In Conversation with … Folake Odediran, General Manager and Country Chair for Sanofi in Nigeria and Ghana

Women@Sanofi celebrates our highly successful women who work with dedication and passion across our teams worldwide to deliver solutions in healthcare for everyone, everywhere. In this series of conversations, discover who they really are, what drives them and the rich mix of cultures and perspectives they bring to the table. As individuals they lead the way and push the boundaries, and as a whole they embody our engagement and actions to instill gender equality into the fabric of everything we say and do.  

Folake Odediran has almost 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, where she worked in sales, marketing and business development. A native Nigerian, Folake holds a Bachelors of Pharmacy from Ahmadu Bello University, an M.B.A. in Marketing from Lagos State University and a Master of Science in Marketing from the Edinburgh Business School. She started her career as a medical representative and joined Sanofi in October 2014 as Marketing Director for the Ethical Franchise in Lagos, Nigeria. She was appointed to her current position as General Manager and Country Chair for Sanofi in Nigeria and Ghana in October 2017.

Ahead of the 44th year of International Women’s Day on March 8, we spoke to Folake about gender balance at work and in her private life. 

Tell us more about you as a child

As a child, I loved to read. But beyond that, I have always loved to talk. As a child, I wanted to be a lawyer, to advocate for a cause, something I believe in, something I am convinced about. That was the five-year-old me.

How did your career path evolve?

I was raised by my maternal grandmother. She had this preconception that law was probably not the best of careers for an average woman. She believed that if you are a lawyer, it means you cannot maintain integrity. So she kind of discouraged me from reading law. I read pharmacy at university and my career path just evolved naturally. When I graduated, I went for the mandatory one-year internship program. During the program, every time patients or customers called to get their medication, I found myself counselling, encouraging, admonishing. Someone said to me, “You will be a very good pharmaceutical sales person.” My career started as a medical sales representative and then it evolved into brand management, marketing and sales management and eventually where I am today as General Manager and Country Chair for Sanofi in Nigeria and Ghana.

I have had an opportunity to defend courageously, to pursue relentlessly and to stand up for something. In a way, I have been able to connect the dots to the five-year-old me.

What role does gender balance play for you, both in your job and in your private life?

The environment I am from, the culture I was raised in is one that probably needs to give more opportunity to children, to women, and to the poor. And the implication of that is that I have never allowed anything to limit me. So, growing up, I went for my dreams and I gave my dreams everything they required. As a leader now, I am able to speak up, not just for myself but for fellow women. But beyond that, I am able to speak up for as many people as I have the privilege of working with and leading. In my view, gender balance is something our society needs to do something about. We need to be very deliberate. It is a cause we have to be intentional about. We probably need to create opportunities, reorient, as it were, a kind of reorientation for everyone with regards to the fact that all men are born equal and people come with different capabilities and abilities. And the only way we can get the beautiful culture or society that we will all be proud of is to create a platform where everyone can have a say and everyone can be comfortable just being who they are. 

Does gender balance play a role in the way you recruit?

As a manager, you want to look at capabilities, but it is also critical that you look at how many men you have relative to women. Having appointed me as General Manager and Country Chair in an environment that is otherwise perceived as a man’s world is a good indication [of the importance of gender balance]. So it does play a role in how I recruit, but again, the idea is not to position women only and put men at a disadvantage but to evolve to a form of equality.

What advice would you give to women who want to be in leadership positions?

If there is one piece of advice I would give them, it would be they should not reengineer themselves to get a role; they should just come as they are. And I will tell you why, when you operate in your default element, you are at your best! When you try to be who you are not or what you are not, you struggle. My advice would be to fight for your dream, fight for it with all that you have got. Give it all that it takes and be disciplined about it. And don’t be intimidated. I have never considered my gender a limitation. When I see something that I desire to be part of, I go for it and I give it all that it will take. So my advice: keep at it, don’t give up. Give yourself some credit and just go for your dream! 

What could tip the balance in favor of gender balance?

I think we need to speak up about it more. I strongly believe that we must accept our individuality. Being a woman does not make you less than a man. I believe the way we raise our children really could be a tipping point. I have grown to be the woman that I am because of certain factors that played a role when I was growing up. I had someone who told me I am great just because I am me. And I dared to believe. We need to create opportunities for people, for women to rise to positions of leadership and give them the necessary support. 

What does success mean to you?

For me success is an attitude. It is an orientation. Success is not about that big thing I am going to do tomorrow; success is about the small things that I do every day. It is the achievement of goals, either that I have set for myself or that I believe I am meant to pursue and achieve.

Do you still have an unfulfilled dream?

Yes: to have a family of my own and to have kids.

And professionally you have already gone very far…

I truly consider myself very privileged to have gone this far. I am grateful for all the people that have given me this opportunity, including at Sanofi. For me, it is not only about the next role, it is about the next challenge. I’d like to see myself advocate at a higher realm, probably in government. I’ll be proud to be part of something yet bigger than me. There are very few black CEOs of multinational organizations. I am not sure it is a dream that is unattainable.