The Power of Giving Back

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 5

Learning from others and leading by example provides full-circle success.

As a native of Indianapolis, Carla Pearson, VP and global commercial lead for cabotegravir at ViiV Healthcare, felt pharma’s presence at an early age. “With the area’s premier employer being Eli Lilly & Co., I can’t think of anything when I was growing up where Lilly, as a contributor to the community, wasn’t involved,” she says.

That example resonated with Pearson, and after earning her undergraduate degree in business from Indiana University, she joined Lilly as an SG&A financial analyst. In order to gain a better understanding of the business, a mentor introduced her to managed markets. She eventually moved into a more strategic role, then operations.

In 2010, Pearson made a career and personal decision to relocate to North Carolina with her husband and three children. She joined GlaxoSmithKline, a company also committed to the science of helping people and impacting the communities it serves, to work with her career mentors and sponsors. After five years at GSK, Pearson, who earned her MBA at the University of North Carolina, soon began to feel typecast for her technical skill set in managed markets. Looking for a new opportunity to expand her skills and demonstrate leadership breadth, she once again took the advice of a mentor and became a second-line leader in sales, heading a team focused on integrated delivery systems. It ended up being one of her best career decisions. “Sales is where strategy meets execution,” she says. “That understanding has paid off as I’ve come back inside to lead marketing teams.”

As the industry began moving toward specialty and targeted therapies, Pearson transitioned into GSK’s immunology and rare disease business, where she focused initially on leading marketing efforts for Benlysta, a product for lupus. “That is the point where I truly connected with the mission of pharma,” she says. “That was always important and guided what I did, but when you’re working in a space like lupus, where there is a lack of innovation and, for me, where the patient population is primarily women of color, you feel like every day what you do matters.”

Pearson’s experience as vice president of immunology marketing paved the way to her current position at ViiV Healthcare, a specialist HIV company majority owned by GSK, with Pfizer and Shionogi as limited shareholders, which she began in August 2020. Approved and launched in the US in January, Cabenuva (cabotegravir and rilpivirine) is the first and only complete long-acting injectable regimen to treat HIV. Cabotegravir long-acting is also under development for HIV prevention. Pearson is grateful for her position at ViiV Healthcare, which allows her to connect with patients and work in areas where there is an opportunity to impact healthcare disparities. “Our mission at ViiV Healthcare is to leave no person living with HIV behind, and that guides the work we do every day,” she says.

Pearson’s leadership toolbox

Leading in today’s pharma environment isn’t always easy. It requires many tools. Through her various roles in industry, Pearson shares these important contributors to her success:

  • Keeping mission in mind. Pearson challenges her teams to ladder up their objectives to the company’s mission when setting goals. She then co-creates a path for achieving those objectives. She breaks down big goals into meaningful pieces, and conducts weekly check-ins with her team to monitor their progress and ensure they have the resources they need.
  • Being authentic. People want to know their leaders as humans, Pearson says. They want to feel that their leaders are connected to the world around them, understand the challenges people face in and outside of work, and that their leaders are taking a stand.
  • Connecting with people. Pearson has remained connected to many former team members who she now looks to as thought partners. She advises early career employees to do the same—always connect back, build advocates, and maintain relationships.
  • Being bold. Demonstrating grit, perseverance, decisiveness, and resourcefulness in a rapidly changing environment is essential. She encourages risk-taking because even if the reward doesn’t come, there is still rich learning to be had in doing something new.
  • The power of people. From her days in finance, Pearson realizes that people are a precious resource and offer a competitive advantage. Leaders should try to extract the maximum value from them.

Setting an example

Pearson appreciates the important role mentors and sponsors have played in her career. Knowing how they have affected her path has led her to mentor and coach others in turn. “I believe that to whom much is given, much is required and expected, and I would not be where I am if people had not taken the time to pour into me,” she says. “So my give-back is to pour into other people.”

Pearson is the executive sponsor of GSK’s Latinx employee resource group. Outside of work, she serves as the educational advancement foundation chair for her local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. As a first-generation college graduate and member of corporate America, she also is compiling some of her experiences to share in a book to help others like her.

Spending time with family and friends is something else Pearson always makes time for. “I am a daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend,” she says. “My source of energy and levity comes from those people in my close circle. For them, success is not about the work that I do, it’s about how I show up.” With everything Pearson has going on, it’s hard for her to find a moment to relax. But when she does get to sneak in some alone time, she likes to get lost in Netflix and Hulu series as a guilty pleasure.

As she continues her journey in pharma, Pearson hopes to grow into a role with more significant commercial leadership where she’s able to make an even bigger impact on the business and the lives of patients. Beyond that, she envisions enterprise leadership, such as the general manager of a large affiliate like the US, and eventually, the C-suite. She is eager to bring together her knowledge of the many facets of pharma that she has engaged in throughout her career.

To read the profiles of all 2021 EPL winners, click here.

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.