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Ornella Barra: “It’s important to remain humble and ready to learn from everyone you come across”

At the beginning of any journey, our experience is limited and we cannot learn everything at once. We need to learn by doing, gradually over time. Therefore, it’s important to remain humble and ready to learn from everyone you come across. I learn something new every day. I think this is a special privilege that […]


At the beginning of any journey, our experience is limited and we cannot learn everything at once. We need to learn by doing, gradually over time. Therefore, it’s important to remain humble and ready to learn from everyone you come across. I learn something new every day. I think this is a special privilege that we should all treasure.


As part of our series about social impact heroes, I had the distinct pleasure to interview Ornella Barra. Born in Italy, in Chiavari near Genoa, now of Monegasque nationality, Ornella graduated from the University of Genoa with a degree in pharmacy and embarked on a career in the healthcare sector. She started out as a pharmacist, first managing and then setting up her own pharmacy. In 1984 she founded the pharmaceutical wholesaler Di Pharma, which was then taken over by Alleanza Salute Italia.

Since then, she has held several roles and responsibilities, as member of the Boards of Directors of various companies (both listed and privately held) of the Group. These various transformation cycles led in 2014 to the creation of Walgreens Boots Alliance.


Thank you so much for joining us Ornella. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a young person, I was interested in a career in the medical field. I have always had a great desire for discovery and science. I was also very passionate about helping others. Initially I considered becoming a surgeon, then I decided to pursue pharmacy. I was full of ideas and excited about the multiple roles a pharmacist plays — an advisor for patients’ health, a reference point in the local community and an entrepreneur as well.

After around 40 years, I am still motivated by the same things. I have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of something meaningful and lasting for society. Among all my roles and responsibilities, leading the global Corporate Social Responsibility agenda of WBA is the most deeply rooted in my heart.

Can you share an interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Walgreens Boots Alliance is a relatively new company and our presence in 25 countries means that we are incredibly diverse. One would expect this to be a significant challenge. Yet, we’ve been able to create an inclusive environment and a common, shared corporate culture across our 440,000 employees. People are our greatest asset. When we all come together, I believe there is nothing we cannot achieve.

Across our global organization, I see many different stories every day of people learning from each other in different corners of the world. These days, we are seeing unprecedented levels of collaboration and support around the coronavirus issue in China.

WBA has a joint business venture with GuoDa, China’s leading pharmacy chain, with over 5,000 stores. GuoDa has been looking at how to best serve their local communities at this time of high concern for everyone. Public demand for face masks and sanitizers has continued to increase and this has led to increasing pressure on pharmacies. With our IT expertise, we developed new functionalities to allow customers to stay informed through GuoDa’s mobile App about which pharmacies had masks in stock. People are able to order them on their mobile phones and go to community stores near them to pay for and collect the items, minimizing the chances of unnecessary exposure and potential virus transmission.

Can you describe how you or Walgreens Boots Alliance is making a significant social impact?

Partnerships are a cornerstone of WBA’s Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. Collaboration is the key to driving sustainable change around some of the biggest issues facing society today, such as healthcare accessibility and affordability.

For example, by joining forces with non-profit organizations, we have enabled our pharmacies to work as a powerful network to support the health of children, mothers, young people and patients affected by diseases such as cancer.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

I am involved in initiatives with WE Charity, an international youth movement to educate and empower the next generation.

Every time I take the stage at WE Day events, in front of tens of thousands of young people, to inspire them to reach for their dreams and to serve others, it is I who walks away inspired and enriched.

Today’s youth are eager to change the world for the better and they are taking on huge issues like climate change, mental health and poverty. I am proud of the work we are doing with the WE organization to empower our youth to help us tackle some of society’s most challenging issues.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Society is facing incredibly difficult issues. To solve them, we must be willing to put aside differences and find common ground. Forging partnerships, rather than working in isolation, means that we learn from each other and never exclude anyone from progress.

When dealing with complex matters such as healthcare accessibility, I think there should be a greater recognition of the role that pharmacies play in communities. Pharmacists are a first point of access to healthcare for millions of people globally. We must work together to make sure they remain at the heart of healthcare systems.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you give an example?

Leadership is the result of collaboration. I believe no one succeeds by himself. Great things are never accomplished by one person. Teamwork is a critical ingredient of successful companies. I often say that my role is like being a conductor at the front of an orchestra. I cannot play beautiful music on my own, I need everyone to give their best.

Leadership means conveying a common purpose and engaging people around it. In our organization, we have many great leaders, who strive to make people feel involved in something meaningful. This is the fuel that drives all our efforts — from CSR to retail innovation, to customer care and brands development.

What are your “5 things” I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

At the beginning of any journey, our experience is limited and we cannot learn everything at once. We need to learn by doing, gradually over time. Therefore, it’s important to remain humble and ready to learn from everyone you come across. I learn something new every day. I think this is a special privilege that we should all treasure.

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?

I consider my influence as a tool in the service of the company I represent. WBA aims to inspire a culture of care, respect and integrity in communities worldwide. I feel honored to serve such a noble purpose and to contribute to driving a positive change in the world.

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

I often like to remind myself that a good company can become a great company only when it thinks of others. Having personal ambitions is certainly a good thing but extraordinary results are only possible when we put the interest of others into the equation. This is what “thinking big” means to me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

What matters most to me is being able to sit down and spend time with colleagues who are going through challenging times, like after a natural disaster.

Not long ago, our Walgreens stores in Puerto Rico were heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria. The role pharmacies play for people during such events is incredibly critical, as you can imagine. Our teams did everything possible, and beyond, to ensure our patients continued to receive our support and the medications they needed.

I sat down with some of our team members after the hurricane to listen to their stories and to offer my full support. I was struck by their great solidarity and sense of community. They kept going to work, even after their own homes were damaged, to serve our customers and to support each other.

How can our readers follow your work?

You can go to www.walgreensbootsalliance.com/corporate-social-responsibility-report/

Or visit www.linkedin.com/company/walgreens-boots-alliance/

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