This Fresh Take interview featured Neelima Rao, Vice President Human Resources, Global R&D and North America HUB Leader, AstraZeneca. JB Holston and Neelima discussed the business imperative of inclusive growth, her focus on developing a skilled and diverse talent pool to drive innovation, and more.
Hosted by JB Holston. Produced by Jenna Klym, Justin Matheson-Turner, Christian Rodriguez, Nina Sharma, and Ramir Cena. Edited by Christian Rodriguez.
Learn from leaders doing the work across the Capital Region and beyond. These conversations will showcase innovation, as well as history and culture across our region, to bridge the gap between how we got here and where we are going.
About our guest:
Neelima Rao is Vice President of Human Resources for Global Oncology R&D and North America Country Lead at AstraZeneca. In this role, Neelima is responsible for defining and implementing workforce and workplace strategy across multiple geographies globally. Neelima serves as the HR Chair of the AstraZeneca North America Governance Committee.
Neelima brings over 20 years of experience driving successful change, growth, and innovation across complex and global organizations in the Life Sciences industry. She has led large-scale transformational agenda in acquisition, ramp-up, turnaround and integration environment. Neelima is passionate about driving business outcomes through designing fit-for purpose organizations, building high performing teams and shaping desired cultures.
Neelima has a Master’s degree in human resources from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Neelima currently serves on the board of AWIS (Association for Women in Science), passionately promoting women around the world to pursue their STEM education and professional goals. Neelima has been serving as an Inclusive Growth Committee Advisor for Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance focused on catalyzing equitable solutions that make the region the best place to live, work, and thrive.
Nina Sharma 0:04
Welcome to fresh take a candid interview series featuring thought leaders and innovators from across the capital region. These one on one conversations, highlight the incredible work happening in our communities, and showcase both where we are and where we are going as a region.
JB Holston 0:24
My guest today, Neelima Rao with AstraZeneca. I will introduce you a little bit more formally in a minute. But thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
Neelima Rao 0:32
Thank you so much, JB It is an honor to be here.
JB Holston 0:35
Thank you. Are fresh take series is a series of conversations that I have with leaders in the region and nationally on really critical issues for the region and also nationally. And in that context. I'm delighted today to have Neelima join us. Neelima is the Vice President of Human Resources for global r&d and the North American country lead at AstraZeneca. In this role, she's responsible for defining and implementing HR strategy across multiple geographies. Globally, she's had multiple human capital leadership roles in the life sciences industry, with experience from Sanofi Johnson and Johnson, and Novartis, she brings experience leading large scale transformational agenda in acquisitions ramp up turnaround and integration environments. I think right now, there's nothing more critical than managing, finding retaining recruiting talent well, so you got a really critical role. And we're delighted to have you here today. Thanks again for joining us.
Neelima Rao 1:33
Thank you, JB. Absolutely. Looking forward to this conversation today.
JB Holston 1:36
Great. Let's start with a couple of things. If you might maybe talk a little bit about your own background, what brought you to, to AstraZeneca to this industry, and then and then to this position?
Neelima Rao 1:47
Sure. So it's actually it's interesting stories I was born as well as I grew up in India. And my dad was a colonel in the army in the Indian Army, and my mom was a stay home mom, but absolutely the most progressive woman you can find on this earth. Like, that's what I felt about how she inspired us. And very, a, she came from a very traditional conservative family, but then she adapted to the military life pretty quickly. But then get to here, you learn every three years, you pack your bags in the military, you move and you make new friends, and then you move and then you make new friends. And it kind of, you know, makes you more agile person, it makes you more flexible person. And that's, that's the value that I cherish growing up. Because I think we all have had to learn through this pandemic, that is nothing more important than just that uncertainty of where you're going to be and what you're going to be doing, right, whether you'll have toilet papers tomorrow, it is funny, but I just think those are moments when people went through so much of chaos and how you deal with that. My background, I came to the United States about 20 years ago, and I have a undergrad and my master's is a human resources. I've been in life sciences industry pretty much my entire career. And I've worked for small companies, as well as large companies. And the mission of what life sciences is doing is absolutely dear to my heart. When I think about access to medicines, when I think about patient care, when I think about, you know, clinical trials and enrollment of diverse people in clinical trials, those are areas that are very dear to me. And I am absolutely inspired coming in every day thinking about the next disease that we will be able to conquer the next patient that will be able to save, and how, you know, HR, as you said, plays a very critical role, because we look at how those employees are working on these life saving solutions are hired, retained, attracted and engaged through this whole process. And it's a it's not an easy journey that they have when they work in labs, you need to you need someone who's thinking about your own employees who are thinking of the patients. So I feel very fortunate to be part of this industry.
