Saleh Stevens – CEO of Continental Clinical Solutions

That is the secret sauce. Think big to get big. After the grandeur of a big idea settles, I start reading up on similar ideas to see if there is a space for my idea to blossom; an informal feasibility check. Then, I dig down on the elements of the idea and what I need to do to bring those elements to fruition. Inevitably, this nets me another to-do list to run down. The idea slowly comes to form as items get crossed off the to-do list.

Saleh Stevens, once a dedicated steward in the financial products and services sector, left industry practice and pursued dreams dear to his heart. Through Continental Clinical Solutions, Saleh has focused his business talents on cultivating diversity in clinical studies on the customer and provider sides of medical science.

As CEO of Continental Clinical Solutions, Saleh has combined his commitment to civic duty and business acumen to grow a business that not only helps to pave the way for healthier communities, but also advances medical science. Continental is a dedicated research facility that boasts a large regional network of investigators, trial sites and patient volunteers for all phases of clinical studies. Saleh focused Continental on clinical studies addressing long-term health issues that plagued local communities. “The theory for community focus is that community health is very dynamic. Community centers address the immediacy of healthcare issues on a daily basis; however, clinical studies help affect healthy outcomes and healthy behavior in particular communities over time, if not over generations.”

To date, Saleh has united Continental Clinical Solutions with community health organizations and Fortune 500 companies across many therapeutic areas in clinical studies. Saleh has turned clinical studies into opportunities that provide health education to populations previously unaware of their own potential impact on science in their community.

Although Saleh has lived in various large cities around the world: London, Barcelona, New York and Atlanta to name a few, he does not shy from his Maryland roots. Saleh grew up in Bethesda, Maryland and is now residing near his childhood home. Saleh, his business and his family are committed to Maryland and the well being of its great and diverse communities.

Where did the idea for Continental Clinical Solutions come from?

Continental grew from the idea that there needed to be equality in the clinical research aspects of medical science. There were lots of clinical trials, but not a lot of US participants. On top of that, there was not a lot of diversity amongst clinical trial participants on either side of the equation. There is an unwelcome uniformity among physician investigators and patients alike. The broad idea for Continental, which really allowed for an explosive growth, was the precept that achieving diversity could not solely be a race-based model in science. In scientific terms, we wanted to broaden the inclusion criteria for recruitment in clinical trials. First, we looked at recruitment on the patient-side. Once we had an understanding of the dynamics of recruiting on the patient side, we were exposed to the failings of diversity on the physician and sponsor side. At that point, the idea had its own legs. As emerging leaders in our segment, we just needed to stay abreast of trends and entry points to ensure future success.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’ll start off with the personal aspect first, since that is integral to a productive day. My wife and I start the day getting ourselves and the family together for the day: bathing, breakfast and transport. Seems basic, but anyone with a family knows exactly what I am talking about. Then, I listen to NPR on the way into the office. At the office, I go through my to-do list. I try to return calls or follow-up calls as early as I can. Once my team is in and ready to roll, we collectively talk about the office to-do lists, i.e. deadlines, studies, patients and new projects. This is a great time to delegate and reassess where we are in our individual and collective timelines. Then, as CEO, I have to carve out time for looking forward and finding new projects for the business. We have to focus on daily, weekly and monthly milestones. Productivity, therefore, really becomes a function of organization and energy for me. As I said, I keep a running to-do list and sometimes it takes the form of an outline because some tasks are pretty complex and are a function of another unrelated task.

How do you bring ideas to life?

