The professional paths of 8 pharma execs

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Dr. Arjun “J.J.” Desai

COO

JLABS


Time in the industry?

Eight years

Original career goal?

I wanted to be an astronaut in order to help push our understanding of the unknown closer.

What skills did you pick up from previous roles?

The most valuable skills from my time as a medical student, resident, and physician are empathy and communication. Engaging with all stakeholders in a particular patient's care pathway requires steadfast attention to detail and focus.

These attributes are directly translatable to the startup world and even larger global healthcare delivery.

What was your “eureka” moment?

When I met my mentor, Dr. John Simpson. Being able to engage, listen, and learn from a physician who built the bridges I was looking to cross was not only inspirational, but also a huge catalyst for my movement out of healthcare delivery into innovation and entrepreneurship.

What has surprised you most about the industry?

The changing dynamics of what it takes to get a company built and operational has been eye opening. The talent pool, funding, and availability of resources are always in flux given the current market, regional dynamics, and availability of unicorn-type opportunities. Without an ecosystem to help get an idea from the sketchpad to the bedside, obstacles to growth may sometimes prove insurmountable. Great leadership for early-stage companies and ideas is largely about forecasting what relationships, funding, and access to resources will be needed for each step of the journey.

To whom do you owe your success?

Dr. Ross Jaffe, who as a successful investor helped ground the human side of the business for me, and my medical school and residency mentors, Drs. David Birnbach and Alex Macario.

Also, my wife always helps me be the best person I can be. And finally, my parents, beyond their infinite love and support, have always supported my exploration tendencies as a virtue of education and maturity.

What is your greatest professional strength and how did you develop it?

Empathy. Medicine taught me the importance of it, treating patients and their families enabled me to practice it, and multiple successes and failures in business have allowed me to live it.

Is there anything you would've done differently?

I'm sure there are a million things I would have done differently, but thinking about that would only diminish the precious time I have to think about moving forward.


Lotus Mallbris

VP, platform team leader for immunology, immunology product development

Eli Lilly


Time in the industry?

Seven years

Previous jobs?

The first 10 years of my career, I was a physician and researcher at the Karolinska Institute focusing on immune- mediated disorders. I then joined the industry to broaden my perspective on global healthcare and held several regional and global positions involving clinical development and medical affairs within immunology.

How did you get into healthcare?

To provide better care for patients, it's critical to have holistic collaboration among physicians/researchers, drug innovators, and policymakers.

As a researcher and physician, I gained in-depth scientific knowledge and unique insight into the patient journey. My natural next step was to focus on bringing innovation to patients.

What was your “eureka” moment?

Shortly after I moved into pharma, I became a bridge between the industry and medical communities sharing a common goal. When my external peers attested to my value as their advocate within pharma, I knew I was in the right place.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

My sense of urgency and enthusiasm can be so compelling that I might be oblivious to others' needs in the process. I constantly remind myself to bring others along.

What has surprised you most about the industry?

The admirable focus on patient care. I intended to work in pharma for a few years and then return to research.

Today, I'm proud to say I'm making a significant contribution to impact the lives of others through my work here.

To whom do you owe your success?

My faith in God. I'm here to serve others, and my values are the northern star guiding me daily to do good.

What is your greatest professional strength and how did you develop it?

My working style. I'm down-to-earth, assertive, and persuasive. I find it beneficial to consciously seek out others' views. I'm not discouraged by indifference or criticism, and I value diversity.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

No. Each step in my path has been invaluable in shaping me professionally and personally.

What advice would you give others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

Perform with excellence and have respect for people while maintaining professionalism and integrity.


Machelle Manuel

VP, medical scientific affairs

Ironwood Pharmaceuticals

Time in the industry?

18 years

Original career goal?

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I drew up floor plans for my veterinary practice and even planned to live in the same building. I love animals to this day.

How did you get into healthcare?

In my first career, I was a pharmacist. From an early age, I loved science and figuring out how the body works, so understanding how drugs work in the body was a natural extension.

I have a voracious appetite for learning, and earning a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences allowed me to dig deep into science and realize my next career goal, which was to teach at a university.

My transition to a scientific role in industry coincided with a relocation to Florida. At that time, I wanted to find new and meaningful ways to apply my scientific background and continue learning.

What skills did you pick up from previous roles?

As a practicing pharmacist, I developed a deep compassion for patients. I spent my days face-to-face with patients, helping them understand their disease, medications, and insurance coverage.

I remember counseling a 25-year-old woman with Type 1 diabetes who had already lost her sight to the disease. Working hand-in-hand with the people you are helping — and who really count on you for help — brought perspective and humanity to my work.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

As I moved into leadership positions, finding women role models and leaders in industry was not as easy as it is today. In my early career, I sought out other women through the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association and at my workplace to share best practices and build skills. I also talked openly with men in leadership positions about how to advance as a leader in my field.

I had started out in industry in a field-based role and was fortunate to have been provided many opportunities for stretch assignments and growth.

Now one of the most satisfying things I do is mentor others, including talented young women who are coming up the ranks in biopharma.

