Meet Jennifer Petter: Boston startup Arrakis celebrates a big personal transition for top exec

A Boston startup that made this year’s list of promising new biotech ventures to watch is celebrating some personal news about one of its founders today: its chief scientific officer is transgender. Although known as Russ Petter in the past, she now goes by Jennifer Petter.

Michael Gilman

The company, Arrakis Therapeutics, is stepping forward to warmly applaud her transition, starting first with a blog written by its CEO Michael Gilman and posted to the company website.

I talked with Petter this morning to hear her side of the company’s reaction to her news.

“The response was really wonderful; remarkably positive,” she said. “I would also say it also followed generational lines. People closer to my age tended to have a, ‘Wow that’s strange’ response. Younger people were very matter of fact: ‘What’s your name? What’s your pronoun? What’s for lunch?”

In the blog, Gilman shares not only Petter’s story but his own personal reaction to her transition. Although Gilman has known Petter for 20 years, it was only recently that he learned of Petter’s plans to come out as transgender — it came up over dinner earlier this spring.

This is Russ’s story to tell, but I’ll just say that, while I was always a fan of Russ’s prowess and creativity as a medicinal chemist, his sharp mind and quick wit, his ridiculously vast working vocabulary, and his out-there iconoclasm, my admiration for him deepened markedly over the course of the evening and as I continued to reflect on his experience in the following weeks. To sense at an early age that something was not quite right, to wrestle with that understanding over decades while living out your personal and professional life, and then in your sixties to actually do something about it is, well, wow. My own working vocabulary fails me.

Gilman wrote about how he and his company grappled with how to respond — still stumbling a bit over Russ/Jen and he/she —  after all, this was a first for everyone involved. But Gilman says he wanted to make Russ’s transition to Jennifer as smooth as possible for him and for Arrakis employees, “for whom Russ is a beacon and a magnet.”

The first order of business was purely paperwork. We had to ensure we had appropriate HR policies in place and that our health insurance plan covered any special issues that might arise. We enlisted an HR consultant to help us understand and anticipate any issues that commonly arise during workplace transitions. We enlisted our PR team to help. Aside from this post, we were not planning to make a formal announcement, but we wanted to be prepared for any inbound inquiries. And, although it may seem like a dorky thing, we needed to make changes to our website – changing “Russell” to “Jennifer” throughout. (But not everywhere, by the way; that turned into a very interesting discussion about what elements of our website are immutable history that should not be changed.)

I asked Petter what she thought of Arrakis’ decision to not change historical references online to the name “Russ Petter.”

“It was a matter of debate, but not a particularly heated one,” Petter said. “I have a long history as Russell. It is what it is and I don’t need to change that. I don’t need to pretend that he didn’t exist.”

Then came the company-wide announcement. And word spread fast on Twitter this morning.

Arrakis held a happy hour event on a Friday afternoon.

About twenty minutes into the hour, over a lavish spread of sushi and other munchies, Russ pulled some notes out of his pocket and began – a bit nervously, it must be said – to tell his story. I will never forget that day. I don’t know what I was expecting – that people would get up and quit en masse? – but the spontaneous outpouring of support and the joyful nature of their response was an amazing and beautiful thing. It quickly became a celebration. When I finally left around six that evening, most of the team was still there, gabbing and laughing.

Gender transition is, obviously, a deeply personal and private matter for the transitioning individual. But it has an outward face as well. Our goal was to minimize its impact on our business while acknowledging and even celebrating what it means for Jennifer.

When asked what advice she has for companies or individuals facing a similar transition, Petter noted that its important for the company to lead by example.

“I think that making the announcement a celebration really sets a positive tone,” she said.

Image: Jennifer Petter (right) shares her story at a company-hosted happy hour. (ARRAKIS)

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