JB Holston 4:14
That's great. Let's talk a little bit about AstraZeneca itself. If we can everyone I think is familiar with the name, but they may not really understand what the corporation is about. A couple of questions on that how many employees does AstraZeneca have and perhaps talk a little bit about how you're organized and you know how your role fits within the organization overall?
Neelima Rao 4:34
Absolutely. So it's a great, great question. AstraZeneca is actually a large multinational, it's a global company. In the United States itself. We've got about 16,000 employees and that includes a recent acquisition of a company called Alexi on that we made so it's put together and they are spread all over the US these 18,000 employees and we have a few core businesses or the way we look at it, there is biopharmaceutical, which includes all our cardiovascular or immunology and respiratory portfolio, then there's oncology, and which is a significantly growing portfolio as well. And then the acquisition we made is in the rare disease space. And now we have a vaccine unit, we've always had a couple of things in the vaccine group. But now we have recently with our COVID-19 vaccine, we've actually, you know, established that as another unit within the organization.
JB Holston 5:34
And let's talk a little bit about you since you raised the vaccine, obviously, many people think of the company in association with the work and I know that the company has actually already been able to distribute a phenomenal volume of vaccines outside of the US, but maybe talk to us a little bit about particularly since you oversee talent and capital and human capital. What has it been like to work at AstraZeneca since COVID, started?
Neelima Rao 6:00
This is actually, you know, topic very dear to my heart. Because, you know, while everyone was trying to think about how am I going to get food on the table next day of what, what if all the supplies shut down and whatnot, where people in AstraZeneca? Were busy thinking about? How are we going to either prevent or cure COVID. And it's just absolutely inspiring that mission that people were on within AstraZeneca, the scientists, the manufacturing folks never skipped a beat. And once we found that we could we had a potential viable solution to COVID-19 vaccine, the team started to work overnight, to make sure and this is not a, you know, this, this is an opportunity for the life sciences industry. This is a partnership with Oxford academia. But how do we deliver to a, you know, such a globally diverse population everywhere, there are places where there's no access. And I mean, it gives me chills when I think about 2 billion doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19. vaccines have been supplied to countries across the world, within literally one year of its approval, first approval. So it's like, you, it's trying to save lives in so many ways in so many places, particularly in the low and lower middle class and middle income countries. I think, you know, how do we reach those and AstraZeneca has offered the vaccine at at no cost, right? Or sorry, at cost, no profit during the whole pandemic? And it is the partnership of making it work and how you get manufactured through multiple, you know, organizations and supply is absolutely, you know, it just gives me a lot of proud makes me very proud gives me you know, it's very emotional for me when I think about what the employees achieved during the last 18 months, as we all live through the pandemic.
JB Holston 8:06
Yeah, it is phenomenal. I mean, science really has saved the way for the world here. And I think that's underappreciated. And of course, too much under attack. But, but I don't want to talk too much about about politics here. I would like to talk about a few things, though, with respect to talent, and unify at AstraZeneca. And let me start by one topic that comes up a lot with the companies in the partnership these days, which is kind of this this new war for talent in the new hybrid world of world of work that we're that we're looking at. Are you are you folks feeling that as well? And how do you think about it? How are you addressing that?
Neelima Rao 8:44
Yeah, so I think it's it's a very pertinent question because the world pre pandemic and the post pandemic has been if we can call it has changed or is shifting significantly. We've been very fortunate that, you know, our employees were sort of always at work in some ways, manufacturing, never shut the door. We are manufacturing was always on. Our scientists were always in the labs, our sales representatives, we're always trying to reach the customers and the patient. So we've stayed as essential business we've sort of stayed open, but there is definitely a you know, a re enrollment of our employees in some ways that is needed across I think. However, the mission of the organization and the what we are trying to achieve as an organization just makes it so much more inspiring for people to come back. And we've actually been have it's probably we are one of those companies who never shut our doors in some ways, even for office workers. Employees had the option to always come in and work from the office, and we've been going to be the only seen number of people just keep increasing the ones that are coming back. But definitely how you attract our And you know, the questions and the landscape has shifted a little bit when you're you're recruiting and attracting talent and the type of questions on what does it mean to be a part of a AstraZeneca as a company, so I'm sure most companies are facing the same, but every company is in a different journey. You can see some that are on a extreme of, you know, we don't need any infrastructure and no offices, to some who are saying we need everyone back in the office. And then there are some that are playing right in the middle. And I think it depends on the role, it depends on the work. And is the one part that I, you know, I really want not just AstraZeneca I think it just goes across our community, or our all workforces, just to be very mindful of the choices we make. Because there is a risk of always people who will find for, you know, work from home opportunities. You don't do not want certain gender or certain individuals with caretaking responsibilities are the ones who are signing up for that, because we've made significant advancement with our, you know, agenda with women, we've made a lot of advancement with our agenda of a diverse workforce. And you do you want to make sure that inclusion that you can experience the collaboration that happens in the offices remains or you know, or even thrice further.
