Forgive yourself. Accept that you weren’t on your A game for a presentation or you did horrible on an assessment. Or you made a mistake that impacts your project. Apologize and learn from the experience. Then move forward. Otherwise, you will re-enact those decisions leaving you with an unnecessary heavy burden.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Raolat Abdulai, Clinical Research Director, Sanofi. Dr. Abdulai joined Sanofi in 2018 where she serves as a clinical research director for the Immunology and Inflammation (I&I) division. In addition to her drug development work, she acts as a digital enabler and works to advance the Sanofi digital health strategy within I&I. This includes advancing technology in R&D that transforms the product life cycle for faster and more efficient clinical trials: integrating real world data to identify the right patient population, using analytics to drive new indications, and incorporating wearables and digital tools into clinical trials. Dr. Abdulai has a Master of Medical Science in Biomedical Informatics from Harvard Medical School. She attended medical school at Howard University College of Medicine, completed internal medicine training at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and Pulmonary and Critical Care fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. She is triple board certified and continues to practice by volunteering at a Boston-based community health center where she treats patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. While in medical school, Dr. Abdulai co-founded the New Freedmen’s clinic to provide free holistic care to the uninsured and underinsured local population. In 2009, Dr. Abdulai was featured in O! Oprah Magazine as one of 80 inspiration women entrepreneurs from around the country for the O! Oprah Magazine-White House Project Leadership Conference. Among her many other honors, Dr. Abdulai was invited to the White House for President Obama’s Innovative Programs Summit which highlighted impactful social entrepreneurship programs across the country. Her passions including increasing access to clinical trials for women and people of color. Her personal project into this area was chosen for the Harvard iLab Venture Incubation Program in 2016.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story.
Growing up, I witnessed my father’s frequent asthma attacks. With each episode, I was left with deep fear and anxiety. To make matters worse, we were uninsured which essentially limited our prospects for care to the Emergency Department. This made me determined to break the chain. So I did what any logical person would do, I became a doctor. I became tripled board-certified in internal (adult medicine), pulmonary (lung), and critical care (intensive) medicine. Now at Sanofi, I develop drugs to help patients with asthma… patients like my dad.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I am always taken aback by the number of people who reach out to me in person or connect via social media because they consider me to be a role model. I remember the infamous Charles Barkley “I’m not a role model” quote. Despite my hesitancy, I understand the profound importance of representation in the industry and digital health. While I am not perfect, I am proud to be a role model.
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 will never forget the day of my first big meeting. I had just started 1 month prior but had already traveled to my company’s headquarters in NJ and Paris. Though still jetlagged after my return from France, I continued to prepare for my first big governance meeting. I arrived at work early and ready to participate in the meeting. But no one else was in the meeting room. I thought this was odd and while getting coffee I finally checked my emails. Not only was I in the wrong room and wrong building. I was in the wrong country. The meeting was in Paris. And it already happened 2 hours before I even woke up. In hindsight, this was pretty funny but I felt awful for weeks. I felt that I had let my team down. I learned from this mistake: always double check the time and location for all of my meetings, especially when you work for a global company. My lesson from this event is that we should forgive ourselves for human mistakes. After forgiving myself, I was able to stop constantly feeling guilty about the situation (which has minimal impact except for the fact that they could not introduce me as a new team member). I am now able to laugh at myself. It feels much better than the alternative.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From my perspective, Sanofi has differentiated itself from other pharmaceutical companies because of its commitment to integrating technology that can lead to more efficient delivery of medicines and improved patient experiences. Prior to starting at Sanofi, I had earned a masters in Biomedical Informatics because of my passion for digital health. Since 2011, I started using an iPad for my medical rounds. It changed my practice and relationship with patients for the better. I was able to show them the findings on their chest x-rays and provide quick updates on their procedure schedules. So I was already convinced of the impending digital evolution (I avoid “revolution” because this congers up images of future robot overloads).
The timing of my arrival at Sanofi was perfect because of the digital transformation initiatives being led by our Chief Digital Officer, Ameet Nathwani. These initiatives emphasize four main pillars: digital health, digital engine, digital enablers, and digital enterprise. The company has developed strategic partnerships with companies at the forefront of health tech, most recently with Google. I function as a digital enabler within Research & Development (R&D).
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am working on several exciting projects.
The first project is a traditional drug development project. Our amazing team is developing a new asthma drug with a novel mechanism of action. This biologic (an injectable medication), could be taken intermittently for asthma instead of every day like most inhalers. Since the immune system has been strongly implicated in the development and worsening of asthma, this biologic could adjust the system to prevent asthma attacks.
Two others projects that I am involved in veer away from the traditional drug development path. One project is on increasing diversity in clinical trials. Currently, minorities and women are underrepresented in the majority of clinical trials. I recently wrote a perspective on this issue. Representation in clinical trials is extremely important because we need to know that medicines work in our target population. If that population does not participate in the clinical trials, this can leave us with holes in our scientific understanding. Finally, I am working on several digital initiatives in R&D, including an integrating wearables into studies and using real world evidence to inform our clinical trials. I am also involved in activities ranging from hackathons to innovation hubs. Basically, lots of cool adventures!
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?
I am not satisfied with the status quo. The fact is, there are more females who start off in STEM then males. However, by the end of the training, the vast majority of full-fledged researchers are male. Worldwide, women represent 53% of female bachelor’s and master’s in science. This number drops to 43% at the PhD level. Then sadly, only 28% of post-doctoral researchers are female. Approximately a 50% loss in females from the pipeline. Imagine if a CEO lost 50% of the best people in their workforce? Or 50% of the stock value? No one would accept this.
