Ramona Sequeira, President, United States Business Unit and a member of the executive team at Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Ltd, shares her memories starting as an undergraduate student in Molecular Genetics and how it inspired her to pursue a career on the business and management side in the pharmaceutical industry. Ramona reflects on the different stages in her career journey, both complex and rewarding. She shares how she used her experiences to build the platform that has enabled her to be a successful leader and mentor, and maintain a healthy outlook in her personal and professional life.
What brought you the department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto for your undergraduate studies?
For me, I just find the study of genetics fascinating because it contains so many secrets that are yet to be unlocked, and can help people to be heathy and manage disease. To me, genetics is a science about learning because we’re still learning so much. It’s not just what you know, but what questions you can ask and what information you can unlock through the research that you do. I think that’s what attracted me to it and still does, even though I’m not directly involved in it today.
As for why Toronto, I was actually born and raised in Toronto. I grew up seeing the beautiful old buildings of UofT whenever I went downtown and it just felt like home there.
What was the most valuable part of your studies at the department of Molecular Genetics?
It was learning the history of how genetics has evolved and just how much insight we’ve been able to gain into ourselves and even our history as humans through genetics. I think that was just fascinating.
What are your most exciting memories of the department of Molecular Genetics.
I think it would be the camaraderie involved. With the more technical hands-on lab work courses, you think that would be very individual studies, but actually, there is a certain level of camaraderie in sharing information that is involved in that lab work. I think we see that being applied today in the broader R&D department. Even as companies, we can’t just continue doing research within our four walls. Things are moving too quickly and if we don’t connect with other people doing similar types of research, we’re not going to move as fast as we need to. Looking back at it, that was something surprising to me and I really enjoyed it.
What stage in your studies did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical sector?
I always loved science and I think through my course work, as I became more exposed to different things at UofT, I started to develop a broader interest in the world around me, such as business, how a business is run, developing leadership, and what that was all about. So for me, after coming out of the genetics courses, I really wanted to learn more about business. And it was during my business degree, I went to McMaster to pursue an MBA, where I discovered the pharmaceutical industry. I really didn’t know anything about it until then. To me, it was the perfect place to put together my love of science and my strong interest in business and leadership. It was the perfect place to practice those both together.
I think a lot of people that got into the pharmaceutical industry, got into it for a lot of the same reasons as science. We want to do good. We want to help the world around us in any small way that we can.
How do you feel your experiences in Molecular Genetics influenced your career trajectory?
My experience in department taught me the discipline of hypothesis and validation. Really how to approach problems and how to think through them thoughtfully. I was taught how to fail and how to move on from that. I was taught how to not just go off of opinions, but really think about your assumptions and validate as you go. I think it taught me a very disciplined process that really helped me in business.
My daughter just took a very advanced course in computers, which is a very similar discipline to science in the way that you think. At the end of the course, she thought it was really hard. I asked if maybe she wishes that she hadn’t taken the course, but she said that even though she doesn’t know if she wants to go into computers, she feels like she thinks differently now and that it helps her in everything that she does. I would say very much the same thing about having the Molecular Genetics degree.
At what point did you realize that you had ambitions to be part of an executive leadership team in the pharmaceuticals industry?
I was always on the commercial side of the business, such as sales and marketing. At the time when I was working in Toronto at my previous company, Lilly, I was leading the launch of two really important neuroscience brands for the company and I loved it. I was getting involved in so many different aspects of the work, from working with regulatory on the labels to determining how to market the product to working with specialists in the field to figuring out how to share our data. I just really enjoyed it.
At that time, I also had two young kids, and really felt like I was giving everything I had to the job. It was really an unusual time with launching two products at the same time and I loved it and was thriving, but I was giving everything that I had. The person who was president of the company sat down with me and said, “I think you need to start thinking about the next step and getting into a role like mine because you love looking broadly.” And I said to him, “I can’t do that. I don’t have anything more in me - I am at the capacity of what I can contribute to the company right now.” And he kind of laughed and told me that’s what I didn’t understand about getting into higher levels of leadership. You don’t have to do more. You just have to do things differently. You will be focused more on guiding the work instead of doing to the work. You will be focused more on the organization and prioritizing the right things. For me, that was a really meaningful time to say that maybe I can do more and still be a mom and a wife and have my own interests on the side.
What professional qualities and strengths do you think are critical and necessary for motivating and leading a successful team within the pharmaceuticals sector?
