Scientist of many firsts is living her dream

Racey Muchilwa

Racey Muchilwa is the Head of Novartis Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), leading 46 countries. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

Racey Muchilwa is Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) Head of Novartis, a global healthcare company, where she leads 46 countries. She has more than 20 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry with 17 of them being in senior management.

What role did your childhood play in the person you are today?

I was brought up in a small village in Western Kenya. My parents were my first teachers on ambition, hard work, and perseverance.

My father, for instance, was an ambitious businessman who refused to settle with societal expectations and standards; he was always pushing boundaries.

My mother rose from being a primary school teacher to the head teacher.

When I reflect, the way they led their lives and their love for us motivates me to be better. Another great lesson from my father is to respect people but never fear them.

What led you to this career path?

My dad and sister got into health issues. My father was epileptic. I also come from an area that is endemic with HIV and AIDS, Malaria, and sickle cell disease.

This fostered my passion for healthcare, and I aspired to get into science and research the cure for epilepsy.

While I didn’t end up at KEMRI, that desire led me in this sphere and we actually have a medicine that helps to manage epilepsy.

This industry is a perfect fit for me as I have had the privilege of working on projects that have brought together different stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem such as patient organisations, healthcare providers, and government agencies, to improve patient outcomes.

My role evolves as I grow, and I feel like I am living my purpose.

You are a woman of many firsts, like holding this position…

You know, it doesn’t hit me until somebody else brings it up. Like many people, there is some uncertainty and imposter syndrome that creeps up when making a transition.

However, once I get into a role, there is no room for doubts.

As someone who has achieved a great deal of success in your career, what advice would you give to other women who are looking to climb the ladder of success?

It's critical for women to raise their hands, speak up, and support one another if we're going to make real progress in achieving greater gender parity in the workforce.

At the same time, we need to make sure that we're not demanding entitlements or special treatment.

Instead, we must let our merits speak for themselves and work hard to earn our positions through dedication, skill, and expertise.

That's why I'm proud to sponsor initiatives within the company that bring together women and provide them with the coaching and resources they need to succeed. But I also believe that men have a vital role to play in this journey.

In our leadership program for women, we work together with men leading various cluster heads in a quest to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace where everyone could thrive.

Over the years, we have worked towards achieving a balanced organisation and are now at 50-50 gender parity.

How do you manage the delicate balance of being a successful work leader while also fulfilling your responsibilities of a mother and wife, and is there a secret to finding that balance?

I have in the past transitioned from one job to another to allow me more time with my children who were still in their formative years. Before making any career move, I have these discussions early with my spouse. Also, it is not a competition and there has to be a balance –be a wife, and mother at home.

Teach me a lesson on diversity inclusion.

Think of it this way, we all need shoes but the shoe number I wear will not fit everyone else. Equality is providing shoes to everyone, but equity is giving each person a shoe that fits them.

You led a strategic business transformation in the heat of the Covid-19 pandemic. What was your experience?

We had business units that were consolidated towards the end of 2019 with me as the lead. It was a tough time because we had to engage staff virtually while having to deal with other supply challenges that were cropping up. Thankfully, my team came up with innovative ways to engage suppliers, doctors, and other stakeholders.

And you won an award for it…

Yes. World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a CEO-led organisation of more than 200 international firms recognised me for successfully leading the company through the pandemic. It was quite humbling and surprising. It was another first for me as I was the only African black woman to win the award.

What fills your heart with joy away from your job? In other words, what do you do for fun?

I enjoy spending time with my family. In addition to that, I'm an avid reader and I enjoy delving into different genres to see what new perspectives I can discover. Give me some good beats and I will dance.