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Dr Penny Heaton, Bill & Melinda Gates MRI: ‘Lift while you climb’

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Dr Penny Heaton, Chief Executive Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about the need to disrupt global health product development by applying cutting-edge science and technology to combat age-old diseases in the world’s poorest populations…

Tell me about your career? (A brief summary to date)

My interest in infectious diseases was inspired at an early age by a personal connection: My father was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) shortly before I was born. As I grew up, I watched him struggle with the fear that his TB would reactivate and infect my siblings and me. But I was not afraid, I was fascinated, and I would do everything I could to learn more about these “bugs” that could come alive and cause disease. I knew then that I wanted to learn more about the power and possibilities unlocked by science.

After graduating from medical school and fellowship, I led a surveillance project of more than 400 children in Kenya for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the first time I saw first-hand the devastating impact of diarrheal diseases. From there, I led the effort at Merck & Co. to develop a lifesaving rotavirus vaccine—which is now licensed in more than 100 countries and universally recommended by the World Health Organization for infants worldwide. I spent six years at Novavax and Novartis before joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013 to lead the vaccine development team and its efforts to combat not only diarrheal diseases, but several others as well, including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia, and polio.

It was during my time at the foundation that I recognised the need to disrupt global health product development by applying cutting-edge science and technology to combat age-old diseases in the world’s poorest populations. That’s what we’re working towards at the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute.

What does your current role entail?

Like CEOs of most organisations that are in their infancy, in any given week my work on Tuesday is likely to look very different from my work on Monday. But there are a few tasks that, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus my time and energy on.

I knew then that I wanted to learn more about the power and possibilities unlocked by science

I spent a lot of time early on figuring out what type of organisation I wanted the Gates MRI to be. Our culture is so important to me; I knew it was important to get it right early in our journey. Thinking critically about culture also helped shape another priority for me: hiring. We knew we wanted to hire individuals who are not only committed to our mission of developing solutions to help save the lives of the world’s poorest people but who are also committed to innovating and iterating fast to develop those solutions. In our leadership team, we have those people—they’re innovative, creative, and most importantly, they’re willing to take risks to achieve our collective goals.  

A significant part of our model relies on partnership. So another priority for me is reaching out to potential academic and private sector partners and sharing our mission and vision, ensuring they understand who we are and why we’re here.

Do you think being a woman in the pharma industry is a challenge?

Like many other industries, the bar is often set higher for women in pharma. And while we certainly have a long way to go before we reach a point where that imbalance is corrected, it’s encouraging to see this new awareness about the importance of female representation across all levels of an organisation. It’s also important not to be complacent and to keep lifting women up because we need to sustain the momentum we’re seeing and make sure it continues on with the generations after us.

We knew we wanted to hire individuals who are not only committed to our mission of developing solutions to help save the lives of the world’s poorest people but who are also committed to innovating and iterating fast to develop those solutions.

Are there any examples, within your company in particular, where women have been successful?

We’re a new organisation, but I am proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. One thing I believe we have done particularly well is creating both gender and ethnic diversity in our hiring practices. Diversity brings together different perspectives and sets you up better for success. We made it a priority, particularly in our initial hires, to check in every three or four hires to see how we were doing in terms of diversity. By doing that, we have more women than men on our leadership team. I didn’t necessarily set out to hire women for those specific roles, but they just happened to be the best people for the jobs they are in. And it’s not just gender diversity we’re focusing on – it’s cultural and ethnic diversity, too. A leadership team that brings different perspectives and experiences to the table is how true innovation happens.

The contribution you bring to your organisation isn’t the fact that you’re a woman—it’s the unique perspective that only you can bring to it

When I think of successful women who have inspired me personally, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, is always one of the first that comes to mind. As the CEO of the Gates Foundation, she is a wonderful role model for women in science, and the tremendous accomplishments she has made throughout her career are truly inspiring. I feel lucky to call her a mentor and friend.

What have you experienced as barriers to success on your career path, and what advice would you give to women who come up against these same barriers?

I’ve come across some really challenging projects in my career, but my approach has always been the same: doing my homework, being persistent, and anticipating possible questions, challenges, and risks. When faced with a challenging project, having a well-developed rationale enables me to problem-solve and keep moving forward.

My advice would be to keep that type of consistency when facing other challenges in the workplace. Being prepared and able to clearly lay out your rationale – sincerely convincing that person who’s challenging you – can go a long way.

What can women do to prepare themselves to reach the C-suite in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries?

First, understand that your potential is boundless when faced with a new opportunity or risk to take. The contribution you bring to your organisation isn’t the fact that you’re a woman—it’s the unique perspective that only you can bring to it.

Second, seek out good mentors and sponsors. To me, sponsorship means something different than mentorship. Mentors are trusted advisors who can offer counsel. Sponsorship is a step beyond—it’s finding someone who will advocate for you and push you to challenge your own expectations or standards. Both mentors and sponsors have played an immeasurable role in helping me reach this point in my career.

And third, continue to grow and nurture your own self-confidence. This is a difference between men and women; we have more self-doubt. Studies show that women are already completely qualified for a promotion when they get it; men often grow into the role.

Looking more broadly in the industry do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in pharma and is it any worse than in other industries?

There’s no question that there are many fields where women are under-represented in leadership positions, including tech, finance, the life sciences, and countless others. Certainly, I think we have a lot of work to do to change that. But I’m optimistic about the progress we’re seeing across the board. More and more women are entering graduate science programs.

In the U.S., unprecedented numbers of women are running for government office. In the life sciences, we’ve seen GlaxoSmithKline name its first female CEO, Emma Walmsley, and Lundbeck recently appointed an inspiring woman as its CEO in Deborah Dunsire. I’m excited about these types of appointments, and I’m confident we’ll continue to see more like them.

Currently, men outnumber women in science graduate degrees in the UK – how can we better address this imbalance to encourage more women into biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

I think this comes back to the idea of mentoring and working to build each other up. I recently participated in a panel with Women in Bio and the theme was “lift while you climb.” That’s exactly the type of advice we need to encourage women—and men—who are already in the industry to do. Continue to support people who are early in their leadership journey. You never know how big of an influence you might have on someone.

We also need to better understand and embrace what’s working to encourage more women to enter the field. For example, my graduating class from medical school in 1990 was 35 percent female. Today, in the U.S., the average graduating class is more than 50 percent female. That’s a remarkable shift in a relatively short period of time.

How could the Pharma industry benefit if more women were in higher roles?

It’s about perspective. Women bring different things to the table. For example, women may more naturally collaborate. By being more open to collaboration there are greater opportunities for innovation and partnerships and new business models that will advance investigational products more quickly. I definitely see that when I work with other women CEOs; when I work with male CEOs the tenor of the conversation is different. As a new CEO, the differences are interesting.

When you have more women in leadership, it means you have more women who were encouraged earlier in their careers. When this happens, you are building an organisation that is fostering growth at all levels, you’re developing strong leaders, and you’re encouraging collaboration. This is the foundation of any successful organisation and an approach that can benefit the pharma industry and beyond.

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