The Woman of the Year Brings Her Culture to the Culture of MedImmune and AstraZeneca

The Woman of the Year Brings Her Culture to the Culture of MedImmune and AstraZeneca

In our last issue, we featured the professionals honored at the annual Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year award ceremony: STAR Ceci Zak, Honorable Mentor Joaquin Duato, the numerous Luminaries, and of course the Woman of the Year herself, Bahija Jallal. We thought it would be fitting to expand on Ms. Jallal’s recognition in this issue.

Although she currently works in the quiet town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, Bahija Jallal is a true citizen of the world. Born in Morocco and university-educated in Paris, Bahija started her work in oncology in Germany, later came to California to work in research at Sugen, spent a few years in drug evaluation and translational medicine at Chiron Corporation, and since 2008 has been at MedImmune and AstraZeneca. Today she is EVP of AstraZeneca and head of MedImmune. She has taken MedImmune R&D from 40 drugs in its pipeline to more than 120, has authored more than 70 peerreviewed publications, holds more than 15 patents, and is a member of the American Association of Cancer Research, the American Association of Science, the Pharma-cogenomics Working Group, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Women in Science.


Her early experiences reveal a picture of the dedicated and insightful woman she was to become. She was dating the man whom she would ultimately marry, who himself was French, when she surprised him by her deep knowledge of Paris. It was just natural for her to absorb all she could from the world around her. Today she is fluent in her native Arabic, plus French, German and English.

She explains herself partly by noting her Berber blood. The Berbers refer to themselves as “Amazigh,” “the free people,” and see themselves as courageous and resilient. Those and other traits clearly define Bahija and her career.

Bahija was the quintessential “why?” child who was always asking the adults around her about how the world worked. (Today, she says “I have a child like that, so there is karma.”) As a youngster she recognized science as a “journey of curiosity and creativity that, when coupled with perseverance and resilience, gets to the discovery where every answer leads to new questions.” It’s an insightful portrayal of what healthcare is about: always moving forward, never feeling that the job is over.

When she was nine, her father went into the hospital with a kidney stone and ultimately died from a medical error. That was the spark that ignited Bahija’s career. She turned the experience into a lesson: “From adversity, good can follow—if we make that choice.”

Her mother then had to raise five daughters and two sons on her own in a patriarchal society. Bahija admits that “The odds for me to get a university-level education were not very high.” Even though her culture believed in the axiom that it takes a village to raise a child, and that she had much love and help, their expectation was that, “like most Moroccan women of the time, I would marry and have children. So I did not need an advanced education. But my mother was determined that all her children would accomplish their dreams. She told us every day that we could be whatever we want to be, that we would have the opportunity to get an education and go as far as we desire. All this from a woman who didn’t go to school herself.”

Her dedication to science meant that she would have to leave Morocco to pursue her education. From there, everything else followed.


AstraZeneca Executive Director and CEO Pascal Soriot notes that she has put her job on the line many times to defend her convictions, which frequently proved to be accurate and valuable. When AstraZeneca acquired MedImmune, and with it Bahija Jallal, there was a concern in the industry that they had overpaid for the company. Today, Pascal says, half of AstraZeneca is biologics, and that would not have happened without Bahija’s brilliance and tenacity. He jokes that her dream is one day to hear that AstraZeneca underpaid for MedImmune.

She has some of the most talented scientists in the world on her team, largely because she inspires them—she creates an environment that helps people make the impossible possible. She also champions gender and ethnic diversity, having created the Women’s Forum in Gaithersburg, which was ultimately rolled out in Sweden, the UK and other countries around the world. Today 49% of the employees at MedImmune are non-white and 51% are women.

“We all share the same goal—to improve the life and health of patients.” From some people this comment would be just an industry cliché. When Bahija says it, though, it carries a lot of weight, based on who she is and what she’s done.

She also says “I’ve never felt like I worked a single day in my life.” This is the viewpoint of someone who has found a true calling. Bahija celebrates where we are: “The science has never been better. We are really in unprecedented times. There are so many innovations and breakthroughs in healthcare that are benefiting patients today. New medicines, new devices, new technologies are changing the way we think about healthcare. That’s why we do what we do.”

