Head of Government Affairs and Advocacy, Otsuka America Pharma
Hometown: Nyeri, Kenya
- BS, University of Maryland
Selected work history:
- Manager, External Affairs, Baxter Healthcare, 2001-2012
- Assistant Program Executive, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, 1996-1999
Molly Ryan can say with a good bit of certainty that she’s the only biotech lobbyist who began her career hosting the morning show on an FM radio station in Kenya. Now at Rockville, Maryland-based Otsuka, Ryan is responsible for directing federal policy strategies to increase disease awareness, treatment options, and access to therapies. She’s been on the board of Women In International Trade Trust, whose mission is to develop trade-education modules for girls in high school and support collegiate women studying international trade. More recently, she helped found Washington Heads of Office with Bradley Knox of Aflac. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you have a moment that you consider to be a pivotal moment in your career?
I’m a believer that there is no singular point that defines someone’s career or life. That has always been my mantra. I think that it’s more of a mosaic and a collection of experiences that continue to define my own journey, including working for the first FM radio station in Kenya, 101.9 Metro FM. That is where I first cut my teeth, and I did the Morning Express seven days a week from 5 to 10 a.m. every day. We covered news, music, sports, weather—you name it. And coming to the United States—I was born and raised in Kenya, so coming to the United States and a rebirth of my professional journey and love affair with the health care industry.
Do you have somebody who you view as a career mentor or who was important to you in guiding your career path?
I would have to say my mother—who was a single mother, working two jobs, raising four kids on a shoestring budget in Kenya—is probably my ultimate role model, my “she-ro.” I think of her tenacity to push all of us to be fierce competitors, to always strive for excellence, so I think that she is always the person to come to mind. And I lost my sister three years ago to breast cancer, and it was a long journey for her with breast cancer. My journey and deep passion for wanting to be embedded in our health care community deeply stems from that.
How did her struggle with breast cancer change your approach in the health care community?
I’d have to say that we always learn because of an experience of sorts. So I would say when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, no one in my family had been diagnosed with cancer before. It was almost like a moment in time when we didn’t believe it—like, “Oh, my God, how is this even possible?” And even her journey and her sacrifices just made me a firm believer in the work we do, especially on the manufacturer side. Not everything can be solved by medicine, but at the same time medicines actually help. They helped her for a period of almost 10 years to live with breast cancer.
Since you first came to Washington, what are some of the things that have changed about the nature of your work?
I used to feel more that we would be able to get together, Republicans and Democrats, when we were starving on the streets of D.C. and we would just argue and debate on issues and positions, and I felt that there was more openness to actually having dialogue. Now, I feel like it’s just so much polarization, maybe it’s just a lack of time and bandwidth—people don’t actually take the time to just sit together and talk about the issues without being labeled Democrat or Republican, or too left or too right.
Do you have a theory as to why that’s a change?
I feel like people now just gravitate to their corner. Social media also has brought a lot of attention to what folks are doing. I remember a story that one of the members talked about when a photograph of them was taken shaking hands with someone from the other side, and they got vilified for that. And I’m going, “Why?” Social media is a great tool—don’t get me wrong—but I feel like it also has pushed people to their corners. It doesn’t allow people to see the real conversation taking place.
What policy issues currently are at the forefront? What issues are the most important to you?
I would have to say I think we’re at a cusp in the country where we saw the murder of George Floyd and a movement that arose from that. It wasn’t the first time we were seeing police violence that has resulted in the death of someone of color. I think that being at home and having a lot of time has pushed people to be even more energetic about their positions. So I feel like we are at a cusp in a moment in time in terms of social justice and what we individually need to be doing, wherever you are in your organization.
That’s one of the things I’ve been busy with even in our own organization, where we’re very reflective of that. You know, we didn’t have a very intentional program in inclusion. What could we be doing differently? How do we even start that conversation? We are a very diverse company, but we haven’t been intentional in our inclusion initiatives or even programming.
The other thing, too, is we think about where we are with COVID and people being isolated at home. I think there was a report that came out that said one in three people now are experiencing depression or some behavioral-health challenge. We as a company are focused in that area, so that has also been keeping me busy.
Especially in a time of COVID, issues of racial justice require conversations with people. What role are you playing in that environment where people are working from home?
You know, it’s not always that we talk about race at the place of work; it’s not always that we talk about inclusion at the place of work. It was uncomfortable to talk about race; it was personal, because this is something that we’ve witnessed before. But again, I think it just had a more profound impact—I think being home and working from home, it just hit very personally. And being more reflective in terms of what I could be doing from where I sit within my organization, where I sit within my network, to make a difference. …
It was also being courageous to actually talk about it in a place of work where it’s not the first thing that you talk about. …. It’s being comfortable to actually talk about it and to share openly. I’m just so glad that Otsuka—I feel like my place of work actually allows for that, where we could really talk about things that are bothering us, people even [getting] emotional talking about what is happening within the country, and that being OK; that is an OK place and a safe place to have these conversations, and again being more reflective of, what we are going to do about it? What was our role in making sure that we were creating change ? I think that was something that was at the forefront of my mind.
Do you feel like there is a desire in Washington to address issues of racial injustice at a policy level ?
Absolutely you have a large body of members that are diverse, and there is a desire to want to do something. I think it’s the question of, “How do we make sure that it’s the right thing to do?” It’s that we’re not lumping every single law enforcement officer as a bad apple, right? How do we make sure that we’re stepping away from that to say, “How do we make sure that this change in policy is meaningful and that it has an impact in Black and brown communities, and what does that actually look like?” I think that there’s a desire.
Let me add, I think the corporate community has a role to play in this, because I think as organizations we’re thinking, “This is not the way we want to conduct ourselves.”
Since we’re on the topic of diversity, I wanted to ask from that particular perspective what has changed in government affairs since you’ve arrived in Washington, and what would you like to see change in the future ?
There are so many more government-affairs professionals [of color] than when I started nearly 19 years ago. And while that growth has been very slow, I have to also recognize and acknowledge that it is happening. The next answer is that it probably isn’t happening fast enough. I am glad that it is happening—the work that we are doing in the Washington Heads of Office in grooming the next generation of leaders of color to be heads of government-affairs offices.
What are your hopes for that organization going into the next year or next five years from now?
The short term is just creating that network connecting the recruiters. This year, I cannot tell you the number of people that have reached out asking me, “Hey, do you know a diverse set of candidates for this position?” “Could you help us?” “What’s in your network?” I’m excited that we’re at this place where you have other leaders within other organizations reaching [out].
The long term is to have this bench be more than just the 40-plus people that we have as Washington HOO. Multiply that by two, multiply that three, and I know, as I mentioned before it is a slow growth, but it is growth. We’re hoping as part of our visibility in Washington HOO that we can have even more of a conversation and more of a platform where others can tap into this network, and make sure that not only are the networks grooming the next talent and next generation, but that those folks translate and become the next heads of office. That to me will be success.
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