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Executive Conversations – Meet Eli Lilly Foundation President, Cynthia Cardona

Meet Eli Lilly Foundation President, Cynthia Cardona

You’re the daughter of Mexican immigrants; how does your background influence the professional that you are today? 

My parents arrived in Southern California in the early 70s. My father and mother quickly got to work in whatever jobs they could secure – my dad worked assembling/testing outdoor gear and my mother packing envelopes. Both of them understood the value of an education but were limited in this pursuit in the U.S. because of their (immigration) status and their need to provide for a growing family. However, they made it a priority to support the education of their six children because they knew it would provide us with a pathway to success that wasn’t available to them. While I grew up feeling this support despite the numerous challenges that my parents had to navigate, I also saw their tenacity to improve themselves. My mother went on to obtain a Certified Nursing Assistant degree and work in this field after having six children. My father learned and proceeded to work in construction as a contractor. From their sacrifices as well as the immigrant experiences of extended family members, I learned to appreciate any and all opportunities to take on challenges; and when setbacks occurred, to reset and keep going. Most importantly, I learned to do this not just for my benefit, but for the benefit of my family and community. Their perseverance through many challenges – serious job accidents, lay-offs, living paycheck to paycheck, illnesses, limited resources to count on – have always inspired me. I am frequently reminded that no matter how tough things may seem for me, it is no comparison to the challenges my parents and others before me have faced, and I take seriously the responsibility to ensure equitable opportunities for others. 

You started at Eli Lilly and Company as an intern; what was the journey to your current role? 

I’m very grateful for the many different experiences I’ve been afforded at Lilly. It’s amazing to me to think back to how my start at Lilly was through a newly-launched diversity fellowship partnership program between Lilly and the Stanford Graduate School of Business back in 2001. I’m also grateful for this experience because it opened my eyes to so many viable opportunities – marketing, the healthcare industry, and Indiana – I wasn’t considering until that point. I started my one-year pre-MBA internship just after 9/11. While I wondered whether I should be moving away from my husband of three years for a year-long assignment at that time, the opportunity of getting this experience and of having Lilly cover my business school tuition was one that we couldn’t pass up. The sooner I could get a good job without additional loans (on top of my existing ones) to pay back, the more my husband (also an immigrant and first in his family to graduate from college) and I could help our families while planning to start our own. It also seemed like a small sacrifice in comparison to those our families made, so we jumped in and I was off to the Midwest, with a few family visits sprinkled in. After my internship and MBA studies, I started my career at Lilly, and, after moving with my husband and newborn baby to Indianapolis in 2005, quickly found my passion working in consumer marketing. I joined Lilly because I could use my skillset to make a positive impact on the lives of people suffering from serious diseases. Early in my career I joined a team working on solutions for people suffering from depression. This team’s profound understanding and insights of the experiences of people with depression and their ability to connect with them helped me to see the impact of marketing, insights, media and analytics in helping make life better for individuals and their families. From there I went on to additional consumer and other marketing roles, joining various teams focusing on men’s health and immunology; while in my personal life growing our family to three children and caring for family members and exchange students who lived with us over the years. In 2014 an opportunity arose to join the marketing team in Lilly’s Japan affiliate, where I was charged with building our consumer capabilities. My husband, three children (aged four, five and eight at the time) and I moved to Kobe, Japan. After building a team, establishing key capabilities, and launching several successful disease-awareness campaigns, I was asked to stay on for an additional assignment as Chief Marketing Officer of Lilly Japan, overseeing our central marketing capability teams through an important era of digital transformation and innovation. It was a tremendously rewarding experience. I worked in Japan for a total of four-and-a-half years before returning to the States to oversee our Lilly USA Biomedicines Consumer Marketing teams. This was followed by a move into Corporate Affairs, where I was charged with working on our company’s corporate narrative as well as supporting critical efforts such as Lilly’s insulin affordability programs and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Racial Justice efforts. In addition, I co-chaired and led Lilly’s Latinx Employee Resource Group. Through these experiences, I became even more passionate about health equity and, when the role to lead the Social Impact team at Eli Lilly and Company and the Lilly Foundation became available, I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring. To some extent this role brought me back full circle, doing work similar to my initial non-profit work, applying my skills to help vulnerable members of our communities. I’ve been in this role since February 2022. I have a great team and I feel like this is exactly where I need and want to be. What were some of the obstacles that shaped you as a leader? I think the biggest obstacle, especially earlier in my career, was overcoming the perception that because my workstyle was different from the dominant workstyle, I couldn’t be as effective a leader. Dr. Robert Rodriguez, diversity consultant and Latinx talent expert, writes about the Latinx cultural scripts that Latinos in the workplace – in general, not all – tend to display. This includes traits such as humility, respect, collectivism (“we” vs. “I”), which influence the way we approach our work. What I’ve learned over the years is that while these traits can be mistaken as signs that we aren’t as driven or motivated as others, this just isn’t the case; and if we’re aware of the potential perceptions, we can proactively manage them. Furthermore, these cultural traits also positively contribute to our success in many ways. It is a real asset to be team-oriented, to be able to work well with others, and to be focused on “doing” more than “talking” about what you have done. I have found that balancing these with speaking up and actively sharing your perspective; making timely decisions that are yours to make; and communicating about progress, impact and accomplishments in a style that’s true to you are good ways to counter any negative perceptions. 

