In Conversation with… Sandra Silvestri, Senior VP, Head of Global Medical Affairs, General Medicines & Emerging Markets Business Unit at Sanofi

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.

Sandra is a medical doctor, who specialized in Endocrinology & Metabolic Diseases. She holds a PhD in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Disease and a Masters degree in Genetics, Rheumatology & Metabolic Bone disease. She began her career as a researcher in Endocrinology and Immunology in Florence and later in Denmark, and went on to work in a hospital as head of the Endocrine and Diabetes Unit. In 2005, she joined the pharmaceutical world in Italy as a Senior Clinical Research Physician for Internal Medicine and in 2012 she took an assignment in Indianapolis to work on a global project on R&D and Medical Affairs. After that she was appointed Eli Lilly’s Senior Medical Director for Italy and all South and Central European countries. Sandra joined Sanofi in 2015 as the Vice President, Head of European Medical Affairs and in 2016 she was appointed Senior Vice President, Head of Global Medical Affairs for the General Medicines and Emerging Markets business unit. She has maintained an academic role as a professor at the Medical School, University of Florence.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

My ambition was to become a singer, but pretty early on I had to face the brutal reality that I wasn’t any good. I was ambitious, very tough, because I am the youngest of three girls, and the other two were pretty tough too, so I found my way in the family by fighting against the sisters! Then I fell in love with science and took the decision to study medicine, because I felt I could do something that was relevant and have an impact on people’s lives.

I’m an endocrinologist and I was the head of a diabetes unit in a hospital before joining the pharma world.

What brought you to Paris?

I spent a couple of years in Denmark, my first expatriation to a country where I didn’t speak the language so I had to find my way once again. It was a wonderful experience. Then there was the chance to move to Indianapolis for work after joining the pharmaceutical world. It was good for the family, for the kids, it opened their minds, and for my career. When the opportunity to join Sanofi in Paris came up, we decided as a family to move to France rather than stay in Indianapolis. 

Was it an easy move?

The funny part is that after moving to the US I thought moving to France would be easy, because the Italians and the French have a lot of historical background together. But I was wrong. The biggest challenge has been finding a way through the administration without speaking the language and all the paperwork! It’s been quite challenging.

How is your French now?

I’m improving. I understand almost everything and I can speak French with friends, but in a work-related context I prefer English.

As part of your role at Sanofi, you have a place on the Gender Balance Board…

Yes, we have the Gender Balance Board and the Leadership Network, and I have the pleasure of coordinating those two groups. Over the past year, we’ve clearly defined the company vision, our strategy on gender balance, the roadmap and the concrete steps needed to get there. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve achieved so far because some concrete actions have already taken place such as training and engagement campaigns as well as changes in our company policies to accommodate work/life integration. There’s a lot more cooking in the kitchen and we’ll see the results pretty soon.

I’ve always experienced gender discrimination. I have a daughter and I don’t want her to have the same experience, to have to fight the same battles or to demonstrate twice her value or to have fewer rights or level of opportunities as her brother.

Do you see a difference in gender balance between Italy, Paris and the U.S.?

Italy is very old-fashioned, especially in the family context. I think it’s pretty similar to France in this regard. The U.S. is more advanced in this sense. But in a work-related context I think the three countries are more or less the same.

In my own life we made the family choice to move to another country and to do that my husband had to quit his job. So, being an Italian man, it’s not easy but it was a good choice for the family, for the kids and he has always been very supportive of my career. 

What do you do when you’re not working?

I am a very curious person; I love arts, sports, museums, movies, and cooking. And I love studying. In the future, when I have some time I’d like to study something new, science-related, philosophy, physics or something completely different.

I love taking part in big fishing competitions. I do it with the kids. It’s a way of being all together so we go fishing all over the place, lakes, seas, rivers. In Paris we fish in the Seine, but we only eat them if we fish in the sea.

How do you define success?

Being happy with who you are and what you do, doing something coherent with your personal human values, feeling that you are really adding value and having an impact. As a physician, improving and changing people’s lives makes me happy.

What was the last book that made an impact on you?

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, was very interesting. I really identified with it. I made several notes on everyday integration of work/life, the daily support you need, the parity you need to have at home to have the same workload. I go back to the book from time to time rereading the notes.

Best advice you’ve ever been given?

Never give up; even when confronting big challenges that you think you’ll never be able to fight. Even if you fail, it’s a learning opportunity. I decided to join the pharmaceutical world, because it was a challenge and I found that it’s the place where I want to be. Another challenge was when I was working as an emergency physician on a helicopter I realized I was pregnant! It wasn’t easy, but in the end I managed.

Did you ever give singing another go?

Yes, sure, I also took lessons, but in the end my teacher told me that I sounded like a fish. So there was no hope for me. But in the future it is something I would really like to try again, to take lessons and to see if finally I can make it!