I support women in science. At any given time, I mentor about 2–3 different women aspiring physicians, scientists, and physician-scientists. My goal is to provide opportunities for development and support them in career advancement. In addition, I take part in events organized by, Women in Bio and the HBA. Last fall, I was part of a discussion on women in science at HUBweek in Boston.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
One piece of great advice from a mentor: “lead with your intelligence.” Seems obvious, right? This was actually difficult for me. Often, I try to disarm people and emphasize my affability, humbleness, and/or humor to avoid negative stereotypes often use on women. But while doing this, I’m generally steering away from showcasing my medical expertise and informatics knowledge, often to my own detriment. After receiving this advice and examining myself, I have restructured how I approach conversations with my team and peers. I now lead with my intelligence, my knowledge, and my experience. While I still like to tell a few jokes, I could care less about how I am perceived. At this point, you can’t expect to change the minds of everyone who comes in with a preconceived notion of who they believe you should be.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
While female leaders should not be afraid to set ground rules early, they should also empower their team. In my first year as a fellow, I encountered a junior resident who seemed to chafe at some of the new ideas I was bringing forth. I had come from different institution and with a different perspective. For every new idea I presented, she would say: “This is not how we do things here. It just isn’t.” While that was disappointing to hear, it was not surprising because medicine is mired in tradition and innovation is sluggish. As a leader, you can work against this. A good leader is able to appreciate diverging ideas, investigate and provide feedback on these ideas, and you can ultimately decide on the best next steps. In the end, you provide a need for free expression of thought that may people will value.
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?
My favorite Supreme Court justice and fellow Marylander, Thurgood Marshall, once wrote “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” I am but an [unfinished] tapestry of the labor of a myriad of mentors. It is hard to focus on one mentor because each has left an indelible mark on my life. But if I has to choose a particular person, it would be my first real mentor, Nancy Carpenter. I met her when I was 16 years old at an FDA internship through my public high school in Montgomery Country, MD. Ironically, I was placed in the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (to be honest, I never thought that 20 years later, I would be working on biologics). Nancy took me under her wing and introduced me to the many staff, scientists and physicians at the center. As a daughter of a DC taxicab driver and a babysitter, this kind of exposure was foreign to me. Throughout my career, Nancy has remained by my side — from reading my personal statements for college and medical school to cheering me on at each successive graduation ceremony. She taught me to believe in myself and my ability to change the world. We get together every year. The last time was two months ago. Nancy is in her mid-80s and still vibrant. Sometimes I wonder where my life would be without Nancy… but then again, somethings are not worth conjuring.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
While in medical school, I founded the New Freedmen’s Clinic, a student-run free clinic at Howard University. I did it because I made a promise that I would help those who were uninsured, live their best and healthiest life. I kept my promise and the clinic open in the summer of 2009 and is still operating 10 years later. I was only doing what I was passionate about, but through it, I was featured in O! Oprah Magazine, invited to the White House, and given my honors at graduation, including being the 2010 student speaker at commencement.
Over the years, I have volunteered in various capacities to provide health to underserved populations.
I truly feel that it is my life’s mission to serve. Being in industry has not changed this perspective.
Currently, I volunteer at a community health center, providing needed pulmonary care to a mostly Black and Latino population on Medicaid.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Lead with intelligence. Your greatest asset lies in your brain. Show it!
2) Lead with your passion. Like the move, Field of Dreams, “if you build it, and [they] will come” tells us a great deal about following our passions. Never letting go of our ambitious even when things appear improbable (my motto: dreams aren’t impossible, but people are). Negativity about your dreams can come even from your loved ones. It is up to you to determine if you will ride out your dreams or put on noise canceling headphones and ignore the voices.
3) Find balance, at all costs. Work-life balance is no joke. Take your vacations. Leave no personal day un-burned. Block out times during the day to work on catching up so none of it occurs at home. Don’t be a martyr for your career.
4) Forgive yourself. Accepting that you weren’t on your A game for a presentation or you did horrible on an assessment. Or you made a mistake that impacts your project. Apologize and learn from the experience. Then move forward. Otherwise, you will re-enact those decisions leaving you with an unnecessary heavy burden.
5) Love yourself.
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 believe that universal, high quality healthcare is a human right. But there is something else going on that is impacting the health of my patients. Environmental changes are adding stressors to my patients lives and worsening their health. If I could trigger a movement, it would be to make all public transportation free. Assuming the public transportation system is well developed and maintained, this free service would facilitate removing untold number of cars from the road and therefore reducing emissions. It will reduce the pollution that my asthma patients encounter on a daily basis. It will also help people get to appointments for both routine care and for clinical research without the added burden of cost. I think the environmental crisis is one of the greatest issues we face (yet ignore) each day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many, but the first was from Nancy Carpenter (see above). I remember, on my last day at the FDA, Nancy gave me a piece of paper with a dot and a circle. On a sticky note she wrote down the following poem and whisper it in my ear. I have lived by this poem ever since:
[They] drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took [them] in.
-Outwitted, Edwin Markham
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 🙂
I have been fortunate enough to meet many of my heroes and lunch with Nancy is probably the pinnacle of my year. But as you can tell, I love to joke around. In fact, I love to laugh because… why not? Laughing feels a great distance better than crying. Therefore, I would love to have a private breakfast/lunch with Trevor Noah. I read his book and it sent me through a whirlwind of emotions. As an African immigrant myself (I immigrated to the US at age 5), I was touched by some of the shared experiences. A couple of years ago, I visited South Africa and toured the Apartheid Museum. After the tears had subsided, I was truly in awe of how transformation can occur in a society. This transformation does not necessarily occur at the leadership level, but rather through the people. While South Africa’s transformation is far from complete, there are small rays of light. For me, he represents possibilities that transcend the status quo. And of course, he is funny and I would rather laugh than not.
Thank you for all of these great insights!