Ryan is a business development leader at a premier mid-size global clinical research organization, Worldwide Clinical Trials. Her mission is to help solve the pressing R&D drug development problems of pharma and biotech clients by linking them with some of the brightest minds in the industry. Through industry collaboration, she’s able to drive novel solutions to support more efficient clinical development - helping patients around the world.
We recently sat down to discuss her career journey and the obstacles she’s had to overcome to get to where she is today. I was also keen to get Ryan’s thoughts on diversity in the Life Sciences industry and her experiences of being a female leader.
Ryan, could you begin by telling us about your career progression to date.
Nothing is linear and it was quite a circuitous path to get me where I am now! I always had an inkling that I loved science and I loved business. As a young girl I had a chronic illness, and I always loved seeing my pharmacist who could help my asthma – it helped me see medicine differently and grew my passion there. I later studied chemistry as an undergrad and worked as a pharmacy tech, but the only time I came alive was when I dealt with patients, so I soon realized that I didn’t want to be a bench scientist. Then, while I was in graduate school, I worked as a recruiter for the University of Kentucky and also at Lexmark, a printing solutions company, and I learned so much by being in the marketing and sales development group, and got hooked on business development, problem solving and engaging with executive leadership. That started my trajectory of blending science with business. I didn’t want to leave science and pharma altogether, so that’s when I made a career jump and landed a role with PRA Health Sciences, which got me into the clinical research space.
What key factors propelled you into the leadership role you're in today?
A big thing was learning to trust myself and listen to that internal voice when things were good and when things were off. Being able to identify that has served me really well.
Secondly, a relentless willingness to be open and to learn new things with humility. Being able to start at the most basic level, which I did when I switched industries, as an opportunity to learn something, was key for me. To do whatever it takes, to work the late hours or ask the silly questions, to know what you don’t know and pursue knowledge with passion – this mindset underlines everything I pursue.
What are your thoughts on risk taking and do you think it's harder for women leaders to take risks, or more imperitive ?
Women often prefer to color inside the lines – going outside the lines seems inherently wrong! So, in my career I’ve had to confront myself, Polly Perfect, who wants to do everything just so. Striving for an unattainable target can be debilitating for your career, so I believe you’ve got to take that step and make mistakes. You never learn if you don’t try.
Women need to create safe spaces where we can make those missteps and get more comfortable taking risks. For example, by making a fool of yourself learning a new hobby such as tennis, you have more experience to draw upon in your career and help take those risks. All the great mentors I’ve had have allowed me that safe space to take that “risk”, whether it was by allowing me to pitch them or making a presentation, they supported me through it.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career so far?
One of the biggest challenges has been me managing and confronting myself. I’ve had to have honest conversations with myself at crucial times, such as when I had to take a significant pay cut to pivot into the clinical research space. Sometimes when we’re confronted with decisions like that, we stay where we are because of creature comforts, instead of realizing that it’s an investment in our future.
Now, if a building is on fire, I run towards it instead of running away from it, whether it’s a project that seems too big or is in a territory where people haven’t succeeded before, I know what opportunity looks like. My second greatest challenge was developing self-confidence, and the third has been learning how to be of service in a greater capacity to others, creating a pathway for those coming after me.
How have you seen the workplace change over the years, in terms of diversity and women in the workplace?
On a positive note, I’ve seen a huge shift in the number of women now pursuing careers in STEM. In my space, about 70% of middle managers and below are female, which is huge! I’ve seen things shift so much that we’ve seen a female CEO leading GSK. There is room for improvement though. Pharma is a highly regulated industry and things across the board are slow to change – from diversity initiatives to female executives, we’ve got a way to go. Of the top 10 major pharmaceutical companies, the fact is that there’s only one female CEO, but I’m grateful for the one. There are proven studies that female executives make a substantial difference to the bottom line, agnostic of industry, and that encourages me. There’s still a pathway for those of us who aspire to such roles. The more that people can see the value both financially and holistically, things will change, because they have to – people are demanding it.
How do you feel the pharmaceutical industry compares to others in terms of women in the workplace?
The industry offers a wide variety of opportunities for women, with great networks for women, and roles are becoming more flexible and supportive of women. It’s a great time to be a woman in the pharmaceutical industry. If we as women continue to put our hands up, which is a whole different conversation, the opportunities are there.
Looking back at your career, what are some of the key moments that either helped or hindered you?
I’m at that point in my life where I see that every experience serves me, even the most painful and challenging, coupled with those top-of-the-mountain, elated moments. One of the lowest points was losing a parent to cancer, while working full-time to support a couple of households. That was very challenging, and it took all the energy I had just to show up. I was very grateful that I had someone there to take the time to believe in me, which was just what I needed, and it saved my career. It woke me up from a dark place and I’m forever grateful to that person. That was a pivotal moment, as was having the passion to take leaps before I was ready, when I was putting my hand up and signalling that I was interested in opportunities. I always put myself out there and that really helped to advance my career.
Is there any advice you would give to women wanting to move into a leadership role?
I have two younger sisters, so this question means a lot. I would say, and this is not just to younger people, but also to people who are ‘young’ in their careers: be willing to bet on yourself. Go for things before you think you’re ready, and put your hand up, no matter the task. It could be something as small as taking the minutes at your team meeting. But being smart about when to do such things and willing to do it – running towards a problem, not away from it – is key. The people that solve problems become leaders.
A big thank you to Ryan for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with us!
Do you know an inspiring business woman, and/or a leader in Life Sciences who is challenging the status quo? I want to meet them! Shoot me an email at email@example.com.Posted about 1 year ago