HomeSocial Impact HeroesHow Pfizer VP Caroline Roan and Pfizer are getting medicines, vaccines, and...

How Pfizer VP Caroline Roan and Pfizer are getting medicines, vaccines, and treatments into the hands of those who need them

When you are getting started in your career it is easy to compare yourself to others — to your classmates, your peers, or your colleagues. Don’t! Remember to run your own race at your own pace.

As part of my series about the “Social Impact Heroes”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Roan, Vice President of Global Health and Patient Access at Pfizer Inc. and is President of The Pfizer Foundation.

Caroline oversees Pfizer’s Global Health and Patient Access (GH&PA) function, from stakeholder engagement and reporting, to the design of social investment strategies. During her tenure, Pfizer has refined its GH&PA strategy to better support the company’s evolving business priorities. The resulting GH&PA portfolio is a coordinated approach to strategic philanthropy and responsible investment which invests the full scope of the company’s resources to broaden access to medicines and strengthen health care delivery for underserved people around the world. She oversees a team based in New York, Switzerland and Kenya.

Prior to joining Pfizer, Caroline worked on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Team, which focused on promoting individual and community health by increasing social support and connection. Caroline was also Associate Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS (CIRA) at Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.

In 2012 Caroline was selected and served as a David Rockefeller Fellow through the Partnership for New York City. In 2015, Caroline was named as a CR Super Star by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

She currently serves on the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, the advocacy arm of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

Caroline received her Bachelor of Arts in sociology and anthropology from Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, and her Masters of Public Policy from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.

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

I knew I wanted to work in health care early in my life. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager, and I quickly realized the importance of access to quality health care and the noble role that physicians, nurses and health care providers play in caring for those we love. I wasn’t destined to be a health care provider, (biology and chemistry grades prevented that!), but I was fortunate to find a way to serve the practice of health care through my work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The remarkable aspect of working at Pfizer is that no two days are alike — you never know what will come your way when you seek to serve and support patients, because their needs are constantly shifting. Whether it is learning about how one of experimental medicines work or understanding the road that patients walk, every day keeps me on my toes and brings interesting opportunities to grow and develop as a person.

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 make mistakes every day and I laugh about them — a lot. And for Pfizer we live in a world of acronyms that can be brutal for those new to the industry. A perfect example…BAU…business as usual. I had no idea what that meant, and this happened just recently. A good reminder, to laugh at yourself and never claim to know something you don’t!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our mission, breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, is from my perspective the noblest of missions. We’re in the business of getting medicines, vaccines, and treatments into the hands of those who need them. And, when we achieve our business mission, we also achieve our social mission — they are one and the same.

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

I’ve had the good fortune of working for Pfizer for more than 15 years now. During that time, Pfizer has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to issues ranging from health systems strengthening to disaster relief.

It’s hard to single out one person who’s been helped, but one of our partners that has helped us achieve real impact is Eva Mwai, the Regional Director for North Star Alliance.

Her organization works to address HIV throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on particularly vulnerable populations, like commercial sex workers and long-distance truckers, who are disproportionately affected by the disease due to the very nature of their work.

By supporting North Star Alliance, Eva can do what she does best: treat every single person who walks into one of North Star Alliance’s blue shipping containers not as just another sex worker or just another trucker, but instead, as clients, as people with dignity, as people who deserve respect. She has taught me so much and it is a privilege to call her a partner.

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

First, acknowledge that poor health outcomes are inherently tied to social and economic determinants of health: everything from housing policy and racism to education and nutrition.

Second, seek to understand and harness the role that innovation plays in discovering new treatments and cures for disease.

And third, assume good intent in a world where all too often we think the worst of people and corporations. Contrary to what some may think, the private sector can and does drive positive social impact.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Courage, strength and humility. Courage to stand up for what you believe, strength to pursue it and humility to know when you don’t have all the answers or need help.

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

  • Slow down: Like many, when I was younger, I wanted to get promoted and advance quickly in my career. I wish I had taken more time to enjoy each step of my career — to learn and grow before taking the next step.
  • Work hard: Dig deep and work hard. Early in my career, I was the first one in and the last one out and always volunteered for projects. Raising my hand paid off: I picked up new skills, met new people and learned more about the business than I ever imagined.
  • Run your own race: A dear friend gave me this advice years ago and it is so true. When you are getting started in your career it is easy to compare yourself to others — to your classmates, your peers or your colleagues. Don’t! Remember to run your own race at your own pace.
  • Be kind: In corporate America, sometimes when you are starting out, you think that success comes at cost of forgoing kindness. I’ve found the opposite is true: that kindness goes an incredibly long way.
  • Do what you love: My mother used to say do what you love, because if you love what you do, you will be do it better and with more drive than if you if you do something your heart isn’t committed to.

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. 🙂

We live in world that, in my opinion, lacks solidarity. As such, I’d like to see a movement focused on kindness. This is already happening — look no further than some of the acts of humanity during this COVID-19 pandemic — but we need more. There is so much anger and separation in the world, and while some days the divide may seem insurmountable, I truly believe that kindness and empathy can close that divide.

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

One quote that has been very important to me is from a speech that Martin Luther King gave at a high school about people’s plan for their life…a blueprint for their life. The quote is….If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” For me, this quote says every life has significance. Every life worth. It is about pride, and excellence. Believing in yourself and the right and dignity that every person deserves.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Choosing one person is very hard. There are so many individuals that inspire me and motivate me, but if pressed I would say Dolly Parton. Why? She can live in many worlds and inspire multiple generations. Her southern background is of interest to me, and her faith, her philanthropy. I am sure lunch would be a lot of laughs.

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