In Conversation with…Helena Yang, Global Head of Organizational Development, Chief Talent Office Team
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.
Helena Yang has more than 20 years of Human Resources (HR) experience in diverse industries across China, Asia and is now working globally based in Europe. She started her career at Arthur Andersen consulting firm in 1996 and has since held a number of leadership positions as HR Head of China & Asia. Helena joined Sanofi in 2014 as HR Head of China, then relocated to our HQ in Paris in 2016 and is currently the Global Head of Organizational Development, Chief Talent Office Team. She graduated from Hong Kong University in marketing communications and earned a master degree in Organization Development and Leadership in the U.S.
Can you remember your earliest goal?
In the 1980s, China had just opened to the world. My dream was one day to speak good English and to have an opportunity to study overseas. Finally, I am working in a multinational company and have become a respectable professional. Today, I’m living beyond my dream; I work at Sanofi headquarters and live in Paris with my family. It’s amazing for me.
Was it a culture shock moving from China to Paris?
Yes! Not just on the professional side but also on the personal. I moved to Paris in May and suddenly, at the end of July I couldn’t reach anyone. Restaurants were closed, supermarkets, the school, no one responded to my emails. I was totally lost and felt so panicked. It was as if the country had shut down. So now I tell my friends that August is a beautiful season to visit Paris but don’t relocate your family!
On a professional level actually it was a nice shock. The first day at the office, more than 20 people had kissed me. As a Chinese person, especially for a woman, we avoid touching, but I felt a warm welcome and connection. It’s also the first thing I wanted to learn, to adapt and show my commitment to be a local.
How is success seen in China?
We say, “A good marriage is much better than a good job”. The overall mentality in China today still says that as a woman if you have a good marriage and kids, that’s the ideal. If you are only successful in your career people think you are tough, aggressive and less feminine.
Overall, gender balance in terms of quantity in China is quite good. So the Chinese government promotes women and men equally. But there is still a gap in gender equality. Top positions and business leaders are still dominated by men, so there is still a lot of traditional social pressure on women.
For me, success means having a meaningful job where I can learn, grow and make an impact. Of course, a good family and friendships are very important for me as well. I believe life is about experience and taking risks and trying different things. My friends say they see that I’m stronger and they value my experience. So I also want to use my own experience to encourage my friends, especially my female friends, to step out of their comfort zone and take risks.
Was moving here a big risk for you?
This is the biggest decision in my whole life so far. I left my comfort zone, my family, my friends, I left my country to live in a new one, which is especially hard as I can’t speak French. I felt less confident in the beginning. China is an Eastern culture and I moved to a Western culture. So this was not an easy decision. I appreciate my family’s support, especially my husband’s, but at the same time, my parents were so worried, and even today they say this decision is not smart, you put too much effort into your job, you should really spend more time with your family. I understand why they have those concerns, but for my daughter I want to be a good role model and make sure she creates her own path and not one defined by society or culture.
Any advice for someone making the same move?
Seize the opportunity, don’t hesitate, because it’s so rewarding and such a valuable experience. Before you come, prepare, take some culture training, but be strong, be resilient, never give up.
What dreams do you still have to achieve?
Recognizing China is a big growth market for Sanofi, my dream is that Chinese talent is not only recognised as Chinese talent, but will be recognised as global talent as well. That’s why I’m so passionate about my job and I want to support all the talents from China, all the female talents from Asia and China to be recognised as global talents at Sanofi.
I am living my dream life right now; next year I will go back to Shanghai, my home, and my dream is to continue my current role and bring back my experience, my knowledge, to support Sanofi China for a further success.