We recently sat down with Kerisha Naidoo. Originally trained as a pharmacist, Kerisha has worked in Australia, the UK, the US and throughout Asia. Currently the head of Medical Operations & Excellence for leading global biotech firm Biogen Japan Ltd. Kerisha is a key person in Biogen’s important work in neuroscience, which focuses on finding solutions to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. Globally, about half of Biogen’s employees are women, and the company is committed to ensuring women are fully included, engaged and valued at all levels. We asked Kerisha about her path to her current position, the challenges women face in her field, the broader issue of diversity, and the importance of leadership and mentoring.
Growing up with differences
Kerisha Naidoo: I come from a very diverse background. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, in a segregated community. I have Indian heritage, I’m seventh-generation South African, and I spent much of my youth in Australia. My parents are both scientists, and I think I have their curiosity for life. I've always loved science and helping people, and that’s what’s taken me into biotech. Along my life journey, I have experienced cultural diversity, ethnicity, and various social traditions, and these experiences have left me with many unanswered questions.
When Nelson Mandela got released from prison in South Africa, things began to change, we felt the energy of the country - the change that was happening had a sense of hope for integration with diversity. As a country, we learned and adapted, and while it was painful at the time, in hindsight it's so empowering to learn that human beings are so flexible and adaptable.
My family immigrated in the early 2000s from South Africa to Australia. It was tough leaving my home country, but what you take out of an experience like that is so important. It's something that fuels growth and, more importantly, acceptance and tolerance of other people. Human beings gain strength from exposure to differences. We learn to tolerate and become stronger by going through a variety of different experiences. You build your immunity so to speak—you vaccinate yourself to life. You become adaptable to other people’s cultures and their languages. And you become respectful of others. That's such a powerful thing.
Gender diversity in healthcare leadership
KN: Being a woman can certainly be an advantage in leadership in my field. Traditionally, women can be the “chief medical officers” of many homes. We look after our families. So, I think we’re naturals to look after health care teams as well. You don't have to be pushing people and aggressive to get what you want. Tolerance and understanding and compassion can be much more powerful. And of course, men can be compassionate, too!
The healthcare industry is doing fairly well now in terms of gender diversity. We're lucky to have been evolving at a rapid pace in terms of acknowledging that there's still a clear disparity in gender diversity at the top leadership levels. I believe a better gender balance in leadership positions, globally, could have a huge impact not just socially, but economically as well.
The importance of cognitive diversity
KN: Diversity can be such an important positive force—not only gender diversity, but also diversity in language, ethnicity, skin color, age. I see great value in people bringing in different perspectives who come from different cultures, different upbringings, from the value systems that vary across individuals. I think having different people and different perspectives changes the dynamic completely. This cognitive diversity makes things more fun and interesting at work, and that can lead to better results.
Cognitive diversity can drive innovation, empowering organizations and societies. Having people with different abilities, different experiences, different mindsets, gives us the creativity and the innovation capacity that an organization needs to achieve its goals. When you bring different opinions and thoughts together, you build a tolerance within the team and encourage people to really listen. And when you have a common purpose and a common vision of what you want to achieve, which for Biogen, is to serve the patient, then you look for the best solutions.
Thinking about the brain
KN: At Biogen, our focus is in neuroscience. It is one of the most fascinating parts of the human anatomy. With the aging population in Japan and throughout the developed world, neurological diseases are increasingly important challenges, and there’s some exciting research going on in the field. We aim to be pioneers in neuroscience, and we have people with amazing scientific backgrounds and experience in the field to make that happen. Our teams are so passionate about their patients and what we do and how we serve our patients.
Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s disease, for example, are complex diseases and we need to be brave enough to further advance our knowledge in neuroscience. Developing therapies to complex diseases always come with risks. Those risks are really stepping-stones to learning more about these diseases and the therapies to treat them.
Taking care of the person; reinvigorating the professional
KN: I take my professional life quite personally. For me the two are always intertwined. I achieve balance by taking personal time out to reinvigorate myself. And I don't really need to encourage my team—they bring the passion all on their own. The challenge is helping them step back a bit too and give themselves enough space to get a different perspective and learn about other things.
We really do help each other, and not just from a professional perspective, but also in terms of personal growth and development. Helping people overcome their weaknesses means helping them recognize them and then starting them on their journey to help themselves. I think this is where tolerance comes in. Caring for people is something that is critical, especially in leadership, and it starts with understanding each other. This is one of the reasons I love travel as well, particularly learning to appreciate different cultures and different languages.
The aspirations of a young businessperson
KN: A young woman needs to understand her purpose—what drives her. What is it that you want to achieve? For me, it’s about finding your passion more than finding a career.
It is important to us all, especially young people, to surround themselves with mentors—ideally people in different industries with different experiences. I’ve had female mentors and male mentors, independent of age. I have mentors who are younger than me—university students. Mentoring is mutually beneficial and should be part of every talent management system.
It is so encouraging to see women help other women and women build their networks. Part of Biogen’s commitment to this cause is our Women’s Innovation Network. It's a forum where women can be open and transparent and share their challenges. The challenges are often universal and will always be there. We build character and the strength to lead by dealing with them. Creating inclusive environments stimulates further growth. And when we engage and motivate them, people stay longer at the same organisation.
I think companies need to be open-minded enough to adapt to the younger generations. Many young people today may not see themselves working in big monolithic companies. They’re insisting on ‘cool’ and ‘innovative’ organisations with a clear value proposition.
Innovating with care
KN: You've got to be innovative in healthcare as it is a dynamic sector. AI seems to be a big part of the way of the future. You need to have an open mind to be able to adapt and assimilate that information into something ultimately useful for patients, to dig down and understand the accuracy of the information we’re generating and whether it’s the right information. We need to focus on how we use information and how we can adopt it as knowledge while ensuring compliance with regulations. And this is especially important in the healthcare industry, as it is highly regulated. Regulations are there to protect the patients and to protect us as a society. Our mission is to navigate and comply with the processes and rules and regulations and find an innovative pathways help the patients we serve.
Life sciences is such an intellectually stimulating environment, and there's nothing more empowering than being in a field that's so fast-paced, so evolving, and at the cutting edge of everything that we do. There will always be complex diseases that we can't treat or cure. For all its often-frustrating mysteries, it will always attract those who want to serve a greater purpose.
At Biogen, our mission is clear: we are pioneers in neuroscience. Biogen discovers, develops, and delivers worldwide innovative therapies for people living with serious neurological and neurodegenerative diseases. One of the world’s first global biotechnology companies, Biogen was founded in 1978 by Charles Weissmann, Heinz Schaller, Kenneth Murray, and Nobel Prize winners Walter Gilbert and Phillip Sharp, and today has the leading portfolio of medicines to treat multiple sclerosis, has introduced the first and only approved treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, and is focused on advancing neuroscience research programs in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, MS and neuroimmunology, movement disorders, neuromuscular disorders, acute neurology, neurocognitive disorders, pain, and ophthalmology. Biogen also manufactures and commercializes biosimilars of advanced biologics.
This blog is part of a series that focuses on individual journeys of the women in life sciences who are driving change to how we develop and deliver better patient outcomes.