Breaking new ground is nothing new for Ramona Sequeira. A few weeks ago, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry’s largest trade group, announced that Sequeira has officially become chair of the organization’s board of directors. She is the first woman — and first woman of color — to take on the job.
In the new role, she’ll be focusing on healthcare equity and diversity, while tapping into her arsenal of leadership skills honed over 20 years in the industry.
After a successful run at Eli Lilly & Co., where she worked as vice president of sales and operations, she joined Takeda in 2015. That year, she talked to the Financial Times about the company’s lack of women in its top brass. Meanwhile, she’s carved her own path through Takeda’s executive ranks.
Now president of the company’s U.S. business unit and head of global portfolio commercialization, Sequeira was recently tapped to take on another major role she’ll start this April — leading Takeda’s new Global Portfolio Division.
And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s now smashed that female leadership barrier at PhRMA.
"This announcement is an important milestone for PhRMA and our industry," Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of PhRMA, said in a statement. “We need strong leaders to help us end the pandemic, lower patients’ out-of-pocket costs for medicines and protect future innovation.”
Sequeira indeed brings more than just industry chops to the table.
Being a child of immigrants and having earned serious bona fides during her two-decade career, Sequeira’s global perspective is likely to play a starring role in her approach to this new position.
“Knowing how other healthcare systems operate is helpful, but we can’t copy and paste other society’s solutions to address our challenges,” Sequeira says. “We need to think more expansively about how we can best serve the needs of our pluralistic healthcare system in the U.S. We all have a stake in helping people get and stay healthy.”
Here, Sequeira, a 2021 PharmaVoice 100 honoree, outlines her strategic objectives for PhRMA, what the industry learned from the pandemic, and her thoughts on being a role model in pharma.
PharmaVoice: As chair of PhRMA, what are your key objectives in 2022?
Ramona Sequeira: In 2022, I believe our industry needs to increase its focus on helping patients, communities around the globe and society in general by prioritizing three main areas: making our innovative medicines accessible to patients who need them, building capacity and reducing barriers to health equity, and taking tangible steps toward greater clinical trial diversity.
I believe we can make progress by emphasizing compassion, embracing shared goals with patients and other stakeholders, and committing to flexibility and agility in our ways of working.
The pharma industry’s reputation is currently at a high point. What does pharma need to do to continue the momentum?
COVID-19 has been devastating to individuals and communities globally, but I am proud of how our industry mobilized to respond to the pandemic. The success of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is a tangible example of how the work we do helps patients and changes peoples’ lives for the better.
At the same time, the pandemic also exposed pervasive gaps in access to diagnosis, treatment and care, and many patients struggle with the complexities of the healthcare system, including communities of color and those in rural areas and beyond.
The only way to strengthen and rebuild trust is through meaningful actions — we need to earn that trust, repeatedly, by doing the work to help all people attain their highest level of health. This means supporting reforms that increase access to our medicines. And understanding and acknowledging that systemic bias and inequities lead to poorer health outcomes for underserved and disadvantaged communities. We are learning from those impacted what their needs are and how we can help eliminate barriers. We need to enter the conversation with the humility to know that we don’t always have the right answer.
As you have noted, healthcare equity is a hot topic. How do you define these concepts, and what can PhRMA do to address health equity and health equality?
I believe we must approach health equity from a systemic perspective. We should work together to build capacity, remove structural barriers and reshape systems rather than expecting people to conform to systems that work for some, but not all.
We do that by putting the patient first and by meeting individuals where they are, not where we think they should be. This includes careful listening — so we can understand the needs of the individuals, groups, communities and cultures that have been impacted by systemic injustices and barriers. These insights will guide our awareness on how to best repair — and then elevate — their overall healthcare experiences.
This is the mindset that should underpin our approach to equity, whether it's in research and development, community investment or how we can improve our own internal systems and how we support our people — we must always start with the human need, not the constraints of the existing system. In this way we can deliver the highest caliber of equitable healthcare to every person who needs it — regardless of geography, socio-economics, education, literacy, race, ethnicity, gender or orientation.
We’ve begun taking significant action along these lines, to listen, engage and collaborate to help bring better care and access to medicines to all patients who need them. It’s vital to recognize that health and well-being are inextricably linked to people’s history and the communities in which they live.
What lessons did the industry learn from the pandemic that will pay dividends in the future?
Through this time, we learned that if we build partnerships based on a shared goal of improving lives, set aside our respective priorities to work more collaboratively, and were very clear in our goals, we could accomplish more than anyone thought possible. The pandemic illustrated the power of transparent collaboration. Moving forward, we should extend this level of openness with all of our partners and patients as we develop new solutions to health care challenges.
As you noted, COVID led to unprecedented collaborations and alliances among competitor companies, non-traditional organizations, technology companies, etc. What is the temperature among company leaders to continue to lean into strategic partnerships?
The entire world watched what happened when we paired one company’s technology and capacity with treatments from another — and saw how innovation could successfully get to people faster than we ever thought possible.
I anticipate that we’ll see more of these types of strategic collaborations moving forward. But it’s important to recognize that collaboration should also include other healthcare stakeholders, such as governments, payers and patients. A big opportunity for collaboration is in value-based agreements, which facilitate cost-effective access to medicines by prioritizing improved patient outcomes versus cost per unit. In this case, value is characterized by specific outcomes achieved in the eyes of all stakeholders, including patients. We have the potential to move beyond transactional relationships to develop truly transformative partnerships if we all work toward a single and unifying goal to help patients attain their highest level of health.
