Emerging Pharma Leaders: Sabina Ewing

September 30, 2016

Vice President, Business Technology, Pfizer Inc.

Technology Risk-Taker

Sabina Ewing, Vice President, Business Technology, Pfizer Inc.                           

By her own admission, Sabina Ewing used to be risk averse. That was until she spent a year teaching fifth grade in a South Bronx public school. Previously, she’d been building a career as a manger in business consulting at Arthur Andersen LLP, but when Andersen was indicted in the Enron scandal, she took the plunge and tried something new, something far outside her comfort zone. It was a job that helped to 

change her outlook on life and work.

Ewing taught for a year-a “wild ride,” she describes it-but after that returned to the corporate world. She went back to consulting at Bearing Point and then at American Express. Keen to move on again, when a friend suggested she should look at the pharma industry, the newly emboldened Ewing decided to give it a try.

She joined Wyeth in 2007 as a project director for business systems and processes and was soon able to push herself forward when Pfizer acquired Wyeth in 2009. “When you go through an acquisition, you can become a number, so I raised my hand and asked if I could be in on the integration activities,” she says. “I ventured into a space I hadn’t been in before and took on a program that other people were running away from.” She led the delivery of an interim global logistics and supply chain  enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for Pfizer’s integration of Wyeth, and was responsible for the retirement of the Wyeth’s legacy commercial financial applications.

This got Ewing noticed by Wyeth’s Chief Information Officer Jeffrey Keisling, who later selected her as his chief of staff and became one of her valued mentors. Keisling, says Ewing, “gave me an opportunity to really see how you run a technology organization in a 21st Century way.” She credits his leadership as one of the reasons she has stayed in pharma for the last nine years; she responded to the vision that business technology is not just about providing the company with its infrastructure, devices and systems, but is an essential contributor in achieving value and impact. She now leads business technology for four of Pfizer’s divisions: HR, legal, corporate affairs and compliance, and global technology services. 

“There’s no better place to be a technologist than within pharma,” she explains. “Because you now have an opportunity to have an effect on the lives of others as well as the company’s growth and performance.” To this point, one of the things Ewing is most proud of during her time leading Pfizer’s global vaccine business technology organization is when she helped to achieve a faster adoption within hospitals and health institutions of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommendation for the company’s adult pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine, Prevnar 13. “We knew that once we received the recommendation, the typical time it took hospitals to implement it was substantially longer than we wanted to wait,” says Ewing. “So there was an opportunity for us as technologists to identify ways in which health information technology and our understanding of it could be leveraged in a compliant way to accelerate that.” The result saw tremendous growth of Prevnar 13 in 2014 and 2015. 

“We were able to bring a life-saving vaccine to adults in the US even faster, while at the same time helping our company and shareholders,” says Ewing.

This sense of compassion and responsibility, which led her into that teaching role over a decade ago, is something that Ewing has developed further at Pfizer as she has risen up the corporate ladder. She has been a member of Pfizer’s Global Blacks Council (GBC) and co-chair of the Pfizer African-American Leadership Network and now serves as chair of Pfizer’s Global Women’s Council. 

“I want to see more girls, particularly girls of color, in technology. Anything I can do to serve as a role model and actively engage around that, I’d like to do,” she says. “On the one hand you want to entice young women to head off to college to pursue degrees in technology and computer science. But there’s also the issue of women who are already in IT. A study found that the mid-level is where you lose women in IT. Instead, I want them to stay and grow.”

Working with Keisling and other mentors such as Susan Silberman, Pfizer’s president and general manager, global vaccines, changed Ewing’s perspective “on the possibility of becoming a chief information officer.” It was a job she didn’t originally seek, but with those risk-averse days behind her, leading and and driving a vision at the CIO level while advancing the industry’s effort to improve diversity and inclusion is now within her scope. As she says, “I don’t think we’ve fully unlocked that role yet.” 

- Julian Upton