That is the secret sauce. Think big to get big. After the grandeur of a big idea settles, I start reading up on similar ideas to see if there is a space for my idea to blossom; an informal feasibility check. Then, I dig down on the elements of the idea and what I need to do to bring those elements to fruition. Inevitably, this nets me another to-do list to run down. The idea slowly comes to form as items get crossed off the to-do list.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

One trend that excites me is the growth of wearable technology and biometrics. First, because it is just plain cool: watches, apps and other devices that can do things we never dreamed of when I was young. We are on the cusp of some really transformative technology hitting the market. It will be a little while before wearable technology really takes off; when it does, medicine and science as we now know it will resemble what we see in futuristic movies. Second, wearable technology creates an interesting paradox in healthcare: patient independence through being hyper connected. The independence piece means patients can track biometrics and other data independently without necessarily going to see a professional – body temp, pulse, blood pressure in realtime and mostly without human error. At the same time, the devices tether the patient to health professionals through apps and data connections that effectively create a 24-hour connection. It will be interesting to see how people react to wearable technology when it is fully mature.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I will give you two habits. The first is commitment to exercise. The stresses of being entrepreneurial require mental fortitude and physical conditioning. Good exercise properly situates me for achieving mental and physical success. I still get stressed, but my body deals with it better. Also, the conditioning translates into mental stamina for those long office days. The second habit is being fearless. I avoid being afraid to ask for something that may seem unreasonable. Worst case is a “no.” While a “yes” is great, the common result is usually an open dialogue that gets me close to what I want.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My worst job was my first job. I worked at a local restaurant in downtown Bethesda. I was 14, so I basically was a dishwasher for the summer. The smell of the chemicals, the heat from the dish steamers and the humidity from the summer heat made it a wild ride. I was paid whatever minimum wage was. But, my boss did a really good job at explaining to me how important clean dishes were to the business and to the customers. Knowing the value of what I was doing and the importance of my responsibilities in the business model really made me learn to appreciate perspective and take pride in what I was doing.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

There are certainly some poor decisions that I could use a mulligan on— in that regard, accept the mistakes, learn from them, commit to not repeating them and then keep moving forward. That said, I also wish I had the gumption to start working on entrepreneurial ideas earlier in my career. You really have to take the time to discover what peaks your interests, remembering that those interests may change with your own life experiences. In the past, if I had conditioned myself to look forward more, I would be farther along with the folks at Continental or I would’ve pursued inventing the internet.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read up on the craft. Even if you are part of a market that is defined solely by what you or you business does, you have to know what is going on around you. A large component of success is about adopting and understanding your relevance in your particular segment. If you want to stay relevant, you have to stay in the know. I talk to businesses. I read about trends in multiple spaces. Then, I reflect on where, why and how Continental is positioned the way it is. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I’ll speak generally. One strategy that has really helped has been mastery of our craft before each growth segment. We definitely dream big, but we always focus on mastery of the space we are in before we branch out. Each space we occupy as we grow is part of our foundation. Every business needs a solid foundation in order to continue to build.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At one point, a partner and I were working hard to get a debit card company up and running. We had gotten through all of the approval channels, were ready to start pre-marketing and surprise: there were some changes in the law that shook up the industry and tabled our company plans. We overcame it by continuing to think big. We did not give up on achieving our entrepreneurial goals.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I don’t have any specific ideas. Anything that I’ve thought of, I have either chased down or given to other people.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Flowers for the wife. No particular reason, just because.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

For business that are running a lean operation and need the bells and whistles of an internal network and customized document sharing system, I recommend the Google enterprise. The Google system is customizable, highly accessible and where requested, can be made HIPPA compliant. It also can integrate into all facets of your office infrastructure.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I just read the Sports Gene by David Epstein. Some of the information is not novel; however, a less pronounced takeaway ties into mastering your craft. Part of the success is hardwired, meaning its just in your DNA. One of the distinguishing factors between great and elite is the 10,000 hour rule. Put 10,000 hours into learning and perfecting your craft and you are all but guaranteed high level of mastery in that craft. Practice makes perfect. Good, continued practice makes mastery.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Social media like Twitter aggregates a lot of authoritative sources for me, so there are a lot. I read a lot of information from Dan Sfera, which is plain English communication on clinical trials. I also like Rahlyn Gossen at Rebar Interactive. Dr. Judy Stone also is an authority who is committed to humanity. Other than that, I like to read whatever Matt Cutts at Google puts out. He is an example of someone who is constantly reading, constantly assessing the market and constantly recalibrating what he produces at Google to help keep Google on top.


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