A Balancing Act

Rather than remaking herself to fit the executive suite, Meryl Zausner has remade the executive suite—and the industry—into a place that is more friendly toward women. In the process she is pioneering
Apr 01, 2007

When Meryl Zausner was 25 and working at Colgate Palmolive, she had the kind of moment so many women in business have. She was attending a planning meeting for a laundry detergent product—the only woman in the room—when a thought occurred to her. "I asked, 'Excuse me, have any of you ever done a load of laundry?'" Zausner recalls. "It turned out that not one of them had, and yet here they were, deciding on the global strategy for how women are going to do laundry."

HBA Woman of the Year
It's the sort of corporate blindness that cuts both ways: Not only did these men lack experience of their own product and how it fit into customers' lives, but they also lacked understanding of their colleagues. Women were pouring into the workforce, but the companies that hired them knew as much about the lives and needs of working women as they did about, well, sorting lights and darks and getting out stains.

These days, Zausner is chief financial officer of Novartis Oncology, where she has been a key player in advancing the company's ambitious cancer strategy. No one would accuse her of the kind of narrowness of vision her colleagues at Colgate Palmolive suffered from. Zausner has lived a life deeply marked by love and loss, and her colleagues see its impact in everything she does, from the passion she brings to the development of new cancer drugs to her commitment to creating a better deal for female and minority co-workers.

The ability to maintain a healthy connection between the professional and the personal is a challenge for most of us. But when you talk to Meryl Zausner's colleagues, it's clear that she's succeeded in the challenge in a way that they find not just notable, but inspirational. A mark of the esteem that she's held in is that she has been elected the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association's Woman of the Year—an honor that's gone over the years to leaders in the industry like Genentech's president of product development Susan Desmond-Hellmann and Johnson & Johnson's Vice Chairman Christine Poon.

A Letter to mY Younger Self
Part of the reason for her election has to do with the birth and growth of the Novartis Oncology global unit—which has grown from $1.5 billion to nearly $6 billion in six years. But that's far from Zausner's whole story. She also provides a role model for how to succeed in the modern-day pharmaceutical industry, and inspires women facing the day-to-day challenges of being a full-time employee and mother.

Out of Flatbush

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Zausner lived with her mother, a full-time bookkeeper, in a rent-controlled apartment on Ocean Avenue in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Money was tight, and when it was time for college, she explains, "My typical Jewish mother said, 'You have to make sure you can get a job when you get out of college. Become an accountant.'" Zausner, who inherited the family gift for numbers, agreed. "It was something I knew I could get a good job at," she says. She majored in accounting at the University of Albany and spent summers answering phones at a New York recruiting firm to help pay her way.

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