describe a Eureka Moment in your career? Maybe a discovery that changed how you thought about the trajectory of Charles River?
Shannon: I didn’t have a huge amount of exposure to the C suite or the executive group of Charles River until the downturn in 2009, when I started to get more exposure to them. I have to tell you, I always thought it was this mysterious stuff that happened like in a secret room. I really did not realize the extent to which they had to fight and position ourselves in the market with investors, with the board and really to the extent that they went to battle for us. As soon as I saw that, it kind of changed my perspective on how to talk with them, how to interact with them. I don't know, they were just more real and all the conversations became easier, the dialogue was just crisper and more to the point and I realized they actually know the business really well.
Eureka: So we're living in a COVID-19 environment. What have you learned so far about this experience that will be valuable to you professionally and personally?
Shannon: The advantages of going virtual. I used to travel 25% of the time, in North America, Europe and Asia. I was always of the mindset of that you've got to be there in person to build a relationship and to do things. COVID has taught me that you can do this virtually. It’s the same with my friends. We've just learned how to connect and have a happy hour or have a coffee break and still have that relationship.
Eureka: Now for some fun questions, what would you have liked to have done had you not pursued a career in finance and management?
Shannon: Teach, probably at the collegiate level.
Eureka: What kind of music do you listen to when you're at work?
Shannon: Country. I like the mainstream ones … Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, pretty traditional. But I'll basically listen to anything.
Eureka: Where do you get your science news? I have to ask that one.
Shannon: Many years ago my kids helped me set up a bunch of [Internet] tags that now enable me to get notifications and feeds on anything that's happening out in the industry and stuff like that. For me that's the fastest way for me to get information. I also reach out to my colleagues.
Eureka: Who have been the heroes in your life?
Shannon: My parents. I think they sacrificed a lot for me and my brother growing up to make sure that we had opportunities. They did make me think I could do it all… I could have a career. I could be a mom. I could be a wife. I could do it all.
Eureka: What does your brother do?
Shannon: He is an elementary school teacher in an inner city school in Las Vegas. So, he's having a heck of a time right now.
Eureka: What's making you laugh lately?
Shannon: My dog, Russell. He’ll be running around everywhere jumping over the furniture or chasing the cats, chewing the ball and then literally 30 seconds later he’ll be like completely passed out asleep on the floor. Then he’ll bounce back up 15 minutes later and being running around again. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. I want to have that type of energy.’
Eureka: What's the most adventurous thing you've ever done?
Shannon: I went on a foreign exchange program when I was 20 to Turin, Italy. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t speak Italian. It took me way outside my comfort zone.
Eureka: Lastly, if your life was a hashtag, what would it be?