Create your future. What do you want to do? Create a role. There are many times when I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I made my own proposal to evolve my position in some way. Don’t wait for someone else do it. You must believe it before you can achieve it.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheri Mullen, Senior Vice President, Specialty Business Unit, US Pharma.
Since 2018, Sheri has built and led GSK’s U.S. Specialty Pharmaceuticals business. She is responsible for leading, developing and managing the strategic and financial performance of the commercial organization. Currently, the team is made up of more than 500 professionals accountable for commercializing BENLYSTA, the first biologic approved for lupus in more than 50 years and NUCALA, the first biologic approved for severe eosinophilic asthma. A dedicated professional with more than 30 years’ experience, Sheri has held various roles with increasing responsibility in sales, marketing, and operations. She also serves as a Global Executive Sponsor of the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), an award-winning professional group committed to accelerating gender parity and to helping GSK be a modern employer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My first job out of school was as a marketing trainee for a paper manufacturer. They sent me to Wisconsin for a training program to learn about the manufacturing and commercialization processes before I moved back to New York City. I met my husband, Kevin, who worked for the same company. I remember we were looking at jobs in the newspaper and Kevin said, “What about healthcare?” I answered the ad, and it changed my life.
My grandmother had passed away from ovarian cancer and had a very difficult time in chemo. Some of her sisters had breast cancer. That family history really drove me to specialty medicines, specifically oncology at the time — a very challenging, complex business. But I saw it as a chance to make an impact on people’s lives. I knew the potential from watching my grandmother’s difficult losing battle. That personal connection really animated me and is a big reason I’ve been with GSK for more than 30 years and in specialty medicines for 20.
In my current role, I lead GSK’s work to help U.S. patients living with complex specialty diseases. I am incredibly proud that we brought the first lupus breakthrough in more than 50 years to market in 2011. I came over from oncology to lead the immunology team and start a new business with this very complex disease where there’s been such a void for so long. We created a medicine that’s demonstrating its ability to improve outcomes for patients who experience significant morbidity, are at risk of developing long-term organ damage and face higher rates of mortality.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
For starters, I feel the weight and privilege of having a senior leadership position in an industry that’s working around the clock to help patients navigate the most disruptive public health challenge in a century. COVID-19 may be driving the headlines right now, but the pandemic hasn’t stopped thousands of other diseases from ruining and shortening lives.
In GSK’s specialty division, we have a special purpose: to help people living with complex diseases live their best day every day. Lupus is an incredibly complex autoimmune condition affecting five million people worldwide. We call it a “snowflake” disease because every case is unique, making it hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. Your immune system essentially turns on itself. This can lead to debilitating flare-ups, intense pain, organ damage and problems in the joints, skin, kidneys, brain, heart and lungs.
For decades, lupus outwitted some of the world’s most brilliant scientists. As a result, our industry had precious little to offer these patients to improve their quality of life. GSK refused to quit, persevering scientifically against long odds and an uncertain ROI. We invested enormous amounts of time and money to create a treatment for this vexing condition. We followed the science and took a long-term risk that others would not. As a result, we produced the first lupus breakthrough in half a century, backed by eight separate clinical trials demonstrating how our therapy can protect vital organs and help lupus patients live their best lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and I didn’t have a lot of cultural awareness until I went to college. For my very first job out of school, I was flown to New York for my final interview. I had hardly ever been on an airplane before this. I had just gotten to the city, and. the secretaries at the company told me that if I had some time, I should visit the big Macy’s on 34th Street, so I did. When I returned, I told them that I didn’t realize there were so many Amish people in New York. They started laughing. Of course, they were part of the city’s Hasidic Jewish population! I felt like such a country bumpkin, but I got the job. I took something from it, though, as I moved to different parts of the country and learned to understand my customers and cultural differences and how that informs people’s approach to medical care.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve had a lot of incredible mentors, but one who really impacted my career was Bill, who taught me women can have it all or, as I like to say, having pieces of it all at different moments in time. I was offered a job as a field leader in oncology covering 10 states across the Midwest. But I had two children under the age of 3. I just didn’t know if I could manage it all. He connected me with another lady who had four children under the age of 10 and had done the job. I was like, if she can do it… so I took that leap. Bill taught me not to limit myself — to be fearless. That job started my career in specialty medicine that has spanned two decades.
More importantly, I understood we can all play a role and, over the years, I started to work on supporting others in their careers, especially women. The Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) is a voluntary employee resource group within GSK, which began with a desire to help women connect, engage and develop professionally at GSK. I’ve been involved with it since the 1990s, when it was just an informal network. I was later involved in its formalization and, in 2011, became one of two executive sponsors. In this role, I’ve contributed to growing membership from hundreds to over 4,200 today, to its global growth and now to increasing male participation because a gender-balanced organization improves business performance.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think it comes down to intention and impact. Telling people you want them to do things differently always encounters some level of resistance, so I think it’s really important to get teams to buy in by showing them the “why” and “how.” You will find more disruption in biopharma than perhaps any other industry because the essence of our enterprise is innovation — to create something new that no one has ever done before.
