“Don’t be afraid to take the role no one wants. ” with Dannielle Appelhans

Don’t be afraid to take the role no one wants. At several points in my career, I chose to take on roles or projects that I was advised not to take — whether it was due to a problem being too tough to solve, not having sufficient resources, or enough visibility or other failings in […]

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Don’t be afraid to take the role no one wants. At several points in my career, I chose to take on roles or projects that I was advised not to take — whether it was due to a problem being too tough to solve, not having sufficient resources, or enough visibility or other failings in the past. Each one of these challenges gave me a huge opportunity to have an impact, which is an enormous internal motivator for me. Also, as a result of the impact most provided big exposure opportunities, and more importantly they challenged and developed me and built my resilience.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dannielle Appelhans — Senior Vice President, Technical Operations and Chief Technical Officer of Novartis Gene Therapies.

Dannielle Appelhans leads manufacturing, technical development, supply chain, engineering and operations strategy for all clinical and commercial assets at Novartis Gene Therapies.

Since joining Novartis in 2014, Dannielle has held roles within Novartis and Sandoz Biopharmaceuticals, serving most recently as Novartis’ Global Head of Supply Chain, where she was responsible for the global end-to-end supply chain for all Novartis divisions. Prior to joining Novartis, she held leadership positions in pharmaceutical manufacturing at Eli Lilly & Company and consulting at McKinsey & Company.

Dannielle holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, as well as a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was younger, I was more of an all-around student, and when I was applying to college, I was unsure of what to major in. Luckily, Motorola had a large presence near me, and they hosted an event, “Introduce a Girl to Engineering,” which I attended. Funny enough — it was hosted at their Libertyville, Illinois location, which is near our Novartis Gene Therapies site. I was able to meet with different engineers and learn more about what their work entailed. I was immediately drawn to the engineering path, and ultimately chose to attend the University of Michigan where I was admitted to the engineering program.

While I was at Michigan, I took a sampler class that taught students about different engineering disciplines. In the end, I chose to focus on Mechanical Engineering because I liked the physical nature of the work and the challenges that accompanied it. I was told only 20% of the group were women and that the work was hard — lower average GPA and longer time to graduation. That was exactly the type of challenge I wanted.

I participated in three different internships throughout my time at Michigan, focusing my time on pharmaceuticals and consumer products. I enjoyed both, but with pharmaceuticals, I saw such an amazing opportunity to have a significant impact on patients. I followed the pharmaceutical operations path, and I am grateful for that decision.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I joined Novartis nearly six years ago, and a moment that stands out to me is when I first learned about a company named AveXis, which had just been bought by Novartis and has since become Novartis Gene Therapies.

I was attending a leader forum, and Dave Lennon, the current President of Novartis Gene Therapies, was presenting. He shared a video of a young patient who had received ZOLGENSMA® (onasemnogene abeparvovec-xioi), the first and only gene therapy approved to treat spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) — a rare neuromuscular disease that is the leading genetic cause of infant death — in children less than two years old in the United States. I was watching the video, and it was the first time I remember crying in the workplace. At the time of the video, my son was 1.5 years old, which was the same age as the young boy being featured. In the video, the boy was with his parents holding a PAW Patrol stuffed animal. My son had the exact same stuffed animal. It was so moving to see how this one treatment could change the life of this entire family, and I felt so lucky to see what was possible.

Fast forward nearly two years, and I was offered the role I hold now, which is leading the team that makes and distributes Zolgensma. I knew there was no way that I could miss out on the chance to get involved in something that had moved me so much and that I was so passionate about. Seeing that video really influenced me and shaped how my passion to help patients came to life.

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?

