Life Sciences

Henny Zijlstra reflects on her 15+ years in pharmaceuticals

In its series of interviews with women in science, LSKH spoke to the Chief Commercial Officer at Adragos Pharma. She has a steadfast commitment to putting customers first, driving the company’s mission to deliver exceptional experiences and outcomes.

Q. Have you faced obstacles in the pharmaceutical industry that were directly related to being a woman?

A. This may not be reflective of the pharmaceutical industry, but I have never felt inferior to men. However, after becoming a mother, I’ve become acutely aware of the pervasive bias against women. This bias is particularly apparent for working mothers, building on the existing guilt we feel and adding an unnecessary layer of judgment on top of our responsibilities.


Q. What has been your greatest accomplishment?

A. Doing a job I enjoy provides me with great satisfaction. Often, joy and happiness are undervalued, but they are essential to keep us motivated and enable us to handle demanding workloads. Ensuring the family’s happiness is also a significant achievement.

Q. What types of skills do women in the pharmaceutical industry need to develop or improve upon?

A. Women should pursue what they are passionate about and be proud of their accomplishments. Misconceptions exist that women should remain silent and keep their opinions to themselves. However, I firmly believe that women should take pride in expressing themselves and advocating for their beliefs. Remember, other women are not your competition — we should support and uplift each other.

Q. Who inspired you, as a younger woman and what advice would you give to young women aspiring to follow your path?

A. My parents inspire me. My mum, in an era when societal norms dictated women’s place to be at home, pursued her career and traveled the world. Equally remarkable is my dad, who supported her growth.

Finding your passion is a journey worth taking, embracing both highs and lows. Stumbling along the way is natural and part of the process. The key is perseverance and seeking guidance from role models, who can provide insights and motivation. Your capabilities are limitless and, with relentless effort, you can achieve great things.

Q. What career path led you to this prestigious role at Adragos Pharma?

A. Reflecting on my 15+ years in the pharmaceutical industry, I didn’t come into it with a predetermined plan. I’ve always embraced opportunities as they presented themselves. One such defining moment came when Andreas Raabe, Chief Executive Officer of Adragos Pharma, reached out to me about the role of Chief Commercial Officer. Despite the challenges, I recognised the growth potential and embraced the opportunity.

Transitioning from one of the largest CDMOs to a smaller, private equity-backed CDMO was not without its challenges. However, these career shifts are crucial for personal and professional development. I often remind myself that I am not rooted in place, but have the power to move.

Q. How important is it to educate and mentor emerging female leaders in the industry?

A. Having a supportive mentor and coach is pivotal to career advancement. Mentoring younger individuals has not only been rewarding, but it has also kept my skills sharp and relevant. While formal education is important, I strongly believe that hands-on experience is equally valuable. Despite not having a background in chemistry or pharmacy, I’ve managed to progress in my career, demonstrating the power of dedication and adaptability. I prioritise creating an inclusive work environment, sharing knowledge and supporting professionals regardless of gender. By eliminating discrimination and fostering diversity, we can unlock the full potential of our teams and drive innovation.

Q. Have you observed or experienced any barriers to gaining opportunities that support career progression in the pharmaceutical field (for example, how individuals are selected for involvement in international activities, team leader, committees, etc)?

A. The only comment I recall was about limitations relating to caring for small children, but when I suggested that the children’s father could help, this comment was dismissed.

Q. Does your place of work put emphasis on diversity and inclusion and promote the concept of women in leadership?

A. At Adragos Pharma, the majority of our organisation is female! I believe we hire the right people for the job. We strive to foster an environment where all people, regardless of gender, have equal opportunities. We also actively support the advancement of women in leadership roles. However, I acknowledge that during interviews for the CCO role, being a woman may have helped.

Q. Much of the workforce has been working online or WFH for the past couple of years. Have you noticed whether this new way of working has improved or hindered the situation of women in the workplace?

A. Having a flexible work arrangement has been incredibly beneficial for women. It has provided much-needed flexibility to balance work and family life. I’ve been working from home since 2015 and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Despite the frequent travel, having the opportunity to enjoy breakfast with the kids and then be at my desk by 9 am is a luxury that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Q. In your opinion, what can we do to increase female participation in the pharmaceutical field?

A. Showcasing our female leaders in promotional materials will be instrumental in highlighting the diversity and strength of our leadership team. Moreover, featuring individuals like myself, who have achieved success without a traditional Ph.D. or pharmaceutical background, sends a powerful message about the opportunities for growth and success within the pharmaceutical industry. This emphasis on showcasing female leaders, diverse career paths and accomplishments can inspire others and contribute to a more inclusive and dynamic company culture.