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Engineering a Pathway to Business: My Career Transition Journey

“It’s okay to love one path for a season and to discover you love a different one in the next. “

The first time I heard about Biotechnology was when I was 14 years old. I was in my high school Biology class when my teacher explained how groundbreaking it was, engineering biological processes to effectively address real societal issues, such as hunger and health care.

I went on to write emphatically in all my college application essays that my desire was to study Chemical Engineering because of my interest in Biotechnology. Little did I know that some years later, after receiving my Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, I would go on to work for the first ever Biotechnology company, a pharmaceutical company in South San Francisco.

Since I was passionate about science and its applications, I was also pretty sure that I would have a long fulfilling career in engineering, manufacturing lifesaving therapeutics for those that needed them the most. So, imagine my surprise when after 10 years of work as an engineer, with a coveted senior engineer promotion just a month away, I was deeply wresting with accepting a job offer in Drug Pricing of all things!

I had just completed my Master’s in Engineering the previous year, but somehow that journey coupled with soul searching, career counseling, rotations, and networking, was leading to something completely new and exciting: I wouldn’t be making drugs anymore, I would be joining the part of the business that sold them.

Don’t get me wrong, the job offer didn’t just fall into my lap. Nine months earlier after a colleague I met at a networking event put in a good word for me in his team, I was asked to do a rotation in the Pricing, Contracting and Distribution group while the senior strategy manager in that role went on maternity leave. What was meant to be a 5-month stint turned into 6, then 7 months, all the while working my engineering job. And I LOVED every second of it. I loved working more closely with customers, account managers, Brand and sales teams, and taking a nebulous complex problem and coming up with a strategy to execute and quickly seeing the results of it.

When I started the rotation, I looked for ways I could quickly stand out and make an impact with the skills I had built in team leadership, project management and analytical thinking, while I worked behind the scenes with my manager and mentors addressing my learning curve in business principles and market access strategy. I also took real accountability during the rotation and attended every team meeting, off-site, business unit meeting, you name it. I said yes to even the most tedious of challenges and attempted to go over and above for that reputation-building season. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, and my efforts weren’t in vain. A month after ending the rotation, a group manager invited me to interview for a significant role in her Oncology strategy team, and I was both terrified and thrilled. Ultimately, after my promotion to senior engineer, I decided to begin a brand-new career braving the business world.

I discovered many things after I made that leap. Though I had made a lateral career move, in many ways I was starting from scratch, learning new terminology and skills, and still putting in double work to keep up with the pace of significant responsibility. It didn’t take long for it to occur to me that what I was pulling off was kind of a big deal. The first indication was that I suddenly became the poster child for career change, especially for those in my company who already had several years of experience in a particular area under their belt like I did. Every other week I was having coffee chats giving tips based on my journey and letting aspiring career changers know that it’s okay to love one path for a season and to discover you love a different one in the next.

I myself was mentally adjusting to the reality that my identity was no longer going to be a rare black woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), something I didn’t realize had become a part of me. But the more I embraced whatever this change was going to lead to, I understood that what I had known from back when I was a teenager was that I had a calling to Biotechnology and the health care arena. And that calling would still stand regardless of whatever job I worked in. I understood that you can contribute to a specific sphere from all sorts of angles that you haven’t even imagined, if you don’t limit yourself and simply think about how you want to impact the world.

I like what Oprah Winfrey said in her talk to Stanford University’s business school students in 2014: “Everything I have, I let it be fueled by who I am and what I realize my contributions to the planet could be. And my real contribution…it looks like I was a talk show host, it looks like I am in the movies, it looks like I have a network. But my real contribution, the reason why I am here, is to help connect people to themselves…and in the beginning I didn’t realize that”.

Stepping out of my comfort zone has been so rewarding. Not only because of its effect on my career trajectory, but because I have become much more willing to take risks. I have discovered other streams of income, newly registered a business, and recently even started yet another role in a different company, now in management consulting but still Life Sciences focused. I realize it is never too late to bring your perspective and wealth of experience into a brand-new arena, and there is no such thing as starting too late because everything you did before now was critical to your journey.

I encourage you, if your interest is drawing you to different areas, to look for creative ways to answer the call for expansion. You never know what you can create by doing so. As you think about the different career transitions you have already made in life, may still make, and what it could mean to you, I will leave you with a 2005 quote from the late Steve Jobs who spoke about the college calligraphy class that greatly impacted his unique spin on Apple computers.

“If I had never dropped out [of college], I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”

Ugochi Umelo was born and raised as a third culture kid: a native of Imo State, Nigeria, born in Italy and bred in 6 different countries. Her upbringing shaped her into a very curious individual with diverse interests. Some of these include writing anything from poetry to haircare tips, dusting off her piano, taking the occasional voice lesson, buying interesting spices from new travel destinations, and becoming a serial investor.

On a professional note, Ugochi is a life sciences professional specializing in pharmaceutical market access and customer experience. She is driven by a passion for access to therapies that will improve quality of life for those most in need. After spending over 10 years working as a process and project engineer, in 2016 she made the transition to learning the business of pharmaceuticals. Ugochi received her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and her Master’s degree in Engineering Management and Leadership. She is currently working as a life sciences management consultant focused on customer insights and growth. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be reached at ugochi.umelo@gmail.com or www.linkedin.com/in/ugochiumelo.

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