Global leaders: The Singaporean women leading the way at a pharmaceutical giant

Johnson & Johnson invests in developing local talent, resulting in the company’s first non-American chief technology officer

Female Singaporean leaders at J&J
Ms Rowena Yeo (from left), Ms Diyana Sudarsono and Ms Ong Ai Hua are among some of the Singaporean women who are leading the way at pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. PHOTO: SPH

They yearned for the opportunity to learn, to be challenged and to lead - on a global level.

And realised their goals when they joined pharmaceutical and healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

Ms Diyana Sudarsono wanted to learn and broaden her scope. "I knew that J&J could help me to become an expert because of its large portfolio of brands," says the 35-year-old.

Before joining J&J in 2008, she was the sole researcher in a small firm that specialised in wet wipes. "I was creating formulations for the wipes' liquid and wanted to expand my skills."

At J&J, she was given the opportunity to learn from, and work with, global teams to develop products for J&J's skincare brands, including Clean & Clear and Neutrogena.

Soon, she was leading a team to produce formulas for a new anti-ageing skincare line for J&J's Asia Pacific (Apac) market.

SPH Brightcove Video

Along with exposure, there was ample training, including a part-time six-month stint in 2018 at its Apac oral care franchise research and development team, from whom she learnt how to develop formulas for other products, including mouthwashes, expanding her portfolio of skills.

Last year, she took a leap of faith and transferred to its regulatory affairs division as an associate manager.

"I wanted to challenge myself (again) and work in a completely different space. I was afraid to make the move, but my bosses and mentors were very supportive of my decision," she says.

She is among Singaporeans at J&J who have been groomed for leadership positions.

Another J&J mover and shaker is Ms Rowena Yeo, 53.

The mother of three thrives on challenges. And at J&J, she says, there is seldom a dull moment.

After the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Ms Yeo had to lead J&J's transition to remote working for over 135,000 staff worldwide. PHOTO: SPH

"As J&J is a large global company, I've had the privilege to lead many teams to solve complex and diverse problems, enabling me to learn and grow as a leader."

This includes building its cloud capabilities and developing tools to speed up its data scientists' medical and healthcare research.

Since being appointed J&J's first non-American chief technology officer, and its global vice-president for technology services in 2019, she has frequently been tested with never-before challenges.

When the Covid-19 crisis hit early last year, she was confronted with her latest test. She had to lead J&J's transition to remote working for over 135,000 staff worldwide.

This included ramping up J&J's global infrastructure and its teleconferencing capabilities, and supporting employees and facilities around the world.

She then oversaw the development of J&J's global cloud strategy to enable and accelerate data scientists' ability to uncover insights and accelerate clinical trials and drug discovery.

Besides, she scaled up digital engagements such as the use of video-enabled robots for employees and patients in Japan. Additionally, she rolled out intelligent chatbots in 17 languages to enhance user experience around the world.

In Singapore, her team - two software engineers working with a visually impaired intern - added voice-activated functions to the chatbot. Her team also supported the initiative with the Singapore Optometry Association and Optometrists and Opticians Board to launch a contact lens home delivery service for people with prescriptions.

One company, many opportunities

Among the other Singaporeans at J&J who have risen to a leadership role is Ms Ong Ai Hua, 54.

In her 31 years with J&J, Ms Ong, who graduated from the National University of Singapore, has risen from a sales product specialist to become the first Singaporean to be appointed as the company group chair for J&J's pharmaceuticals business for Apac in 2017, and now the Apac head of government affairs and policy.

At J&J, Ms Ong has risen from a sales product specialist to being Apac head of government affairs and policy. PHOTO: SPH

Over the years, J&J has entrusted her with many responsibilities. These include developing a "one-company" model to combine its pharmaceuticals, consumer health and medical devices verticals under one management to increase efficiency, and create more attractive jobs with cross-functional and leadership roles. This model was implemented for its South-east Asia business in 2014.

"With this model, we introduced new positions that cover two or more of the verticals, and more exciting regional and global positions based out of Singapore, improving our talent recruitment, retention and development," she says.

"I've been very blessed to have work that challenges and stimulates me, and pushes me to learn new things."

She adds that J&J wants employees to have long, successful careers. "Quite early on, the company asked me to move to China to lead the medical devices business, but I couldn't go because of family reasons. J&J offered me the opportunity two more times, and I was finally able to go in 2006," she says.

"J&J understands that there are different seasons in life, and it believes that talent development is a journey."

Welcoming women to Stem

A major J&J initiative is to encourage more Singapore women to join or return to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) fields.

Today, 58 per cent of Singaporean women who graduate with Stem diplomas and degrees go on to have related careers, according to a recent study by Nanyang Technological University.

And more can be done. At the biennial Women in Engineering, Science & Technology symposium in Singapore in March, President Halimah Yacob said: "To move forward as a nation, particularly in the recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever for women to also be at the frontiers of knowledge, defining the future direction of engineering, science and technology."

Speaking about the company's efforts, Ms Yeo, who serves as Apac sponsor on its Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Manufacturing and Design programme's global steering committee, says: "We have different programmes to support girls and women at different stages of life."

To help them progress in such careers, J&J has rolled out an array of programmes over the years.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, the company welcomed students to laboratories and designed hands-on activities for them, such as introducing them to product ingredients and letting them use the ingredients to create their own cleansers.

Since the pandemic started, J&J has organised nearly 200 online and hybrid events for almost 2,000 women and girls in Singapore, including talks for tertiary students.

Offering more details on how the company supports women employees, Ms Yeo says: "At J&J, we have a programme to recruit and assist women who have taken a career break and want to return to the workplace."

Internally, J&J has a Women's Leadership and Inclusion (WLI) employee resource group for their employees.

The group recently introduced a new Parents' Tool kit that outlines the firm's benefits and policies for them, and guides them on a range of topics, including having enabling conversations with their supervisors and how best to plan their parental leave around work.

"The tool kit also highlights the importance of fathers in their role to support working mothers to be at their best. In fact, we launched it on Father's Day to underscore this point," says Ms Diyana, who is a co-lead in the WLI group's community pillar.

She notes that J&J has many accomplished women leaders, some of whom have given her invaluable advice, including when she was contemplating her move to the regulatory affairs division.

"They've inspired me to grow professionally, and I hope to pass on what I've learned and motivate future generations of women too."

This is the seventh of an eight-part series titled "Going global, thinking local" in partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

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