Profile with Shehnaaz Suliman

Shehnaaz Suliman (South Africa-at-Large & Balliol 1997) is currently a Group Leader in Immunology, Neuroscience and Infectious Diseases at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group in California where she is responsible for advancing innovative therapies for diseases that are now not well served by medicine.  Her previous positions include Senior Director of Corporate Development at Gilead where she led the acquisition and licensing strategy for Gilead into new therapeutic areas and Vice President of the Petkevich Group as well as a Healthcare Investment Banker at Lehman Brothers.  Dr. Suliman is an M.D. who attended the University of Cape Town Medical School.  She has worked as a Senior Clinical Officer in a wide range of public and private hospitals in the United Kingdom and South Africa.  She has also worked as a Medical Research Council Scholar and Research Team Leader at the University of Cape Town.  She holds an MBA with Distinction and MPhil degree in Development Studies from Oxford University.

Rhodes Project: How did you first become interested in medicine?

Shehnaaz Suliman: My interest in clinical medicine was born out of lived experience.  I grew up in South Africa, in a very low socio-economic neighborhood with very little access to healthcare.  So from a very young age I was aware of the disparities in health economics and health access that exist and I developed a strong desire to be helpful to people.  Although I am no longer a licensed physician in the US, I still do other things that strongly leverage my clinical background. 

Rhodes Project: What led you to pursue a degree in business at Oxford after getting your medical qualification?

Shehnaaz Suliman: It fundamentally came down to impact.  While you can be extremely impactful as an individual, rendering personalized healthcare to individuals, I felt that my ability to have a greater impact on populations would be possible if I were operating at a different level.  So I decided to pursue degrees in economics and business to try to determine what would be the best way – either in a public health context or a private sector context – to enable initiatives that could be widespread and have a broader impact.

Rhodes Project: What is a favorite memory you have of your time at Oxford?

Shehnaaz Suliman: The thing I derived the most value from was building relationships with an amazing cohort of individuals who have gone on to have an amazing impact on the world in so many different places.  These are people who I count as my nearest and dearest friends, and who continue to be a source of personal and professional inspiration in my daily life. 

Rhodes Project:Tell me about a favorite past project of yours.

Shehnaaz Suliman: One of the things I am most proud of is the project I worked on to enable access for HIV medications in the developing world.  I was working at the time at Gilead Sciences, a global leader in the provision of HIV drugs.  Gilead has transformed the nature of the disease by providing one pill, taken once a day, that has meant that a person diagnosed with HIV can have ostensibly the same quality of life and overall survival, more or less, as someone who is unaffected.  This has been a huge advance for the field given the nature of AIDS as we knew it. 

One of the big challenges has been about how to make these HIV medications available and accessible to people in developing countries where the burden of the disease is most highly felt.  So at Gilead, the task was left to the general counsel and me to think creatively about constructing mechanisms and public and private partnerships to facilitate access to our medications.  The solution we proposed at the time was to partner with generic producing companies in India to make cheap copies of our drugs at the lowest possible cost.  We would facilitate this by giving them access to our technology and help them do this in the most efficient and cost effective way possible.  You might say, well that in itself doesn’t seem like that much of a big deal, yet it was, because the branded versions of the drugs are still sold on patent.  It’s one thing if you are facilitating access after a drug has gone off patent but it’s quite another to reach over to the other side and say, “We’re going to do this because we think it’s the right thing to do.  We are going cut years off of your development timeline by giving you access to our corporate secrets and branded technology.” 

When we started this program there were a few thousand people in the developing world on HIV drugs. By the time we had completed the license, we had several million people on them. 

Rhodes Project: What kind of opposition did you receive from corporate groups?

Shehnaaz Suliman: They thought we were crazy.  They said we were contravening one of the fundamental principles around patent law, which is that you are allowed to recoup the costs of research and development on your investments because you have patents.  But we also had a lot of support.  We had a lot of support from Capitol Hill and a lot of support from the National Institute of Health.  Honestly, we were fundamentally driven by the fact that it was the right thing to do.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you?

Shehnaaz Suliman: I’m fortunate in that I grew up in the developing world.  Growing up in South Africa, some members of my family were anti-apartheid activists and I was a part of the mass democratic movement in South Africa, lobbying for the release of Nelson Mandela and for change.  I remember spending most of my high school years going to protests, throwing stones at the South African Defense Force vehicles and getting tear-gassed.  We were fortunate enough to be able to effect change to a democracy peacefully because of the leaders we had – Mandela and de Klerk facilitated that.  But for those of us on the ground, it was very much a case of needing to have the courage to stand up for an ideal and to fight for it in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  So I think that a strongly rooted sense of justice has always been a part of my identity because of my early life experience.  That desire to do the right thing is something which remains with me to do this day, forms part of my personal mission and inspires me to do the kind of work I do.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen year old self?

Shehnaaz Suliman: One thing I would tell myself is not to forget to have a balanced life.  In some ways, when you have great drive, it’s easy to be so focused and motivated all the time but then you can forget to maintain balance: you have to think about your personal happiness; you have to think about having fun; you have to think about how to maintain good work-life balance.  I would have told myself – remember to enjoy your life as well.  I think I do a good job in finding time to exercise and to see my friends and family who mean the world to me, but like many personality types who tend to be highly focused, the balance can sometimes be off.

Rhodes Project: Do you think this issue is especially resonant for women?

Shehnaaz Suliman: Absolutely – particularly if you’re a working mother, which I am.  I think that’s part of the big biological divide which occurs – even if you are someone who is completely independent and autonomous, you recognize when you have children that their fundamental dependence on you as their mother is something that cannot be replaced or substituted by someone else.  You have to realize that you cannot be great at every single aspect of your life.  You have to make peace with that trade-off – which is very hard for people who strive for perfection all the time.  I still want to retain my identity and have an impact on the world, but now I have an identity as a mother and caregiver which to a certain extent takes priority over everything else.

Rhodes Project: If you had a month long sabbatical, what would you do with it?

Shehnaaz Suliman: I would make exercise a clear priority, both physical and mental.  I would take time to reflect on where I am in my life and take time to rebalance my priorities if need be.  I would take time to write and reflect on experiences and continue to be aspirational.  And I would take time to be actively grateful for many wonderful opportunities and people that are in my life, and for the privilege of being able to live the kind of life that I can and have control over the choices I’ve made in my life.  I think every day we get wrapped up in the demands of our lives professionally and personally and we spend so little time reflecting on who we are.  A little bit of introspection would serve me well.  I would come out a better person for it. 

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