Swati Piramal, Director of Piramal Healthcare || The Forum at HSPH | Summary and Q&A

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July 19, 2012
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Harvard University
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Swati Piramal, Director of Piramal Healthcare || The Forum at HSPH

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Summary

In this video, Dr. Swati Pierre Mel, a leading scientist and industrialist in India, discusses her experiences as a female leader in healthcare and the decisions she has made throughout her career. She shares the importance of knowledge, action, and service in driving change and encourages young entrepreneurs to challenge conventions and make a difference in the world. Dr. Pierre Mel also talks about the challenges she faced and the lessons she learned along the way.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel's encounter with a paralyzed child inspire her to make a difference in healthcare?

Dr. Pierre Mel recounts seeing a four-year-old girl paralyzed from the waist down due to polio in Mumbai. This sight deeply impacted her, and she realized that she could use her knowledge of public health to help prevent such cases. She started doing skits and creating awareness programs to address the lack of understanding around polio and implemented an immunization program in the area. Ten years later, due to the success of the prevention program, the facility was no longer needed. This experience taught her that even as a young student, she could make a significant difference.

Q: What were the challenges faced by India in terms of healthcare, and how did Dr. Pierre Mel address them?

Dr. Pierre Mel discovered that India faced a triple whammy of health challenges: tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases, as well as the rise of chronic diseases due to lifestyle changes. Initially, she faced skepticism from others who didn't believe chronic diseases existed in India due to its poverty levels. However, she persevered in creating awareness and implementing preventive measures. Later on, she also faced the emergence of new diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis and bird flu. Despite India ranking low in various health indicators, Dr. Pierre Mel remains hopeful and emphasizes the importance of organizing institutions to create a world-class space focused on excellence.

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel transition from a medical background to becoming an industrialist and leader in healthcare?

Dr. Pierre Mel shares her journey of taking over a pharmaceutical company called Nicholas Laboratories in 1988 with her husband. Despite not having a background in management or marketing, she recognized the need to learn these skills to run the business effectively. She studied various subjects, including healthcare management, marketing, regulation, information technology, and finance, at Harvard University. The knowledge gained helped her grow the company, and eventually, they sold part of it to Abbott for $3.8 billion. Dr. Pierre Mel emphasizes the importance of using knowledge gained through education to create economic value while maintaining ethics and scientific excellence.

Q: What values did Dr. Pierre Mel build her business on, and how did they contribute to her success?

Dr. Pierre Mel highlights three values: Guiana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion or service). She believes in continuously acquiring knowledge and using that knowledge to drive action. She shared a story of Ramanujan, a mathematician who persevered despite being poor and eventually became one of India's greatest scientists. According to Dr. Pierre Mel, being well-read in different subjects empowers one to speak with authority and make an impact. She also emphasizes the importance of service and making a positive difference in the lives of others. These values helped her build a business rooted in ethics, scientific excellence, and customer assurance.

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel find the courage to challenge conventions and push forward in her career?

Dr. Pierre Mel attributes her courage to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita. She learned from Gandhi that to see change in her country, she needed to be the force she wanted her country to be. Her belief in the power and potential of Indian science and her determination to innovate and create positive change in healthcare motivated her to challenge conventional wisdom. She shared an example of taking on CNN when they falsely portrayed her company's drug as harmful. Dr. Pierre Mel says that believing in oneself while defending one's values and principles is crucial for pushing past obstacles and making a difference.

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel foster a culture of service and devotion in her company?

Dr. Pierre Mel believes that simple actions can foster a culture of service and devotion. For example, she observed that doctors in her clinic were not physically engaging with the patients, so she trained them to pick up and hug the children before treating them. This small change made a significant impact on patient perception and satisfaction. She also focused on reducing waiting times in the clinic because she considered it unethical for patients to lose a day's work waiting for medical attention. As a leader, she defended her values and beliefs, even when facing opposition, and encouraged her employees to prioritize ethical standards and the well-being of their customers.

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel address challenges related to resource limitations?

Dr. Pierre Mel shared examples of how she addressed resource limitations while working on public health projects. In her polio prevention program, she realized that incentivizing compliance was crucial. She approached her father-in-law, who ran a textile mill, and requested a donation of colorful cloth. They distributed two meters of cloth to mothers after their children completed the immunization course. This incentivized compliance and made a significant impact. Dr. Pierre Mel also mentioned her low-cost program for osteoporosis awareness, through which she used postcards to educate people about the disease. These examples highlight her innovative approach to addressing resource limitations and overcoming challenges.

Q: How did Dr. Pierre Mel change the perception of Indian science and innovation?

Dr. Pierre Mel faced skepticism about Indian science and innovation, with many believing that India couldn't be innovative and only focused on copying from the West. However, she strongly believed in Indian science and filed numerous patents for her discoveries. With perseverance and determination, she successfully changed the perception by demonstrating the value of Indian science through her own innovations. She highlighted the importance of looking to nature and Mother Earth for inspiration and learning, leading to the discovery of new drugs and cutting-edge technologies. Dr. Pierre Mel believes that true innovation comes from understanding and embracing the uniqueness and potential of one's own country.

Q: How can the School of Public Health inspire young entrepreneurs and cultivate a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship?

Dr. Pierre Mel believes that the School of Public Health should not only be for the public sector but should also breed young entrepreneurs who can learn management skills and commercialize science, ultimately changing the world. She mentioned meeting young students during a trip to India who had started their own companies and had a passion for making a difference. Dr. Pierre Mel emphasized the need for curriculum changes to stimulate entrepreneurship and provide practical education on commercialization and management. She sees young entrepreneurs as the hope for the future, capable of solving critical healthcare issues in a more efficient and timely manner than a slow and bureaucratic government.

Q: What message does Dr. Pierre Mel have for women aspiring to become leaders in India?

Dr. Pierre Mel acknowledges the paradoxical status of women in India, where there are women leaders at the community level but limited opportunities for many others. She believes that women should have the courage to challenge societal norms and beliefs that hold them back. Dr. Pierre Mel highlights the importance of taking action, citing the metaphor of Prince Arjuna picking up his bow and fighting for what is right. She encourages women to juggle multiple responsibilities and pursue their goals, emphasizing the need for mentors and role models in inspiring and supporting them along the way.

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