Title: Global Head Pharmaceutical Development, Technical R&D at Novartis Pharma
When you talk to scientists about early mentors and those that encouraged them, you typically don’t expect that person to be a philosophy and religious education teacher. But for Despina Solomonidou, her rise through the ranks of Novartis and from her native Greece came from exactly that person.
“I was lucky enough to have someone who encouraged me at school; interestingly enough, he wasn’t a science teacher, but a philosophy and religious education teacher. He was also the, what we would call today, the vice principal, and I used him as a sounding board for questions that I had. In those days (I finished school in the 1980s), people that high up were not very approachable, but I trusted him, and he was there for me.”
She says she shared her passion with him for science; but she knew that would mean sacrifices. “He encouraged me, despite knowing it would be a rough, bumpy road, because I wanted to study abroad [she was born in Athens, Greece]. I was one of the best students in school, and he told me I can do what I want here; why leave the country? I said it was to pursue my dream, and even though he knew it would hurt my parents to do it, he told me I should find a way, and make my dream come true.”
Her parents did support her, and she left to study pharmaceutical sciences in Germany and later joined Novartis in 2000, starting off as a lab director in formulation development in technical R&D. Over the next ten years, she took on increasingly bigger roles with more responsibility before moving into oncology clinical development, as she wanted to “move beyond pharmaceutical and technical development.”
In January 2017, she became the Swiss major’s global head of pharmaceutical development in technical R&D for the Big Pharma’s pipeline of small molecules. This role spans many disease and therapy areas and has a team 450-strong across the world, including in Switzerland, the U.S., China and India. Its purpose is to design, develop and help manufacture pharmaceutical products for use across all of the company’s pipeline in preclinical animal studies, clinical tests, and medicines on the market.
Novartis itself is actively engaged in mentoring programs for women rising up through the company, and Solomonidou says she’s very passionate about it herself: She is actively engaged as a mentor in the Novartis Women Leadership Forum, a program specifically designed to support women in early stages of their careers to build greater self-awareness, develop specific skills known to be in high demand, gain visibility to senior leaders and establish an internal network for learning.
She also currently mentors five women within her own division at Novartis. She is so passionate about supporting women’s professional growth that she mentors women in a volunteering program outside of the company, specifically in Switzerland, that focuses on helping female immigrants who want to come back to the workforce.
“When I started in 2000, that was at a time I believe when we really started to put an emphasis on female talent development; today, there are a number of mentoring and coaching programs within Novartis that include a mixture of formal and more informal programs,” she says.
For Solomonidou, getting women into not just higher positions in life sciences, but at the very top of the industry, is all about an evolution in culture and education, and one that needs to be nurtured from a young age in girls.
“Women are catching up in the pharmaceutical industry,” she explains. “When I joined Novartis, there weren’t too many female team leaders or section heads. And there have been departments where the percentage of female associates was not, what can I say, favorable. But a lot has changed; I see many more women coming into not just Novartis, but across the industry, notably in Europe.” She says around 60% of R&D hires at the company are women, but admits this is an evolution, not a revolution.
“There is still work to be done, and things won’t change overnight. We need a cultural shift, not only in the industry, but in the entire community," she says.
For young female scientists joining the industry, Solomonidou suggests providing them with opportunities to develop certain skills beyond the standard education early on in their careers; she says, “don’t wait until they have been identified as hipos (i.e. high potentials)”. These include public speaking on stage, attending meetings with and presenting to senior management, negotiation skills and effective networking.
Building these skills will help them with growing and becoming successful in their careers. Furthermore, coaching and mentoring in the early and mid-years of their career are proven to be effective in supporting their onboarding and orientation, learning and understanding of the organization, discovering preferences and interests, and identifying career options. Lastly, family-friendly policies have done some work to help women advancing in their careers and assuming senior leadership roles: Flexible schedules, job-sharing, working remotely and on-site child care are just few examples of measures that also work, and are some of the policies implemented at Novartis.
“We need to start early, even in the young years of schooling with words and acts encouraging girls to pursue studies in STEM subjects, and aspire for more. We should encourage them to follow their talent and their passion, and give them female role models from the science world that have made it through this journey to inspire women for something greater," Solomonidou says.
Equally important is to ensure that boys and young men get the same messages to make the cultural shift and enable the mindset change over the generations even in closed societies and cultures. “Those working in life sciences, or in technical/engineering roles, should be taught that seeing women work alongside them is not an exception; they need to see it for what it is, which is simply natural.”