When I started my first full time position after graduating college, I was working in manufacturing. I did not know I was going to need to be gowned up in manufacturing attire every day — even just to sit at my desk, and on my first day, I arrived in my only pair of nice shoes. They were actually my high heels from graduation. I wanted to look professional, but I very quickly realized I was not in the right attire. I had to wear shoe covers, which are not safe to put over heels. I was terrified because I did not have the money to purchase new shoes before my first paycheck. I was embarrassed, but I mustered up the courage to ask about the shoe requirements. It turned out the company gave an allowance for steel toe shoes. I was so relieved, and I learned that day that it never hurts to ask questions.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What stands out for Novartis Gene Therapies is the hyper focus on patients. The commitment to connecting with patients and their families is very real. In our Libertyville, Illinois site, we have a wall filled with paper cutouts of hands. Each hand represents a child who has been dosed with Zolgensma, and it has their location and dosing day written on it. The hand wall really grounds me. Recently, I was able to contribute to the wall by writing out a hand for a patient who was dosed on September 30th in Illinois. The wall reinforces what every person at this company is motivated by everyday — the patients who so urgently need this therapy. That’s the end goal that drives us.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently working towards site licensure for two of our manufacturing facilities — one in Colorado and one in North Carolina. It is exciting work, and it speaks to our ability to serve patients worldwide. We are a young company, and we are working urgently to get these new sites licensed for commercial use. These will be key milestones as we continue to grow and expand our portfolio of life changing treatments and reach to patients.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM. Women represent 28% of the STEM workforce, according to the American Association of University Women. I will not be until satisfied we at least reach parity between women and men in these areas.

For me, having visible female role models in the space is key. This is something that I have come to appreciate even more after several years in the industry. There is such value when you get to see people like you in roles you aspire to take on one day. It is extremely meaningful.

It is also important that we have female leaders in the space who take the time to connect with individuals who are interested in a career in STEM. The Motorola day of learning that I attended as a teenager really had an impact on me. My father is an engineer, but when I attended that event, I was able to meet female engineers. It was that experience that made me realize it was not only viable for me to choose engineering as a career path, but also an exciting opportunity to bring my own unique skill set.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

As mentioned, given the lower representation today it can be challenging to have strong role models and opportunities to learn from other women. Another barrier is the pace at which our industry shifts. I work within a very fast paced technical environment that is changing constantly. In an industry like this, it can be difficult for women to take a break without feeling left behind once they return. This can be a real barrier for women who want to take breaks to prioritize their personal life such as care for elderly parents or children. I have had two kids in the last four years all while being a Vice President or Senior Vice President at a large company, so I know it is possible to focus on my professional growth while also prioritizing my personal life, but I’m also fortunate to have had great bosses who supported me.

Companies need to properly support their employees by giving appropriate parental leave. This allows for people to really focus on their families when they need to and then allows for more concentration when they are ready to return. This also allows them to feel secure about having a workplace to come back to once they are able. My company, Novartis, has been great in leading in this space and giving men equal parental leave as women. While at first, this can sound like an uneven balance considering the physical toll of childbirth, but it is a critical step in establishing equal partnership for family responsibilities from the beginning as well as eliminating any implicit bias a supervisor may have worrying about if a woman might go on maternity leave while hiring or being considered for promotions. Additionally, allowing part time and remote working opens opportunities and allows increased flexibility.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Some people assume that females must assimilate into the behaviors of their coworkers, which would be predominantly male. This is not true. I want people to know that you do not have to exhibit more male dominant behavior — being more stoic or less emotional — to excel as a female in STEM. Diversity of thought and experiences is extremely valuable. Being yourself is the most powerful choice you can make. You are at your best when you are authentic, and this will lead to the greatest impact for your company.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t be afraid to take the role no one wants. At several points in my career, I chose to take on roles or projects that I was advised not to take — whether it was due to a problem being too tough to solve, not having sufficient resources, or enough visibility or other failings in the past. Each one of these challenges gave me a huge opportunity to have an impact, which is an enormous internal motivator for me. Also, as a result of the impact most provided big exposure opportunities, and more importantly they challenged and developed me and built my resilience.

Be authentic. It is tempting to be stoic and keep everything close to the chest, but the world is built on relationships and those will always be on a surface level until you reveal yourself. It is also much less of an energy drain if you can focus on your work instead of managing so closely your facade.

