Top Novartis executive says companies must take deliberate measures to promote inclusivity
When Marie-France Tschudin first started her career as a sales rep for pharmaceutical company Janssen-Cilag in Portugal, she never really imagined staying in the pharmaceutical industry and thought she would work in the sector for just a few years. “It was more about getting experience learning sales,” she explained. “But I fell in love with it.”
Tschudin, who is Swiss, has had a truly global career trajectory, growing up in Portugal, Brazil and Switzerland before moving to the United States to complete a degree in foreign service at Georgetown University in 1993.
She then climbed the career ladder through a variety of managerial roles at Schering and Celgene before joining Novartis in 2017 as Europe Region Head and being promoted to President of Novartis Pharmaceuticals in 2019. Following a reorganization earlier this month, Tschudin now heads the international arm of the new Innovative Medicines unit which merged the Oncology and Pharma portfolios and is also Chief Commercial Officer.
Tschudin credits her MBA at IMD, which she completed in 2000, for giving her the confidence to succeed, asserting that it enabled her to “build an ability to be comfortable in supremely uncomfortable situations”. The MBA program also introduced her to her husband, who sits on the executive board of his company. With two high-powered careers, the couple manage to juggle life with two young sons.
“I like to think that for many people, both women and men, that I can be an example, by showing it can be done and it doesn’t have to make you a machine. We just need a lot of good organization and a plan B but it’s all possible,” she said.
While there were few female leaders in the industry a decade ago, Tschudin is now one of an increasing number of prominent women in the sector such as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline Emma Walmsley and BioNTech co-founder and Chief Medical Officer Özlem Türeci. Despite this, a 2021 analysis by Business Insider still found that 9 out of 10 drug industry CEOs are men
“Even five or six years ago, there was a real lack of gender diversity within Novartis,” said Tschudin in an interview that took place prior to the recent reorganization when she was President of Novartis Pharmaceuticals. “But if I look at my own division – and it’s not small, around 30,000 people – 49.9% of leaders are women. So, we’re 0.1% away from a 50:50 balance, which I think is a very encouraging sign.”
Nonetheless, Tschudin believes companies still need to be deliberately aware of the practices and processes that can inadvertently hinder women from advancing in their careers.
“It’s not something that you do once and then you take your eye off the ball. It’s something that you have to almost nurture. It’s like a relationship,” she said. “What you have to do is look at the data and be very deliberate about making sure that opportunities are equally available. One of the things I usually say is, when you’re interviewing people for a job, if your panel is 80% men, the likelihood of hiring a man is probably pretty high, in which case you need to rebalance the panel.”
Skin in the game
Tschudin has also looked beyond her organization to transform the industry. In a rapidly changing world, she feels that healthcare systems today are struggling to keep up with aging populations, stretched budgets, and overburdened workers. While there is no easy fix, she believes the response to COVID-19 has shown what is possible.
Before the pandemic, it took around 10 years to develop a vaccine, but COVID-19 vaccines were brought to market in just 12 months. According to Tschudin, this achievement shows how public-private partnerships in the healthcare sector can help cut waste and improve patient outcomes.
“I think COVID has actually been a pretty good example. It has shown that we have to work much more strongly in partnership,” she explained.
A first step, she says, will be to align incentives and shift, where we can, to a healthcare system set up for prevention over intervention.
“What you’re doing is creating sustainability, something that is fit to support the present and the future. Right now, the system is not fit to support either. We’ve got to make it better.”
Tschudin believes pharmaceutical companies can work together with healthcare systems to deliver on the outcomes that can be achieved with medicines.
She cites the example of a partnership with the National Health Service (NHS) in England, which helps doctors identify people who have who have had a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke and who might benefit from Novartis’ cholesterol-lowering drug. By screening digital health records across the country, the NHS can identify the people who might benefit from being treated with this medicine.
Right now, the NHS is working with its 1,200 primary care networks with the goal of treating 300,000 patients over the next three years. Novartis is also exploring similar partnerships with healthcare systems around the globe, tailoring the approach to meet each system’s needs.
Partnerships could also include collaborations with digital technology companies using artificial intelligence for example, to refer patients to the correct doctor more quickly to help patients manage their disease and receive treatment.
“I do think that pharmaceutical companies have an opportunity to have much more skin in the game,” Tschudin said. “We have to almost renew our contract with society and say, you know what, we do develop great medicines. What we’re going to do is help the system deliver the outcomes that can be achieved with these products.”