BOSTON—In a moving speech today that was a central part of Harvard Business School's Class Day ceremonies, Kathy Giusti (MBA 1985) told the 936 members of the MBA Class of 2011, their families, and friends of a life-changing journey that began for her on January 12, 1996, when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that her oncologist told her was "100 percent fatal," as he advised her to put her life in order, since she had only three years to live.
Today, some fifteen years later, Giusti is a wife and proud parent of a sixteen-year-old daughter and fourteen-year-old son and the founder and CEO of the Multiple Myeloma Foundation and the Multiple Myeloma Research Consortium. Both these organizations have revolutionized cancer research and drug development for a disease that had been neglected for decades. "It had no awareness, no funding," Giusti said. "The treatments offered in 1996 were the same as in 1956."
Giusti credited HBS with giving her the skills that helped her succeed as an entrepreneur — a role she didn't envision during her post-graduation years working at Merck, Gillette, and Searle Pharmaceuticals. But with her diagnosis came the incentive and the will to "start an organization dedicated to multiple myeloma to change the dismal statistics."
Change them she did. "Since we started, myeloma has seen four drugs win FDA approval. We have eight more in late-stage trials. We have doubled the lifespan of our patients from three years to seven. We know so much more about the biology of this disease."
In addition, Giusti has proved to be a world-class fund raiser, collecting more than $165 million, attracting top scientists to focus on the disease, and supporting more than 500 of them around the globe. She has also emphasized the importance of their collaborating both with one other and with industry. As a result, she said, "We have spearheaded 30 trials of 18 drugs 60 percent faster and used our high-quality tissue samples to be the first to sequence the myeloma genome with the Broad Institute," which aims to dramatically accelerate the understanding and treatment of disease.
The prescriptions Giusti offered the graduating students included:
- Setting a goal you are passionate about and building a plan
- Taking risks ("I was not a risk taker, but when I faced my own mortality, my risk profile changed dramatically.")
- Persevering, no matter how high and daunting the obstacles ("I have faced chemotherapy, run endless meetings in scarves hiding my bald head, endured a bone marrow transplant and isolation. I travel every week concerned about infections. Through it all, I have persevered and stayed focused on the mission.")
- Picking your partners wisely ("You must work with people who energize you, who share your dreams.")
In keeping with Harvard Business School's mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world, Giusti urged her audience not to wait for a crisis or tragedy before doing "something amazing with your life."
"I wake up every day normal, and then it always hits me," she concluded. "I have cancer. It is fatal....During those moments of intense uncertainty, the same two questions emerge. Have I made a difference? Have I been a great mom, a great role model? I can answer both with a resounding yes."
A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Vermont, where she studied biological sciences, Giusti has received numerous honors, including Harvard Business School's 2009 Alumni Achievement Award, the American Association for Cancer Research Centennial Medal for Distinguished Public Service, and the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association's Woman of the Year Award. TIME magazine recently named her one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."