True to her view of science as a never-ending quest, she says there are still too many patients affected by cancer, diabetes, asthma and other medical needs. “By following my heart, my career has taken turns that I would never have anticipated. I have never done a development plan, have never chased titles. I think if I had planned every step of my career I would have missed many happy turns. This winding path has given me many lessons.”


Bahija summarizes what she’s learned, and how she interacts with others, in four succinct lessons:

1 Don’t be afraid to fail. Her career started with a failure. At a small startup when science was sequencing the human genome, protein engineering was opening doors to targeted therapy. “With this approach that had the potential to replace radiotherapy and…even chemotherapy, we looked at making inhibitors for protein kinases that were over-expressed in cancer.” But the first compound they came up with, although promising, failed. They persevered, but the second failed as well. Bahija’s interpretation was “Adversity was testing us.” Taking two weeks off from the research itself, the company looked at the lessons learned—what could they have done better? How could they start over and not make the same mistakes? It was a useful exercise. The third compound was successful, and today, it’s still helping patients. “So I’m really happy I didn’t start my career with a success,” she observes. “I don’t think I would have learned the valuable lessons about drug development if I had started with a success. Don’t be afraid to fail. When you do, stand up, dust off, figure out what went wrong and start again. If we never fail, it means we’re not innovating enough.”

2 Dream big. Bahija believes “We can turn science fiction into science fact.” When AstraZeneca acquired MedImmune in 2007 it was a challenging time for the company. The MedImmune pipeline was not robust. But, again drawing from her childhood, Bahija remembered the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, famous author of The Little Prince. He said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

She searched for the ideas that would keep scientists energized and engaged during this trying time. Then she set a bold vision for MedImmune. She announced that from 2011 until 2016 they would have one new biologics license application every year. “It seemed impossible at the time. But in those few years we tripled the size of the pipeline, and we achieved that vision one year earlier, by 2015.” Bahija says that in Morocco it’s considered wrong to speak of yourself too much, and in that spirit she gives much of the credit to her team. “The MedImmune scientists really inspire me every day. No challenge is too big for them. They work with purpose and urgency, and I learn from them every single day.” She also gives credit to Pascal Soriot, who could have cut the R&D budget at any time. This would have “made analysts and investors happy,” she says, “but Pascal knew that success lay in not reducing budgets and reorganizing but in focusing on the patients and on the science.” She admires his optimism and support, saying that even during tough times he will always find something positive. “He allowed me to stay true to my ideals and to dream big.”

3 Remember why we come to work every day. She encourages people to focus on the positive stories everyone has lived through. Early in her career she was in a meeting at which a patient with colon cancer attended, and spoke of how one of the company’s medicines had successfully treated her cancer and how grateful she was. “I will never forget that moment. This was the day that I realized I will give my all to drug development.” Bahija has repeated this experience for others, recently bringing a 23-year-old lupus patient to a meeting. This woman had already had two hip replacements and was about to have a shoulder replacement. “And all that was not a result of the disease itself, but from the steroids required to keep her lupus in check. She doesn’t have many options. Her story also reminded us why we come to work every day, and our obligation to work with a sense of urgency, because every minute counts.”

4 Give yourself permission to be imperfect. “This has formed the core of my leadership philosophy, and is the advice I give to women and men in the industry. It’s something I taught my daughters as they were growing up.” She counsels that we often get stymied by our pursuit of perfection, and our constant need for approval or fear of perception. By trying to be the perfect mother, perfect partner, perfect business colleague, we hold ourselves back. We convince ourselves not to pursue a new opportunity because we do not know everything needed for this role.

“We think others know more than we do, and that others have it all figured out. I’ll let you in on a little secret: we don’t have to be perfect. No one is perfect.” She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who said “You would not worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Let’s rid ourselves of this perfection and perception problem and empower ourselves to be imperfect.

In sum, she advises we remember these basic things: “Stay true to yourself. Live your passion. Love what you do. Don’t be afraid to fail. Dream big. Good comes from adversity. And don’t worry if the road takes you on surprising detours. Listen to what your heart tells you.”

See Bahija Jallal’s Woman of the Year acceptance speech here

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