Tell us about your career journey
I never thought in a million years I would work in business, much less have a decades-long career like the one I’ve had. In college, I studied political economy and the role of technology in transforming economies and societies. I planned to get a PhD and be a professor, but flukes of life can change your world dramatically, and rather than pursue graduate school at the London School of Economics, I ended up in New York City looking for a job.
I spent a year working on the American Stock Exchange for a Specialists — and was literally the only woman on the exchange. Being a five foot two, blond-haired, blue-eyed young girl, I was the brunt of jokes, and had to learn how to assert myself and not be bowled over by men. The experience taught me a lot about myself and the industry. I began to understand market dynamics and herd mentality, but I realized, when you close the books at the end of the day, the day is done and that just wasn’t enough for me.
I was in the evenings working for the Council on Foreign Relations and spent some years working in political risk consulting before pursuing graduate school at Princeton, where I helped create their Science, Technology and Public Policy program. After my first year at Princeton, I spent a year in Germany working at the Federation of German Industry and the Finance Ministry, as a Robert Bosch Fellow. It was fascinating, but I soon realized I neither wanted to work in government nor as an academic — things happened too slowly and there were just too many meetings.
So, how did you get your start in business?
I was very fortunate — I was among the first 12 non-MBAs that McKinsey hired. They realized that their candidate pool would be much larger if they found smart, talented people with diverse educational backgrounds and trained them. Interestingly, they found that the non-MBAs were either wildly more successful than the average MBA or realized within a year that it wasn’t a good fit. It clicked for me, and that’s how I got my start in business.
While there, I gained hugely valuable exposure to many projects across different industries with very senior partners and CEOs. I worked on everything from jet engines to mainframe computers, cookies, crackers, telecoms and automotives. Ironically, I didn’t work on financial services or healthcare, but I’ve spent the last 20 years in healthcare.
Like many consultants, I realized after a number of years that I didn’t want to tell other people how to do something — I wanted to do it myself.
How has your career evolved through different industries?
I’ve worked deeply in at least six or more industries, which is very unusual. I found that super valuable because you’re constantly learning, and you take that (the experience) to new industries and help them grow, too. You’re never the expert, and that’s good, because you surround yourself with people who are, and it’s your job to get the best out of them.
I was at Whirlpool and Nabisco for a while, and got started in healthcare when I joined Medco, which was then owned by Merck. It was my first experience at a super high-growth company, which I ultimately helped take public. Around the time of the Medco IPO, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and I took a break to care for him. I stayed on a few boards, but my focus was on him and our kids. I told everyone that I wasn’t returning to work, but I kept getting calls from friends who knew people at Bayer. After a while, I wound up agreeing to a conversation with Bayer’s Healthcare CEO, but made it clear there should be zero expectations. They were undergoing a major restructuring and given I had lived in Germany and knew something about healthcare from my time at Medco, I was interesting to them. So I took the meeting and ended up getting on with the CEO like a house on fire — 2.5 hours later, his assistant was basically dragging him to his next appointment.
Later that night, my husband said, “You need to take this job. It will be fun, and if I get well, I don’t want you hanging around the house — you’ll drive us all crazy. And, if I don’t, you need another reason to get up every morning.” I started at Bayer that May and unfortunately my husband passed away that fall. But he was right. It was good that I was working, and the company was unbelievably kind during that difficult period of my life.
After five years at Bayer Healthcare, the overall CEO of Bayer asked me to take over the struggling crop science business. I agreed, but all I could think was, I’m not a chemist, I am not an expert in agriculture and there isn’t one other woman in that business. Still, in less than two years, I turned it around — we were growing market share, generating significant free cash flow, and despite market volatility, we built a business where you can stay within some set metrics and get results. On top of that, we got rid of compounds with a bad toxicity profile and I just said — it’s worth it. We lost money in the short term, but it was better for us in the long run.
It was the most fun job I’ve ever had — the customers were farmers all over the world and I was being groomed to take over Bayer, but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Germany. When Johnson and Johnson called, they needed somebody who deeply understood global businesses as well as consumer and medical devices and who had turned companies around — it also didn’t hurt that I was a woman. I love challenges and I was excited by the massive turnaround; it also brought me back to New York, to my family and friends, which was priceless.