The mapping of the human genome was a game changer. We’ve learned more about human DNA in the last 20 years than we had in the previous 200 combined. At its best, positive disruption in biopharma requires us to use new technological tools and forge new partnerships to leverage the enormous amount of data we’ve collected in order to make “living” biologic medicines. Part of my job is to educate the health system that a new age of medicine is coming, and we need to be as innovative as the scientists to make sure doctors know about these new treatments and patients can access them.
Bad disruption is when companies put short-term profits over long-term patient care. This happens less frequently than some of the media coverage suggests, but a few bad actors really can harm trust in our entire industry. It’s more important than ever that we have that public confidence during the pandemic when trust in our vaccines and therapeutics has major consequences for public health. In my view, the biopharma industry has a financial and moral obligation to collaborate with other key players in our ecosystem — doctors, insurance companies, investors, regulators and patient advocacy groups. It’s about following the science and putting patients first. That’s the sustainable economic model. Our industry’s mission is to heal people.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
- Be genuine. Know who you are. Don’t try to be someone that you aren’t. Show people you care. Work hard, be kind, be yourself.
- Be enthusiastic. You can’t achieve your full potential if you’re not passionate or enthusiastic about it.
- Create your future. What do you want to do? Create a role. There are many times when I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I made my own proposal to evolve my position in some way. Don’t wait for someone else do it. You must believe it before you can achieve it.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
At GSK, we talk about being ambitious for patients. And that means that we’re committed to truly changing treatment paradigms, bringing innovation to the market that can really transform the lives of patients. We brought families the first lupus breakthrough in more than 50 years in 2011. We have drugs in our pipeline that could become the first functional cure for hepatitis, a first in the management of pruritus for patients with cholestatic liver disease, potentially the first to market with a new class of drugs — the first of which could help patients with anemia due to chronic kidney disease.
GSK Specialty is also focused on saving lives and preventing the hospitalization of people who contract COVID-19. In May, the FDA granted emergency use authorization of a new monoclonal antibody treatment we commercialized in partnership with Vir Biotechnology for the treatment of mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in high-risk teenagers and adults. Our Phase 3 clinical study showed 85-percent reduction in the risk of hospitalization or death for participants who received the treatment early. The data showed the medicine has efficacy against all known coronavirus variants, including Delta.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I consider myself blessed to work for a company where diversity is truly embraced and celebrated, women’s health is a core scientific priority and our board and C-suite walk the walk when it comes to giving brilliant, fearless women opportunities to lead. Since 2017, GSK has been led by one such woman, Emma Walmsley, who is a rare female CEO leading a major biopharma company. We’ve set a company goal to have at least 45 percent of our senior roles globally filled by women by the end of 2025.
As I mentioned, the WLI is a catalyst for change but, unfortunately, GSK is an outlier. Industrywide, we haven’t done nearly enough to give women the kind of leadership roles that would give them the latitude to disrupt and innovate. The most comprehensive survey to date found that more than half of biotechnology companies in Europe and the United States don’t have a single female board member; nine in 10 directors are men. At the staff leadership level, the numbers aren’t much better. Women hold only hold about 20 percent of management roles.
The case for increasing gender diversity is especially powerful in our innovation-driven industry. Our mandate is to relentlessly innovate or go out of business. Diverse teams see through a wider lens, think more creatively, make more informed decisions and better reflect the patient populations who use our products. Women now compromise a majority of the new hires in our highly skilled workforce, but many are being passed over for promotions. You might say these archaic approaches to talent development are in desperate need of disruption.
For drug companies, our mandate is to relentlessly innovate or perish. We can’t afford to squander the opportunity before us to create more leadership roles for women.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
A book called Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life by James Groppel. Growing up, I was one of three girls and my father was a coach. We were athletes growing up. In business, many of the same principles lead to success — be energized, manage your energy versus simply managing your time. It starts with aligning to a spiritual connection or a sense of purpose/mission, then investing to be mentally prepared, emotionally connected and physically able. There were so many principles for growth in that book.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to inspire a movement where everyone can talk openly about their health without fear of judgment or negative consequences. That’s never been more important than during a pandemic that has revealed millions of Americans living with untreated illnesses that put them at greater risk of severe COVID-19 complications. In many cases, these health challenges stem from socioeconomic realities. Lupus, for instance, affects many women of color. Too many are afraid to reach out and talk openly about what’s happening with their bodies. We need to destigmatize these conversations.
Too often, lupus patients apologize for what they can’t do because of the disease. We are trying to change the inner dialogue so that patients will speak up more, because every symptom counts. They shouldn’t have to apologize for what they are experiencing, and they need to be comfortable enough to share their experiences with their healthcare providers.
As long as I get to start a movement here, I want to make sure that patients from all walks of life are helping to lead it. We still see far too many racial disparities in how patients access care. We see reluctance to participate in clinical trials, to try new treatments or to fully let down their guard and be open and honest with healthcare providers. The movement I’d like to lead would acknowledge historical legacies of mistrust so every patient feels they can talk about their health, and public and private institutions would then come together to ensure that a person’s economic position has no bearing on their access to scientific breakthroughs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Will Rogers: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
The comfort zone is a place where nothing ever grows. I tell young people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, It’s okay to jump in without knowing everything. You’ll figure it out. If you’re complacent, unenergized and not pushing yourself to grow, you’re going to get flattened.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!