What advice would you give others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

Invest in yourself. Knowledge, technical skills, and smarts are important, but will only take you so far.

If you want to be an effective leader and influence others, then you'll need to understand your own strengths and areas for growth. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want, and keep moving toward your goals, always.


Walt Johnston

GM, SVP, urology hospital business unit

Astellas Pharma U.S.

Time in the industry?

27 years

How did you get into healthcare?

When I graduated from college in 1990, there were three primary industries hiring: long-distance telecommunications, financial services, and pharmaceuticals.

Pharma excited me because of its expansion and growth, particularly in field sales. I knew having a sales background would be an asset to future career growth, while working to impact patient lives would be a mission I believed in.

What skills did you pick up from previous roles?

First, collaboration is critically important. Second, it's essential to have a broad and diverse set of experiences. Third, you must always be willing to try something different or new.

What was your “eureka” moment?

When I moved into a marketing position working on a cholesterol medicine at a top 10 pharmaceutical company, I knew that marketing was my calling. It gave me firsthand experience with the issues and things I needed to know and do to truly understand the real impact we were having on patients around the world.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

It's harder to move things forward without being able to effectively collaborate, particularly at a time when healthcare is evolving so rapidly. It often takes longer than you like or expect, but being able to collaborate is critical to a company and product's success.

What is your greatest strength and how did you develop it?

It's important to me to bring together the right people at the right time to do the best work possible. I've learned over time that it's critical to build great teams with good chemistry and talent.

Is there anything you would've done differently?

I believe that if you work hard to become a leader, it's your duty to help others achieve that, too. I don't have any regrets about my career and look forward to continuing to help others achieve their career aspirations as well.

What advice would you give others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

First, have a continuous desire to learn. The marketplace, customers, and landscape are constantly changing, so it's important to stay informed, be open to new ideas, and preempt change.

Second, say thank you. There are many people who help along someone's journey so it's important to stop, reflect, and acknowledge.

Third, strike a balance between work and personal life. Work can be all-consuming, but it's important to find balance.


Rick Suarez

VP, U.S. market access

AstraZeneca


Time in the industry?

18 years

How did you get into healthcare?

Cardiovascular disease is very personal for me. It affected my father, and my nephew died of a congenital defect at age 8. In college, I worked with a group of cardiologists who suggested I consider pharma, which was changing the way cardiovascular disease was being treated.

What was your “eureka” moment?

Coming from sales, I initially underestimated the complexity and speed to impact in market access. Three months into my last role leading a team of tenured and talented account directors, it clicked, and I realized market access is about the long game, educating and establishing partnerships to deliver better patient outcomes on the broadest scale.

Managed care is not for the weak of heart, but once I realized the impact of our work on millions of patients, I knew it was for me.

What has surprised you most about working in the industry?

The tenacity and dedication of those who work in this space. Due to the complexity of healthcare in the U.S., many are critical of our industry. In this environment, we remain focused on new ways to help serve patients.

To whom do you owe your success?

My father Carlos. He immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba with his mother and sibling, with little education and barely any means. What he did bring was pride, determination, hard work, and extraordinary values. Along with a passion for culture, he taught me life lessons that impact my work ethic, relationships, decision-making, and drive.

What is your greatest professional strength and how did you develop it?

Strategic thinking and innovation are two important skills I've picked up along the way, and I owe these to my colleagues.

Every challenge through the years has afforded new opportunities to work with them to problem-solve. Each experience has built upon the last.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I sometimes wonder if I should have gone to med school as originally planned. I am proud of the work we do to improve lives, but I would have enjoyed caring for individual patients directly.

What advice would you give to others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

My advice is simple: Take your career seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Focus on what you want and pursue it with fervor, but never at the expense of others.


Carolyn Seyss

Senior director, promotional review, regulatory affairs

Acorda Therapeutics


Time in the industry?

20-plus years

Original career goal?

Entering college, I wanted to be a physician. I was accepted into pharmacy school and thought that would be an ideal undergraduate degree. Through my classwork and clinical rotations, I realized that what I was looking for, I had already found in the practice of pharmacy.

What skills did you pick up from previous roles?

Owing to my Pharm.D. degree, I have been able to work on various products in multiple therapeutic areas. Supporting various products at various stages in their lifecycle helped give me a broad understanding very quickly.

My focus on medical information gave me a strong appreciation for the importance of communicating clearly. Working with my global colleagues gave me an appreciation for understanding different working styles and the value of diverse input.

And most importantly, I honed my skill in cross-functional teamwork.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

The biggest challenge I've faced was when I was impacted by an organizational change and found myself “severed.” I had worked at that company for over 19 years and it had become part of my identity. I had to mourn the loss and move on. But I had a very supportive network and was able to consult for a period of time while looking for my new home.

What has surprised you most about working in the industry?

Thinking back to the beginning of my career in pharmacy school, I remember hearing about “the industry” and thinking it sounded very cold and uninteresting. I'm very glad I took that first internship and learned about the opportunities for pharmacists.

