HBA Woman of the Year: Freda Lewis-Hall - Pharmaceutical Executive


HBA Woman of the Year: Freda Lewis-Hall

Pharmaceutical Executive

Memorable Moments

One such opportunity for Lewis-Hall to help people occurred after her residency, when she worked for the National Health Services Corps in the Virgin Islands. "I was in a health manpower shortage area, helping people that wouldn't have otherwise had psychiatric care at that point," she says.

During this time, psychiatry was undergoing a major shift towards taking patients out of hospitals and mainstreaming them back into their communities, and places like the Virgin Islands had no provisions in place for such a shift. "I was in Washington, DC, doing work at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and I realized that the people hospitalized there were likely going to be deinstitutionalized and sent back to the Virgin Islands, and there wasn't anyone or anything that was going to provide care," says Lewis-Hall.

Eventually, she went on to serve as acting medical director for the US Virgin Islands Department of Health. "I went down to try and help evolve the system so it could meet the needs of those chronically mentally ill patients, and it was a very, very profound experience," she says. "Going to the Virgin Islands, where there was just little or nothing, was a really shocking learning experience."

After leaving the Virgin Islands, Lewis-Hall returned to Howard, where she learned even more about psychiatry while counseling patients and serving as vice chair and assistant professor. "I loved what was happening in psychiatry, and I was drawn to it," she says. "Psychiatry at that time was still grounded in understanding people, in listening. It was really a listening profession at that time, and I loved the idea of being taught to professionally listen." That skill—the capacity to evaluate carefully what others are saying—is often missing in the conventional list of leadership traits, but Lewis-Hall has been careful to cultivate it in making her way up the professional ladder.

Lewis-Hall's work at Howard also got her interested in the biology behind psychiatry. "I became fascinated with brain biology and learning—learning what was being learned. I think it's also part of what got me ready to come into the [pharma] industry," she says.

Diversity, Biology, and Eli Lilly

"What attracted me to [pharma] and what ultimately won me and kept me is the idea that probably the most incredible science happens in this environment. It's a data-rich environment where you have the ability to help not just one patient at a time, but millions of patients at a time."
Lewis-Hall's first foray into the pharma industry was at Eli Lilly, where she began as clinical research physician and, over a period of eight years, moved her way up the ranks, creating and directing the Lilly Center for Women's Health and then serving as product team leader.

While we all recognize that diversity can play a role in our lives in cultural and philosophical ways—from civil rights to workplace equality—Lewis-Hall began to understand during her time at Lilly that diversity may have biological and physiological roles to play as well. "I spent some time on gender-based health, gender-based biology, and ethnopsychopharmacology—looking at the differences that race and ethnicity made and how these things affect the way that drugs are metabolized in different people," she explains.

Such interests led to Lewis-Hall developing and directing the Lilly Center for Women's Heath, aimed at incorporating science-based, gender-related advantages into all life-cycle stages of Lilly's neuroscience, cardiovascular, and women's health therapies. "That was a time when there wasn't a lot of thought about gender-based research," she says. "So my first few years in the industry were really great in that they confirmed the power of science for bringing benefit to patients and provided me with an opportunity to really connect with the community around a health issue."

In fact, diversity issues played a role in Lewis-Hall's career not only in the research she was working on at Lilly, but—throughout her life—in her personal development as well. "Sometimes I have a hard time teasing apart what my ethnicity and my gender bring to the table, although I am not at all confused about the fact that there is a significant impact," she says. "I think there were times when I felt that maybe my credibility was challenged in a way that it might not have been ... As a young, female, African-American physician, I had to wonder if I carried the same weight—had the same gravitas—that someone else might have."

Thankfully, Lewis-Hall had a mentor to look to at Lilly, Dr. August "Gus" Watanabe, who oversaw Lilly's research labs. "He reminded me over and over that at the end of the day, I am a physician, trained in the art of healing," she recalls. "He told me to never forget that my grounding at the company was that I brought patient-centeredness into the room with me—that when I walk into the room, someone who has touched a patient, treated a patient, and understands the patient is now here representing that; the patient walks in with me."

Sound advice like this is what helped Lewis-Hall realize that diversity in the workplace was not just something that might or might not bring her credibility into question, but something to be celebrated and leveraged, using each person's strengths and differences to contribute to the greater good of the company.

Sidney Taurel, former CEO of Lilly, had this to say about Lewis-Hall: "Freda is one of the most energetic, communicative, and driven people I've worked with. She combines competence as a physician with a passion to make a difference in peoples' lives as a leader, a mentor, and an advocate. With her infectious enthusiasm, she is good fun to be around."


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