JB Holston 11:29
Yeah, that's one of the concerns that we hear companies raising that we fall back with respect to our diversity, inclusion and equity efforts. As we feel like we suddenly have to compete acutely in a different way for the talent that's, that's out there. And, but I think our view for the region is that that would be the most unfortunate thing possible. Because which is, which is a good a good segue for us to talk a little bit more about inclusion and equity and diversity. As you know, the partnership has really framed our work around what we're calling inclusive growth, we have a thesis that backed up by data that the most inclusive and equitable economy in the country will also be the fastest growth economy, it'll attract and retain talent better than any other place. And your company has been supportive of those efforts. And we are very appreciative of all of that. Tell us a little bit about how you've been approaching the questions of equity, inclusion and diversity at AstraZeneca. And whether that's changed over the last couple of years.
Neelima Rao 12:29
You know, we were on this mission for a while, which is why I think I'm extremely proud to say that when we we release a report every year, it's called a sustainability report. And the 2020 numbers if I have to vote at this time, we are a majority female company. And if I look at my senior leader roles, we declared about 47% of our senior roles were filled by women. And the 2021 numbers are still being calculated. But I certainly know it's not of the numbers I just talked about. I think it's in the fabric or the DNA of of an organization, because unless you are a diverse organization, there is a risk to innovation, there is a risk to where the ideas are coming from. Of course, we have more agenda, we have a lot more miles to go. But you know, this is a moment for celebration from women representation standpoint, for sure. And as we look at our own AstraZeneca plans on how we are focusing on Diversity and Inclusion, there are a few different things, we look at it from a contribution to enterprise and contributions to society. And we want to be able to impact this agenda in both inside AstraZeneca and outside AstraZeneca. Because unless we are part of a larger ecosystem, that we are, you know, supporting, we can't really see the change inside. So there are certain pillars of work that we have. Specifically we are looking to advance that in clinical trials. I think there is a lot of risk in that space from a, you know, clinical trials, often it does not reflect the people or the patients as much. And it's a very complex issue. I think it requires action. It requires collaboration, and it requires elevating the patient voice and the every step of the entire r&d chain. So it's very important that we have to break down those barriers around awareness. You know, through awareness education, we have to build more trust with our patients. So we can increase our enrollment and patient, patient or clinical trial. So that's number one. Number two is more around diversity from a supplier diversity because your solutions will not always come from the larger established vendors or partners or you know, that you work with, and how do we actually continue to look at diversity of who voice in the partners that we work with. And the third one is more around market access for looking at how do we reach more diverse patients? And are there are certain disease areas where, you know, it's predominantly, you know, you can see the certain gender or certain ethnicity are no prone to it, but how much access do they have to those medicines? And how do we help those, those patients, or the medicines reach those patients? So those are, those are three pillars that we look at from an external standpoint. And internally, certainly, there's a huge agenda on, you know, increasing our diversity or inclusion and our belonging metrics for me. Overall, you know, building and building an organization that reflects the broader population that we are part of.
JB Holston 15:54
Your success with women, I think, is something that everyone needs to know more about, because I was on a seminar with McKinsey just a couple of days ago, and they were talking about their most most recent women in the workplace work and that data would, you're way ahead of your peers in terms of percent opportunity at the higher levels of responsibility for women. Yeah, your organization's generally. And they've also seen some fallback in that over the last 12 months, as women ended up having to take on, as you mentioned, an increased range of roles, while while dealing with with COVID, as well. So very much to be applauded, that you've made, you've made that progress, and will continue to to do so when you talk about diversity, and you talk about diversity beyond just gender identity, etc. That could be a more complicated question and a global organization. And how do you how do you try to work through that, globally?
