For many, the term “Renaissance man” conjures up images of historical figures performing scientific experiments in the morning, playing violin in the afternoon and debating philosophy in the evening.
STEPHEN S. TANG ’82 IS A SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY LEADER ROOTED IN THE LIBERAL ARTS
May 23, 2022
By Jacob A. Miller ’18
In a more modern sense, the term brings to mind a well-rounded person, an individual who embraces the values of the liberal arts and embodies authenticity, curiosity and dedication both to others and to their daily pursuits.
To those who know him, Stephen S. Tang ’82 instantly springs to mind when you say “Renaissance man.” Passionate about education, a leader, an entrepreneur, scientist, musician, athlete, devoted friend and colleague and an enthusiastic public servant, Tang’s natural humility and careful championship of others are matched only by his professional achievements.
Tang was most recently the president and CEO of OraSure Technologies, Inc., from 2018 to March 2022. OraSure is a leading biotechnical firm in the development, manufacture and distribution of rapid diagnostic tests, sample collection and stabilization devices and molecular services solutions designed to discover and detect critical medical conditions.
One of the most recognizable devices that OraSure has developed is the sample collection device used in the at-home testing kits for 23andMe Inc., used to help people discover their ancestry, genetic dispositions to certain diseases and other genetic traits.
OraSure also developed one of the first over-the-counter, at-home rapid tests for HIV, called OraQuick, in 2004. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and under Tang’s leadership, the company expanded its team and developed an at-home rapid test for the coronavirus.
“The driving force for OraSure is putting the power of knowledge into the hands of people,” Tang says.
The company also manufactures other rapid tests, including for hepatitis C, Ebola and influenza, to name a few.
“I took the reins of the company in 2018 not knowing we were going to have a pandemic,” Tang says. “I knew we were going to have to pivot the company in massive ways and the pandemic provided that moment to rise to the challenge. We had the opportunity to apply the resident skills and experience of the company with the challenges and opportunities presented to us by COVID.”
In December 2021, Tang was awarded the 7th Annual Globy Award for Corporate Leadership by the Global Philadelphia Association in recognition of his work leading OraSure through the pandemic.
Tang also participated as a panelist in a spring 2021 virtual Community Conversation with President Katherine Rowe about improving lives during the pandemic. The conversation featured alumni on the front lines of testing and vaccine research as well as students, faculty and staff inspiring others through service.
Tang graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from William & Mary in 1982, received an M.S. from Lehigh University in 1985, a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1988 and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.
Leading through caring
“In all of the leadership positions I had until the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to have a lifelong course on what it means to actually be a leader. And I look to the example of what America’s founders did, under extremely adverse conditions, to establish this country and bring it forward into the world — through strife, disagreements, bloodshed, war. It gives me the perspective that if they could lead people through difficult times, care for them, serve them, then maybe I can do the same,” says Tang.
Before leading OraSure, Tang held other leadership roles in the science and technology industry, including serving as president and CEO of the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. He also served as group vice president and general manager for life science at Olympus America, president and CEO of Millennium Cell Inc., held vice president roles at both Kearney and Gemini Consulting, and was the founder and owner of Tangent Technologies in the mid-1980s.
In addition to his distinguished career, Tang has held a number of board positions and advisory positions including at Harrisburg University, Seton Hall University, Lehigh University, the Innovation Advisory Board at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Drummond Scientific, Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, the Committee of Seventy and served on the board of directors for the William & Mary Alumni Association from 2013 to 2015.
Tang currently resides in Philadelphia with his wife, Jill Chernekoff, an executive leadership coach and president of Chernekoff Communications LLC.
Growing up in the shadow of Philadelphia during the nation’s bicentennial certainly helped to shape Tang’s values and desire to excel.
It is helpful to keep in mind, he adds humorously, that no matter how much great work he does in Philadelphia, he knows that “it will never compare to the work Thomas Jefferson did in Philadelphia. It certainly gives you a sense of appreciation and humility.”
Whenever those closest to Tang talk about him, the word humble is almost always used, as are caring, authenticity and dedication.
“He’s got such a great way of being that it’s hard to describe — his caring, graciousness, humility and empathy come through,” says David “Dave” Lucas Jr. ’80, a lifelong friend of Tang’s from their days together as fraternity brothers in Sigma Phi Epsilon. “He’s stayed connected with all of us in our group for 40 years — not only catching up at golf weekends to relive the glory days of four years in school, but making lasting memories. He is a loyal friend who genuinely cares about you. To loosely quote 'Caddyshack,' you’ve got a buddy for life in Steve.”
In leadership, Tang brings the same level of caring and attention that he does in his personal relationships.
“There’s a style of leadership which has been nurtured during the pandemic, that requires leaders to take a more pastoral approach to leading folks,” Tang says. “By that I mean not just being concerned about who they are as employees — which is the classical view of the boss-employee relationship — but in an era where a significant number of families are working in the same place as each other, while their kids are learning at home as well, you’ve got to take the time to be a pastor to them as much as you are being a leader. People have a tremendous amount of stress outside of work, and it is incumbent upon those of us fortunate to be in these leadership positions to care about them and what they are doing for who they are, not just for what they provide for your company.”
