Sanobar Syed: A Trailblazer in Pharmaceutical Business Strategy and Forecasting

Sanobar Syed | Pharmaceutical Business Strategy | CIO Women Magazine

Women’s representation in business leadership has long been a topic of discussion and debate over the years. If we look at the scenario a couple of decades ago, very few women were part of higher management roles in companies. However, the tables are turning. With increased awareness about the unique skills women bring to management roles, more women are serving managerial positions across different industries. 

Sanobar Syed is a prime example of a contemporary woman leader breaking societal norms to thrive as a decorated leader in her field. If we look at the scenario of the field of pharmaceutical business strategy and forecasting there are not many women in this field, if we add a diversity layer the numbers are much limited, in such Sanobar’s work and advocacy for this field has led us to present in this edition. CIO Women Magazine recently had the pleasure to indulge in a fascinating conversation with her. Here are some snippets from the same. 

1. What inspired you to direct your journey in this particular field?

My professional journey started with my fascination with science, more so specifically, organic chemistry. I was mesmerized by how this field could change industries and impact lives. Post my Masters in organic chemistry, I wanted to explore how this knowledge would help me solve business problems healthcare organizations face. I finished my MBA and then joined a premium Biotech company. Over the years, as my career grew, I was pulled toward business strategy and forecasting.

This was an eye-opening opportunity as not a lot of women at that time took this field. I immersed myself and grew in critical roles across organizations and geographies. I have worked with pioneer firms that cover the healthcare spectrum of generics, innovators, and distributors in the endeavor to bring medicines to patients. Now, with over 14 years of experience, I am humbled to be a beacon for new graduates in this field.

2. How difficult were the initial years? State a few challenges you faced. 

Education and awareness about the fact that this field is a perfect career option to grow in the pharmaceutical industry are important. This is important, as many times, graduates or professionals trying to find a cusp of business and science fail to find the path. Many times, professionals have to undergo various licensing exams to achieve their career path. I have faced similar struggles, however, I was adamant about not only carving my niche but making organizations, especially, generic pharmaceutical companies implement data-driven decision-making instead of just going by the sales” gut feel”. In today’s intense competition, market access challenges, and complex payor systems, it becomes even more imperative to invest in this field.

3. Please walk us through your professional background.

I represent the women in business strategy and forecasting within the pharmaceutical industry. Women still make up under 30% of executive directors at top firms, even less in functions like forecasting and analytics. I have become a beacon for many young aspiring professionals to take up this field as a preferred career choice. 

When people think of pharmaceutical roles, they think of doctors, pharmacists, or sales and marketing roles. Not a lot of people know and are aware of the roles which are at the cusp of Business and technical STEM. Forecasting is a role that I can utilize my master’s in organic chemistry and post-graduation in marketing and strategy. 

As a women leader in pharma, I have led various strategic and diverse roles at WLP to ensure that we can support and help women grow their careers in Canada. 

I have also developed a course curriculum for Toronto metropolitan university’s “talent accelerator program” to give science students a segway into the pharmaceutical world. 

In addition, I am on the Jury of Eagles, Edison Titan Health awards, CPHI pharma awards, and advisor at PMRC board and Medtech intelligence. I have been featured in “Top 50 Inspiring Women”. I also have received the “Best Women in Business Strategy of the Year at Titan women’s business awards, the Medtop People award, and “pharma leader for the Year” awards.

I have been published and featured in major media publications. I take my representation very seriously. I am self-aware and humbled by the impact of my work.

4. With the years of expertise you bring to the table, what are your plans? 

I plan to remain a strong advocate of this field and represent it in national and international forums globally. By actively being part of key pharmaceutical conferences and advisory boards I plan to encourage the new younger generation to take this field as part of their career choice. I also wish to show them my journey that is possible to thrive sans geographies. This field is one of the few functions in pharmaceuticals which marries science and technology and becomes a central pivot in any data-driven decision-making organization. I also plan to continue publishing my thought leadership articles in reputed journals which can give access and opportunities to the community to engage in meaningful dialogues and discussions.