One of the biggest knocks on the industry is the cost of prescription drugs. What can PhRMA do specifically to address these criticisms?
Our industry is prepared to have difficult and robust conversations about reforms that make sense, recognizing that many parts of the healthcare system have a part to play in making medicines more affordable. Ultimately, we need to be open to proposals that may change how parts of the healthcare system operate today.
We support policies that aim to make innovative treatments accessible to patients and lower out-of-pocket costs without sacrificing the work we do to research and develop cures and treatments for patients who are still waiting. We also support improved insurance plan design and the sharing of drug rebates more directly with patients.
We should also embrace value-based healthcare, where we prioritize quality care and patient outcomes instead of reimbursing set costs for services and products. Ultimately, when we think about health care reforms, if the patient remains at the center of our decision-making, I believe we can achieve what is needed to support a more equitable and sustainable healthcare ecosystem.
For years, the industry has touted it was moving to be more patient-centric. Do you think this aspiration has been met?
I do believe we have made great progress in becoming more patient-centric. We spend important time engaging with patient communities from the research stage through commercialization. And we are using those insights to design strategies that support patients from diagnosis through treatment. Our industry has also implemented many patient support and free medicines programs for those who cannot afford their medicines.
But our work is far from done, especially when it comes to the expectations of communities of color, rural communities, and others that often experience significant healthcare inequities and barriers to care. We have to do more to build relationships with those who don't know or trust pharmaceutical companies and affirm through action that we are committed to putting people before profits. Patients want us to be more proactive and ambitious, and the industry needs to open itself up to new sources of insight and feedback so underrepresented patients can truly help shape the development of medicines and related healthcare support programs.
Being the first female chair of PhRMA’s board of directors carries a great deal of responsibility in terms of being a role model. What does this mean to you?
I am honored to be the first woman — and woman of color — to assume this role. But if I think about that too much, it can feel a little daunting to me. So instead, I focus on our goals and priorities, and how I can support our industry as we continue to regain trust. By supporting reforms that enhance access and affordability of our treatments, while also encouraging innovation, we will make progress toward greater health equity and clinical trial diversity. We’ve already changed so many peoples’ lives for the better. Now it’s time to expand our reach by working to ensure all patients who need our medicines can get them.
As you moved up the ranks, you were no doubt often an “n of one” in the room. How did you develop and find your voice? Any advice for other women looking to ascend to the C-suite?
As a child of immigrants, I always felt a bit like a ‘fish out of water.’ When I was with my friends, there were not many who looked like me. And when I was with my family, my ways of thinking were a bit different, having been shaped by my peer group as well as my parents. When I started my career, there were not a lot of role models who I related to, so when I tried to lead like other people, it never felt authentic. I would say those experiences really forced me to figure out my own way of being, and of leading.
I also learned that it’s important — and OK — to acknowledge that inherent bias does exist and to find ways to present information or move forward in a way that overcomes that bias, especially when working with people very different from myself.
I try to be careful about giving too much advice — everyone is so different. But I would say for me, it’s important to not get too high on myself when things go well, and not get too down on myself when things go wrong. As long as I just keep doing my best, find work I enjoy, and continue to learn, I know I’ll land in the right place. I would say it’s very, very important to be true to yourself and be confident in raising your voice. Creating the right conditions around you is the best way to excel, rather than trying to fit into someone else’s mold, or value system.
As you know, the majority of C-suite positions are still held by men, and white men. How are you/can companies widen the path for all women to ascend to C-suite positions?
At Takeda, our executive team is incredibly diverse, and as a global company we benefit from the leadership of people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, languages and experiences. Diversity is imperative for us if we are to meet the needs of patients all over the world. And we’re continuing to work on it and improve it as we learn more.
It’s important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic also had a tremendous impact on working women, with many women having left the workforce during the pandemic and women of color being particularly affected. We put a lot of programs into place at Takeda to encourage flexibility and support childcare, mental and physical health, ergonomics at home, volunteering and time off so we could best care for and retain our employees.
I work with so many phenomenal women that it’s hard for me to comprehend why we don’t see more of them in the C-suite across our industry. Companies must take a comprehensive approach to attracting, retaining and developing more female talent and more diverse talent in general. This includes combining flexible work arrangements and benefits with a continued investment into mentoring and talent development, as well as rewarding inclusive leaders and integrating DE&I — diversity, equity and inclusion into all aspects of our business.
What is your core leadership strength? And what traits do you look for in others when building out high-performing teams?
I believe one of my core strengths is my ability to focus our organization on what matters most, which for Takeda is bringing our life-transforming medicines to patients with the highest unmet need. I also strive to always be humble and curious. I try to remember to resist the temptation to think that I have all the answers. I have a tremendously talented leadership team whom I trust. I see my role as seeking and synthesizing strategic insights to help the organization make an impact. I also care very much about our employees. I feel like I have an important role to play in making them feel valued and supported, so they can best support our patients.
I would add that like many leaders, the pandemic taught me that protecting our health and wellbeing is as important as the work we do. And through this, I’ve learned that leading with authenticity, honesty and compassion leads to a stronger and more engaged workforce.
What is the key piece of leadership advice that you share with others/your teams?
When I first joined Takeda in 2015, our CEO Christophe Weber was a great mentor and thought partner to me. In my early days at the company, he reminded me that being new, you have a unique window of opportunity to be completely objective. Take time to listen, learn and think so that the changes you make will be sustainable. This advice was powerful for me, and I have carried it forward ever since.