Neelima Rao 16:58
It is a very interesting question. Because in the United States, we can actually ask individuals to volunteer or share their ethnicity data or their backgrounds. In certain parts of the world, it's not even a question we can ask because of the legal framework, etc. So it makes it a bit hard for us to look at diversity only if you're from the lens of what's the, you know, what ethnicity a person might be from. And I think the true metrics I like to look at diversity is a number, it's a representation. But unless diversity is supported with inclusion, which is more about action, and conscious inclusion, it's not just about unconscious bias, we're actually moving the needle to conscious inclusion, we're not going to see employees that feel they belong, or the they thrive. So there is a lot of emphasis internally on what we call as speak up mindset or speak up culture. And there is there twice a year, we have a pulse survey, where we measure how we are doing on on speaker, so employees around the world are asked the question, do you feel you have the psychological safety and the comfort, raise your hand when you see something and you want to speak up. And I think that's very critical to a to an organization that that needs innovation. And that needs collaboration, because unless you feel you can raise your hand, we might just miss an opportunity on a, you know, a billion dollar idea to solve a patient problem.
JB Holston 18:37
A little bit more about innovation, one of one of the topics that's come up about this region is that it has it has a strong health services health industry, generally, it's got a number of organizations that are in the biopharmaceutical space, but it isn't perceived to be like Boston, you know, like the the area right around Boston, with the kind of density of startups and scale ups and all in all, and yet we've got a tremendous set of assets in higher ed, in this region, arguably comparable to any other part of the country. I'm sure Johns Hopkins believes they're well ahead of MIT, for example. But as you think about this region, in particular, in your in your industry, what what are the constraints to to innovation here? What what are the things that we might think about as a region to accelerate the perception the rest of the world that we're we're a leader in these fields as well?
Neelima Rao 19:34
Yeah, I think it's a great question because we are actually very fortunate to have given the government bodies right around here, the academia, the presence of many companies, and it's growing, but we are somehow perceived as three different distinct states with DC, Maryland and Virginia. And this is truly an opportunity for us to think about collectively Who are we as an island City. And that's that's what Boston did. Right? It wasn't on the map the same way several years ago. But there was a coalition that came together to say, what how are we going to do it change that. So I'm very, very excited about what, what we are doing together at this council, because that's an opportunity for us all these different entities to come together and try to solve for problems or create that common entity or identity. So I mean, at AstraZeneca, if I were to talk about how are we inviting more companies to be part of this, to join us actually, in the journey to solve these toughest world's problem around, you know, different diseases? I'd love to actually talk about two specific programs. Yeah, so there's something called Call soft that we have. And there's another program that we offer called a catalyst. And what these do both go solve, and a catalyst is intended to assist early innovative ideas. And let me elaborate a little bit. So what what is core? So essentially, what we are trying to do is, you're trying to break down all those traditional barriers that exist today. And, you know, you need collaboration to to happen and innovation to come from anywhere. So how do we collectively find ideas that can be transmitted, you can translate those to address real world real problems, real challenges, I mean, just the way we worked on COVID-19, as an, as a vaccine, as an example, together with academia, how do we open up this ecosystem more, and, you know, this, this will accelerate how we get the right treatments to the right patients at the speed that's needed, because we have so many patients that are waiting out there. So we are looking for actually there is a you know, if you go on AstraZeneca website, there is a link where you can look for yourself, because this is where we are looking for innovators, we're looking for particularly startups and early stage biotechs. And those that need the ability, you know, the freedom and to operate and come up with ideas, but then they may not have the infrastructure to rapidly progress it and take it into a full scale. So we are trying to co create and, you know, sort of partner in that front. And the second one I was talking about is the a catalyst. And a catalyst is essentially a network of if I were to call it like an interconnected and sort of dynamic global network of more than we've got probably 20 Health Innovation Hubs. They are made up of physical locations in places to virtual partnership. And we are trying to bring all the digital and r&d and commercial all kinds of resources to reimagine together, how can we improve patient lives because if we try to do it only within our own organization, we might be limited in our ways of how we think. But when you bring more partners that you come together to reimagine that future together, I think that there's a lot that can be achieved. And I think some of the recent headlines, if you see about the medications we are bringing to the patients is in collaboration with our industry peers, right. So you've seen Tai Chi, we made a significant collaboration, a lot we brought to the world. And Mark Sanofi Amgen. There's I mean, you can you can keep seeing there is so much more that's possible, when companies and different different bodies come together to to drive that innovation.
JB Holston 23:36
Oftentimes, those kinds of catalytic initiatives outside of companies are difficult to graft onto the culture of the company itself. How do you do that? Do you do try to formally make sure that the organization is aware of the outcomes from like, catalyst kind of effort? Or what are some of the mechanisms seems to seem to work relative to connecting those two?