I think you need a good compass and a good radar. The radar is that you have to have a really good understanding of the healthcare system around you and what it needs from you as a company. What do patients need? What do payers need? What do providers need and how do you interact with them in a way that meets their needs and yours at the same time? I think that’s really important, especially now as our healthcare system is changing so rapidly.
A good compass means as a leader, you need to have an intrinsic set of values that you hold true to. I think we’ve seen in our industry when that doesn’t happen based on some of the companies in the news recently. You have to have the courage to stand by your principles and values. At Takeda we do this through an algorithm of sorts: “Patient-Trust-Reputation-Business”. What is the right decision for our patients, and to build trust with stakeholders, and to maintain the reputation of our company, and how do we build our business through those lenses.
As for leading and setting up a team, I will add that it is important to be able to set a vision and tell a story of that vision so that people can understand how their work connects to it. Often, a company vision or strategy are just words on a page, and then people are just doing a job. I think being able to set a vision and tell a story so that people can see how their day-to-day work connects allows them to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and to make trade-offs on a daily basis to ensure they are focused on the right things. Lastly, you also need to be able to focus. What are the things that matter the most and how do I focus on getting that right?
What are some of the key challenges, if there were any, that you faced in your journey to successfully secure this type of lead executive position in your company?
There were a couple of challenges for me. One was on the family side. In order to have the type of role I have today, you can’t just work in one market place. You have to expose yourself to different markets, different cultures, different healthcare systems just so that you have a broader understanding of the whole healthcare system and how it works around the world. For me, that meant moving around a little bit with my family. That was a big discussion and a big challenge because it involved my husband leaving his career as a teacher and my kids going to different schools. What I think we learned from that is that my kids have built a huge amount of resilience, self-confidence, empathy, understanding and curiosity about the world, which I think will help them greatly too. I’ve learned a lot about adaptability just from watching them.
Another challenge that I faced, more on the personal side, and I think this applies to many industries and certainly in the pharma industry now, is that there weren’t very many female leaders. I didn’t really have those role models and didn’t have a template for other styles of leadership that existed, as opposed to the more traditional male leadership style. I had to make some mistakes along the way to learn to find my own style and to trust my own instincts and have confidence in myself. One of the things I really try to do now is make sure that I’m helping other people do the same in the organization. I really want to use the benefit of my successes and failures to pay it forward to the next generation of leaders.
Do you think that is changing now and the gender balance is better or is there still a long way to go?
I think we still have a long way to go. I’ve been fortunate in the company that I’ve come into in that I was able to build my own leadership team, using amazing talent we already had and bringing in new talent that brought us new perspectives and capabilities. Just by serendipity, by choosing the best people for the best roles and just getting a good complement of skills, we have a 50:50 male to female leadership team. It’s such a great experience leading this team because there is such a complement of perspectives.
What are the most pressing concerns for your sector, from your perspective, and what are the biggest opportunities for growing in the pharmaceuticals business?
The biggest concerns are really around trust and reputation of our industry. The reason for the concern is that if you look at public trust right now, particularly in the US, it is at an all-time low for the industry. What that means is that there is a reactionary view that could lead to the creation policies that will hurt our innovation-based business model. Trust isn’t just a feel good thing. Trust and reputation come from your actions, and they truly shape our business environment. It’s been great for me to see the focus that Takeda, an over 200 year old Japanese company, places on our reputation.
The biggest opportunity it where science is taking us now. The information that we have with genomics, personalized medicine and biomarkers is really helping us to be able to think differently about how we develop drugs and how those drugs will be used in the real world. We’re learning so much about what is similar between us as people, but what are some of the differences in how diseases manifest themselves in different people. If we can develop medicine to treat those differences, you would actually end up with more cost effective medicine over time because you can focus on the right patient for the right medicine.
What advice would you give to graduate students hoping to apply their education in a career in business within the pharmaceuticals sector?
I would just say, and I think this would apply to anyone, regardless of what you want to do and what sector: do anything you can to learn a lot about it from different perspectives. Not just from the business perspective, but from the patient perspective. What is the journey that a patient goes through when they have a disease and have to go through the healthcare system and navigate it? Or when they’re on medicines and have to manage themselves? How do providers operate and what is their business model? How do they run their offices? What’s on the mind of the regulators? I think understanding the whole ecosystem is really important for our industry. I think our industry in particular has been very internally focused. We want to get out there and sell our medicines, but we can’t only think about ourselves and what we want. We need to think about how we can integrate ourselves into our healthcare system and build that trust. Not just help patients get on our medicines, but actually help patients get better on our medicines. I don’t think you can do that until you truly understand the other stakeholders in the system and how we all fit together.