What is your greatest professional strength and how did you develop it?

Communication, both verbal and written, is absolutely fundamental. The only way to develop it is to keep doing it and to critically evaluate it as you go.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I'm very happy with where I am and how I got here. Hindsight being 20-20, I realize I have been very lucky in my career and have been ready for each new step as it came.

What advice would you give others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks?

Think about what you bring to the table for each role and what you are developing in that role.

Focus on learning and development rather than the climb. Be open to opportunities. Do what makes you happy.


Holly Copeland

Director of public affairs and corporate social responsibility

Horizon Pharma


Time in the industry?

Nearly three years

How did you get into healthcare?

Healthcare was never on the radar, academically or professionally. When I was approached by Horizon, I was working for the state of Illinois under Gov. Pat Quinn and was managing some of the work his administration did with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

My humble background, combined with the antipoverty work I'd done, had taught me that healthcare is always at the forefront. As a young, single mother, I couldn't always afford medicine when my child was sick. Not having proper healthcare can have a tremendous impact on the ability to be successful.

What were the challenges you faced along the way?

Early on in my career, I began experiencing this duality between being the only woman and the only young person in the room. Add the fact that I was the only single parent in the room, and I had a very challenging working situation.

To whom do you owe your success?

The most honest answer to the question is my daughters. I got pregnant at 17 and became a mother at 18. My path through college and intentions for my time there were different from those of a typical young adult.

My girls have enabled me to maintain a focus on why I do what I do because I always had in mind the life I wanted to create for them.

Who were your inspirations and mentors along the way?

It goes beyond one or two individuals. To me, it's the silent heroes who are breaking glass ceilings every day. I feel like I'm surrounded by a warm community of women who have helped me, along with a series of male bosses who have been allies of women's success.

If I have to say one person in particular, I would say Gov. Pat Quinn — he is absolutely amazing and extended so many amazing opportunities to me. I wouldn't be where I am today without him.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

This is only something I might have done differently, but my life would be very different.

After finishing my second graduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, I was defending my thesis on funding for microenterprises. After I presented, the faculty invited me to start a Ph.D. program at the school. I'm a nerd at heart and was over the moon!

It presented a major crossroads for me — either move my girls to St. Louis and continue studying or move them to Chicago and work for Quinn.

I talked to just about everyone I know to help make the decision and ultimately decided to move to Chicago.



Susan Zogheib

Renal sales specialist

Keryx Biopharmaceuticals


Time in the industry?

12 years. I've spent approximately 10 years as a renal dietician helping people with chronic kidney disease manage their nutritional needs and I'm approaching my two-year anniversary at Keryx.

 How did you get into healthcare? 

Prior to joining Keryx, I was a renal dietician for more than a decade. During my last year doing that, I had first-hand experience with Keryx's medicine, which I believed helped my patients in dialysis centers. The interaction I had with the company and the experience I was having with the medication was gratifying for me. When I learned Keryx was expanding the size of its field team, I jumped at the chance to potentially help many more patients. I couldn't be happier I made the leap of faith.

What was your “eureka!” moment? 

I knew I was in the right place as a renal dietitian when I became an author – Renal Diet Cookbook: The Low Sodium, Low Potassium, Healthy Kidney Cookbook was published in 2015. Another was achieving Pinnacle Club status – the top sales award at Keryx – during my first year in the pharmaceutical industry.

What were the challenges along the way? 

Chronic kidney disease is complicated and the patients who suffer from this disease are on many different medications. As a renal dietician, my patients came to the dialysis center three times a week. Many of them I got to know personally and my goal was always the same: to help them stay as healthy as possible. Now that I'm in the industry, it is a challenge for me since I am unable to help patients with their diets, but I take comfort knowing I have a unique perspective when I walk into dialysis centers. Each patient has a story.

What has surprised you most about working in the industry? 

I was pleased to confirm that companies have the same goal as healthcare providers: the well-being of patients. 

Who were your inspirations and mentors? 

Where do I begin? I look to the best of the best for inspiration. At Keryx, my mentor Kane Rogers put things in perspective when he told me, “Get comfortable getting uncomfortable.” We must consistently strive to challenge ourselves by thinking outside the box.

What is your greatest professional strength and how did you develop it? 

I believe our purpose in life is to serve others and to help everyone we encounter to grow by teaching one another. The relationships I've developed over many years have become my greatest professional strength. Interacting with a diverse group of people from all ends of the spectrum has enabled me to develop my communication skills and increase my emotional intelligence.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? 

No. I welcomed, and continue to welcome, all the ups and downs that life brings. Everything I've experienced has been a learning opportunity, which has enabled me to grow personally and professionally. Moreover, I did give fashion school a try early on, and after a year I learned it wasn't for me.

What advice would you give others looking to get into the industry or move up the ranks? 

My first job, at age 13, was as an ice-cream scooper. My advice is to be the best ice-cream scooper out there. No matter how insignificant the task may seem, always give it your best effort, then watch as the opportunities come knocking.

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