Neelima Rao 23:57
Absolutely, I think unless you are very intentional about it, it is very hard for it to take off, it just becomes nice to have. And we have people in the organization who are fully dedicated and focused on these collaborations, external innovation, the partnerships, can all kinds of early investment in these kinds of biotechs and smaller companies that are looking for that we are part of much of the many of those places where we go and be we try to understand what's happening out there in the world. And we invite companies and individuals to come and share with us those ideas. And I think we are seeing that success little by little but surely because you know, certainly there it's actually the best of the two, two coming together because the biotechs or the smaller companies or innovation, innovative labs may not have the capital or the infrastructure to take something through. And you know, here we can support in a different way, and innovation can happen anywhere, especially when you look at, you know, some of the best ideas where they have come from, you're like, Oh, my God, why didn't I think of that. So creating that is very critical. But I also say, that investment in diversity inclusion agenda, and extending that to schools and campuses and colleges, and even early in early in life is very critical. Because how we are shaping the thinking of the next generation, and people who are coming in is equally important. So we are part of an ecosystem where we invest in Sai fest, and, you know, going to many of our middle schools and showcasing how can we encourage, employ more people to think differently and be part of the science, the cool science?
JB Holston 25:55
Yeah. But it's terrific. I think the more women from AstraZeneca that are able to appear in those venues, the more we'll have the right kind of diverse pipeline of talent that we need in, in the next decade or so. Let me ask just a couple of other questions, if I might, Neelima , thank you, again, both for the time today, and also the the partnership. And I'll make these fairly quick, a lot of companies are talking about the great resignation, have you folks seen anything like that?
Neelima Rao 26:23
So I'm not yet actually in that same sense. And I would say, potentially, some of the industries that was more hard hit by COVID-19, you know, hospitality and, you know, airlines, etc, there is a different set of challenges where workers had to find work. And it hasn't really hit our industry as much as yet, essentially, we also had the, we had to stay open all through and through, as I talked about it, and, you know, the mission and the purpose of the organization is, is something that is so energizing, that we've actually been able to attract a lot of talent, our pipeline within AstraZeneca has been absolutely phenomenal, you know, be we just had our q3 results and, you know, extremely great results, because definitely reinforces our scientific leadership, again, through the exceptional pipeline that we have, we had eight positive late stage readouts across seven medicines since June. And that includes another long acting out antibody combination that that is showing promise in both prevention and treatment of COVID-19. So it's, it's something that, you know, you when you know, you're coming to work, and you're going to be able to make a difference. I think that's, that's helping go that's, you know, something that I kind of look at our pulse most recent pulse results, and you can see 100% away about, you know, close to about 90% scores in how proud people feel to be part of AstraZeneca.
JB Holston 28:00
Yeah. A kind of a relative question or the the mirror question, if you will, if you think about the next year or two, in particular, what are you most concerned about with respect to the talent at AstraZeneca?
Neelima Rao 28:14
I think we are, it's a good problem to have actually, the one that I'm going to talk about is just continued growth. We have, we are growing very rapidly, we have a lot of we have an exceptional pipeline. And this is an opportunity for us to, you know, continue to hire. And certainly, you know, one of the challenges I definitely see sometimes is how do you get how do you talk about our own region, in an effective manner that people who have to relocate actually understand what this region has to offer, which is why I'm very excited about you know, this partnership that we have the greater Washington inclusive Council, because this is a way for us to actually, you know, showcase to employees and attract talent to the region. We are looking at, you know, definitely a very high growth and how do you attract and how do you onboard talent that quickly and make it easier for people when they make this region their their homes, which is where, you know, we are excited, but at the same time? It's not going to be easy?
JB Holston 29:23
Yeah. Well, I think as you mentioned, that the, one of the opportunities I think we have with the partnership is to make that case. And I think by by being able to lift up the collective mission orientation, and the other richness is of this ecosystem. It does it does help make the case to talent, that this is a place where they can they can move, raise a family, and and be happy. And I think there's a long way to go, but I think compared to many regions in the country, this really does stand out for the richness of assets that are that are available. To people who who want to make the move here given your mission orientation you you have you have opportunities a lot of other organizations right now I think are groping toward toward defining for people. Unfortunately we are we are out of time there are so many other things we could talk about but I wanted to thank you neither my My guest has been Neelima Rao with AstraZeneca. I wanted to thank you both for the time today for these insights and for your partnership on these this work that we're doing collectively on behalf of the region.
Neelima Rao 30:30
Thank you so much, JB, it is a pleasure to be here today and looking forward to our continued partnership.
Nina Sharma 30:37
Thanks for tuning into fresh take. This episode was produced by Jenna climb, Christian Rodriguez, Nina Sharma, and Justin Matheson Turner. If you liked what you heard, share it with your network. For more information and to access all of our podcasts, events and publications, visit Greater Washington partnership.com.