At the start of the pandemic, Tang began writing what he titled a “Monday Motivational Message” to send to everyone at OraSure. It was an experience that allowed him to engage directly with each member of the company and provided an opportunity for him to be more accessible to them in return.
Through Tang’s myriad interests, he is able to form those meaningful connections with people quickly. Those values of the Renaissance man, with an interest in many things and many people, have allowed Tang to create a lifetime of connections. And those same values have allowed him to helm one of the leading organizations in the biotech revolution.
Walking in the paths of revolutionaries
Tang’s parents, who are Chinese immigrants, met while they were studying at a university in the United States. Tang was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and was raised, as he says, not exactly as a traditional Midwesterner but with “traditional Midwestern values.”
“My parents raised us to have a deep appreciation for what it means to be Americans and for the opportunities we have in this country,” Tang says. “I don’t speak Chinese even though I’m ethnically Chinese, and it’s because my parents wanted us to fully belong in the United States. And that’s probably why I developed a love of baseball and jazz music — what’s more quintessentially American than baseball and jazz?”
Both of his parents were scientists, his father a chemical engineer and his mother a clinical chemist. At an early age, Tang was captivated by their careers, launching his own interest in science.
“It was natural to talk science and be influenced by science growing up in our house,” Tang remembers. “But I had, and still have, so many other interests as well — public policy, sports, piano. I did some things that most science kids didn’t do, like read The Economist, but I wondered how the world works and had a broader view of what I found interesting. And from seeing what my parents did, I had this desire to learn more and engage in science too.”
When his father went to work with DuPont, his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent most of his formative years not far from the deeply engrained revolutionary ideals and history in Philadelphia. It was there that he learned to admire the founders and their dedication to curiosity, service and leadership.
“Like most kids who live along the East Coast, our parents dragged us to Williamsburg for a visit when I fwas 12 or 13, and I loved the place,” Tang says. “I was captivated — and still am captivated by the Founding Fathers. They were Renaissance men in their own right.”
For Tang, the fact that boundaries between their interests in the humanities, in the arts, in the sciences and in public service were blurred was appealing to him.
“It’s not like they went to school and someone said, ‘Well, you’re studying chemistry so forget about being a public servant.’ They were, I think at their heart, entrepreneurs in all that they did — including founding our nation.”
It was this open curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit of people like Franklin and Jefferson about the world around them and their desire to serve the people they cared about, as well as a chance connection at the American Legion Boys Nation, that drew Tang to William & Mary.
“I wanted to study in the same place the founders did.”
As a student at W&M, Tang was a member of the men’s baseball team for one year as a catcher, played piano in the jazz ensemble and was a member of the Catholic Student Association. He was also a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, where he met many lifelong friends.
“A majority of the out-of-state kids at W&M, when we were here, came from the Jersey and Philly region,” Lucas recalls. “So after going to a Sig Ep party and meeting someone else who was from closer to home — somebody who liked baseball and could talk to anybody about anything — I knew Steve and I had a connection.”
Despite his busy professional life, Tang has maintained those connections and strengthened them through continued friendship and engagement. He and a group of about 10 friends from W&M, now scattered across the country, frequently get together for vacations, life events, football, basketball and baseball games and an annual weekend (now lengthening into a week) of golf.
“To tell you what he means to me, and the kind of guy he is,” Lucas reflects, “He came to my dad’s funeral on a Monday, two days before Christmas. He attended my wedding — he’s been to several of the guys’ weddings. He can talk about his work in the biotechnical world with us in a simple way that we can understand it, and at a higher level as well, leading to conversations well into the night.”
At William & Mary, Tang considered himself an average to “mediocre” student. His broad-based interests and involvements, he says, caused him to be “a little distracted by the big world out there.”
“He claims he wasn’t a great student — I don’t have my grade books anymore so I can’t be exact about it — but if he was average at William & Mary, that is way beyond average for the rest of the world,” remembers Melvyn “Mel” Schiavelli, who served at the university from 1968 to 1993 as a chemistry professor, chair of the Chemistry Department, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, provost and interim president of William & Mary.
Schiavelli taught organic chemistry, which many consider to be the “weed-out” course for medical school-inclined undergraduates, and he was the pre-med adviser for many years as well. It was in “orgo” that Schiavelli first taught and met Tang in 1978.
“You know that people who do well in that course — and my recollection is that he did well — will be successful. That proved out for Steve,” Schiavelli says.
Schiavelli was also a faculty advisor and mentor to Tang during his time as an undergraduate student. The two have remained in touch throughout the years, including when Schiavelli asked Tang to join the board of trustees at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
“When I was working to establish Harrisburg University, I noticed that Steve was the president of University City Science Center at the time. I wondered, ‘Is this the Steve Tang I knew?’ I called him up, went to visit him, and I was so impressed with him, as I was when he was in school. He understood the technology landscape, could articulate it so well, and had great connections with folks across the state, so I knew I wanted to have him on the board at Harrisburg.”