Workplace politics are just another opportunity to use your problem-solving skills. As an engineer, one of the greatest skillsets I have is my ability to problem solve. While I hate workplace politics, it is a reality in most environments and the best way I have found to tackle it is to reframe it as a problem to solve — considering the motivations, dynamics, and perceptions of others helps me to appreciate a situation from another perspective and understand the rationale behind it.

The combination of data and instinct is extremely powerful. I have tried to make both life and work decisions on just data or just instinct, and for me the results are always lacking versus utilizing both. The heart and the head are both critical parts of you — it can be difficult not to over-index on data alone just because we are in a technical field.

Mindset is a differentiating factor. As a hiring manager, for most roles I have a minimum criterion for skills and experience, and generally there are a lot of candidates who can meet that threshold. However, the candidates who I want to work with every day are the ones that exhibit a positive attitude, a collaborative spirit, and strong motivation for the role. These individuals have great potential, and you know taking a risk on or investing in the development of these candidates will be worth much more in the end- and that is a very powerful differentiator.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

This is advice for anyone, not just women leaders. Do not think you need to be the smartest person in the room. You have a team for a reason, and each person brings value to that team. Your job as a leader is to build the best team and create an inclusive environment where everyone feels comfortable bringing their ideas forward. The power of a team is much greater than the power of an individual.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I would urge women to go after new challenges, like managing a big team. Be open to opportunities or skills that you haven’t yet had a chance to tackle to advance yourself and to impact others and your organization. Go for these things even if you do not really feel ready. That is how you will grow.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Very early in my career, there was a coworker who I had a difficult time working alongside. Unfortunately, he was threatened by me, and he was not collaborative. I tried to work through some of the issues by experimenting with different solutions, but I failed on many fronts. Luckily, there was a female at my company who had offered to mentor me, and I was able to openly discuss the issues with her. She introduced me to the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High and encouraged me to follow the book’s guidance. I learned that it is important to confront difficult situations and to do so in a respectful manner. I was able to speak with my coworker, and our conversation provided me with a lot of clarity. I was no longer wasting my mental energy guessing what he was thinking or how he was feeling. This was an important lesson for me that I have carried throughout my career. You can always gain a different perspective when you have challenging conversations, and you will always learn something through the process.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to look for opportunities to support those who have not been as fortunate as me and situations where I can bring my skillset.

I have volunteered with different organizations throughout the years. For example, I leveraged my professional experience when I invested a couple of years in Project Stepping Stone of Indiana, supporting Latino high school students prepare for college. Similarly, when I lived in New York I mentored high school students in Newark. In Kenya, I worked with a hospice organization and was able to leverage my operations skillset. For example, I focused on structural solutions like working to secure a supply chain for morphine, which is surprisingly difficult to attain in that area of the world, and developing emergency protocols to get patients out of the facility in the event of a fire.

I have always been motivated to work in the pharmaceutical space so that I could help patients. I focus on contributing to something that I believe is very important, which is an individual’s health. It is not something that you can ever buy back.

You are a person of enormous 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 focus on education because having the right education can really empower a person. I am not just talking about the four-year college experience either. I mean it more broadly. While living in Switzerland, I saw the power of vocational programs and teaching specific trades. It really allows individuals to do what they love most and to be the best version of themselves that they can be. What people want to contribute to looks different for every person, so we should be providing quality education across much wider disciplines than we currently do in the United States.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” At my core, I want to excel and do my best across all dimensions in my life. However, I have learned through experience that perfection — while a great aspiration — is not practical, and not always a particularly useful goal. If we get hung up tinkering to get the last 2%, we miss the opportunity to progress forward with more speed and agility and tackle new opportunities and challenges.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Elon Musk. I have never met him, but I see him as someone who is willing to go well beyond what most of us think is possible. His whole mentality of stretching the possible stands out to me — he seemingly skips to thinking big and believing everything is possible and then he goes all in to achieve it. For example, I do not think we would be where we are with electric vehicles without him. Personally, as an engineer, I think very logically — step by step, and he seems to go about thinking in a different way — starting with a bold vision first. It is both inspiring and intriguing to me.

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