5. How has your impact grown and been critical in changing the field of business strategy and forecasting?

Growing up in the industry, I had very few women leaders, especially POC in the pharma forecasting & analytics that I could look up to. Along with my several reputable speaking engagements, I have tried to multiply my impact via advising & mentoring. I have guided, mentored, and led global direct reports toward achieving the key strategic imperatives of organizations. 

The intrinsic satisfaction of impacting the lives of patients is the utmost and prime accomplishment. To be able to drive change in the larger healthcare context and enable the “right & critical” decisions is truly humbling. I know I am on the right path when young professionals confess that they are encouraged to take up data, analytics, and forecasting functions in the pharmaceutical world and I am their “north star”.” As a person of color and a woman, I value being considered the subject matter expert in the USA and Canada and am optimistic about the future of the pharmaceutical industry.

6. How has your education helped you to shape your enterprise? 

If not for my education, I will not be able to reach the pinnacle of my field. My strong expertise and deep knowledge of science and my entrepreneurial passion for marketing have helped me to think out of the box. I have personally experienced guidance in my education which has helped in launching new products in difficult therapy areas like oncology, neuroscience, and rare diseases nationally and internationally. I owe my success to my education choice.

7. Post-pandemic, how has the era of business strategy and forecasting changed? 

The role of a Pharmaceutical forecaster is to describe what the future might be so that informed decisions can be made. The line between forecasting and decision-making is sometimes blurred.  As forecasters, we need to focus on describing the future and enabling decision-makers on making decisions. I strongly believe that forecasting and Decision-Making Overlap and it’s the most critical aspect of this role in the pharmaceutical industry. Trust that these decisions change the course of a product hence a patient hence a firm hence a healthcare system

8. What are some of the challenges when conducting commercial strategic analytics & forecasting in the pharmaceutical industry?

I believe that the pharmaceutical industry is dynamic and ever-changing globally, although more so in the United States. 4 key stakeholders make up the healthcare environment – academic, advocacy, industry, and community. To be able to have a detailed eye on these 4 and integrate that into meaningful fact-based deliverables is every forecaster & commercial analytics leader’s primary challenge. This is always easier said than done.

Strategic Forecasting is often used to create multiple scenarios and is the most primary important critical step to be used in (not limited to) Finance, P&L, Investment decisions, supply chain, medical, sales, marketing, resource management, budgeting, and commercial teams. The other emerging challenge is the lack of “usable” data and information which is further aggravated by the Digital wave. We are often in situations of being “Data rich but Insights Poor.”

9. How challenging is it to arrive at business decisions in the pharmaceutical world in your field?

It’s a mammoth task to convert the insights to foresight. Especially if the firm is undergoing M&A or restructuring of the business/brands, it becomes critical to continue generating insights and be an enabler in decision-making. Resource allocation, budgeting, inventory & supply management, P&L, and finance are some of the functions impacted by the presence of sharp insights. One of the human-level challenges can be shifting priorities, attrition or layoffs, data quality issues, etc. Both the organization and human-level challenges persist but the show must always go on.

10. How have you challenged the status quo or the norm?

Throughout my career I have had several opportunities wherein I have challenged the norm, Whether it was leading a 9-member global team in different geographies or being the only women team lead in the management committee, I have always managed to shine in the face of challenges.

One very noteworthy incident was to be able to challenge the way historical strategy and forecasting platforms were used in my organization and help break the senior management’s comfort zone to upgrade our platforms to the industry’s best practice. What made me look up and lead was the idea that we can’t rely on others to notice us or tap us on the shoulder. Learning to be brave and speak up can be empowering and is the only way to go. 

11. How have your personal life experiences influenced the entrepreneur in you?

I tick all the proverbial boxes, Immigrant, First generation Canadian, person of color, Woman, Visible Minority & MoM.  By checking so many boxes I also take the responsibility of walking the talk and being mindful that young minds & every bright female who falls in any of these buckets who wants to be heard are watching me. Because of these attributes, I also am faced with challenges at multiple levels (personally and professionally) which I have handled with resilience and trusting my ability.

The female mentors in this space are limited and I lead by example and want to show the upcoming leaders that if I can do it, they definitely can.

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