Connections are an important undercurrent in Tang’s life, both professionally and personally. Tang says that one of the most valuable leadership lessons he has ever learned is to never burn bridges and always keep connections with people open and meaningful. “You never know how that person or organization may come back to you.”
“After school, we both went off and did our careers and families, but we kept running into each other at conferences,” recalls Barry Sharp ’81, P ’14. “We’d get to these energy technology conferences and we’d track each other down, and that was how we stayed connected in those first few years after school.”
Sharp first met Tang at W&M through the jazz ensemble and Sigma Phi Epsilon, serving as his big brother in the fraternity. After years of staying connected through their industry conferences and raising a family, Sharp reconnected with the larger group of fraternity brothers for the golf weekend and Tribe Athletics games in recent years.
Sharp and his wife, Anne Pennewell Sharp ’82, P ’14, established the Sharp Seminar at William & Mary, a joint initiative between the Pulitzer Center and W&M.
“In school, Steve and I connected over our shared love of music and baseball, and he has always been a positive, energetic, optimistic person,” Barry says. “Over the years I have noticed that even though he interacts with a lot of people, he always takes the time to make connections. I think that is what has allowed us to reconnect more in recent years, because he stays interested in people even when time moves us apart.”
Sharp says he is looking forward to the next golf weekend, where he is certain Steve’s team will win.
Accessible visionary, genuine leader
During Tang’s 10-year tenure as president and CEO of the University City Science Center, he transformed the organization into a regional powerhouse for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development and established strong partnerships to foster learning and growth in science and technology industries.
According to the Science Center’s website, they “help commercialize technology, deploy capital to health care startups, cultivate STEM talent and convene people to inspire action.”
It was in the venture capital and operations aspects of the Science Center that he connected with Karen Griffith Gryga ’87. They met when Griffith Gryga was working in the Philadelphia startup scene, partnering software, health care, medical diagnostic and other science and technology organizations with investors and the Science Center, as well as when she was working with Dreamit Ventures, a Philadelphia-based venture fund.
“Steve has been a high-profile leader in the Philadelphia innovation scene for a long time,” Griffith Gryga says. “He has his own ideas of what can help our communities and the medical and technology world, and he is always ready to step up to the plate to support the next best thing to improve people’s lives.”
Tang has always brought the same genuine personality to his career as well as his friendships. While he didn’t know Griffith Gryga from W&M, they instantly connected over alma mater.
“He is a risk-taker, a calm and confident visionary who is accessible and works for the win-win-win,” Griffith Gryga says. “As an example of how adaptable and steady he is as a leader, we were working to connect a startup with investors in the Science Center and the heat was broken in the building. We were there in hats, gloves, coats and had people coming in from all up and down the East Coast to talk with us. Steve, while he was embarrassed about the heat, stood up, shook their hands, made an apology and a joke about the heat and then went right to work. And that is the quintessential Steve, scrappy and dedicated while staying true-to-self.”
In Griffith Gryga’s current role as chief operations officer of BioMeme Inc., she stays in touch with Tang as they both have moved into new roles. She says that she knows he will always make time for her to chat and bounce ideas off of because “that is the sort of person he is: caring and responsive.”
A Renaissance man never really retires
“As far as what’s next in my life,” Tang says, “Officially, I am going to try retirement. Practically, I don’t think I’m going to be very good at it.”
Tang says he is now looking for ways to stay involved in the communities he cares about through high-impact engagement and contributions, through board roles and advisory positions. “I’ve been thinking about writing a book — the Monday Motivational Messages really inspired me, so I think there is a book in me somewhere.”
When asked what leadership lessons he has learned over his lifetime in, he says, “Be courageous — don’t be afraid to cross industry lines and zigzag between fields. I was in the energy sector then came over into life sciences and it has been helpful each time I shifted industries.
“Communications skills are key — I was fortunate that William & Mary taught me how to write, and that’s not normal for most chemistry majors at other schools. The ability to effectively communicate is your path to upward mobility — if you can’t connect and communicate with people, you won’t rise to the leadership roles.
“Maintaining relationships is vital — I interviewed for the last three jobs I had all practically at the same time. When I went to work for Olympus America, I had also interviewed for University City Science Center and OraSure. I maintained those relationships over the years and when positions became available at the Science Center and then at OraSure, the bridges I already had built helped me move from one position to the next.”
No matter what Tang undertakes in the next chapter of his life, it is certain that it will be tied to the things, places and people he is passionate about. His love of learning about the world, doing for others and staying connected to others will continue to drive him.
And especially through his connection to William & Mary, his group of friends, he will always be tied to W&M and Williamsburg.
“When we get together, we try to solve all of the world’s problems, of course, and it keeps us tightly connected,” Tang says. “It is pretty central to who I am, to stay connected to the university. There have been a lot of expected and unexpected ways William & Mary has helped me and been prominent throughout my life.”
“We try to keep him grounded,” Lucas says with a laugh, “But Steve is just real, he’s a real person. He’s the sort of person you would be glad to have as your boss and honored to have as your friend.”
Schiavelli adds, “With Steve, you know that what he promises, he’ll deliver. And he doesn’t over promise. That is the mark of someone with character. He is a really good person, there’s no other way to say it.”