You have a background in project management and working with scientists in underserved areas; what were your main takeaways from this experience early on in your career? 

When I graduated from college, I wanted to use my engineering skills to make a positive impact. My first job out of college was with a disaster risk management non-profit organization working in vulnerable communities around the world, and partnering with stakeholders in these and the international community from many different sectors: science, local / state / federal government, private, academic, and NGO. I am grateful for the opportunity I had very early on in my career to see how much could be accomplished through these types of collaborations. My role as a member of that non-profit organization was to partner with these communities on the assessment of the risk; to advocate for and facilitate the connection with different stakeholders; as well as to provide a platform that elevated the local needs so they could be effectively addressed. What I learned through this experience was the importance of working side by side with the people in the communities as they of course understood their needs best and therefore knew what could work best in terms of proposed solutions. They also had so much to offer in terms of shared learnings across sectors, cities and countries. In my current role in the healthcare industry, I see a very strong parallel to how we should be working to address the needs of underserved communities both here in the U.S. and globally – it starts from a place of trust; listening to and partnering with communities; truly wanting to understand the root causes contributing to disparities; and then applying the strength of collaborations towards ensuring a positive impact. 

What would you say are the key tenets to your success? 

Success can be measured in many different ways. For me, the fact that I have had a productive career that allows me to help provide for my family, help improve the lives of others, and support the most vulnerable members of our communities is a form of success. The things that I feel have made this possible are the support of my family, being strategic and disciplined in my work, perseverance, and leading with empathy and compassion. While most of these tenets are grounded in early learnings and examples from my family, I have also had great examples in my colleagues, peers, supervisors and mentors. 

In a high-pressured and demanding role such as yours, how do you find work-life balance? 

Work-life balance is tough, but absolutely at the top of my list of how I achieve some semblance of it is having a partner as supportive as my husband. He has been so from the beginning of our relationship despite having his own professional aspirations and career. Whether it was leaving his dream job to move to Indianapolis with me, or interrupting his career to move to Japan for my job, my husband has always been a huge supporter of my career and ensured that we tackled our home and family responsibilities as a team. We also have great support from my parents, who moved out from California to live with us a few years back. Additionally, early in my career, I got really good advice from a boss about the value of outsourcing household chores that can add to our stress. It was tough to justify this expense in the beginning, but it is advice that I have passed along (if feasible for the next person). Finally, I recharge by taking time to do things that help counter the pressure and “fill my cup”; these include making time to connect with family and friends, and mentoring and helping others. 

Do you think executives have a responsibility to pour back into the community? Why? 

Absolutely. When communities in which executives live and work do well, the executive and their company and organization benefit as well, so there is that incentive. But personally, I think the fact that each of us is a part of something bigger is the more compelling reason to contribute to the well-being of our communities. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation organization in the country, talks about the concept of “Radical Kinship”, which I love. For me, pouring back into the community is a must because we are all connected. At Lilly we set and recently hit our $12M goal to support non-profit United Way. Our employees across the U.S. participated in this effort by contributing either to United Way or an eligible non-profit of their choice. Their donation amount was then matched by the Lilly Foundation, a separate entity, with the match going to United Way. This allowed our employees to give to organizations and causes that resonate with them, while also helping local organizations and communities served by United Way. Just as importantly, there are ways to give back to the community that go beyond financial ones. Employees and executives can give of their time and talent by volunteering, serving on boards, sharing their networks and platforms, and advocating for the community. 

You have been passionate about diversity and inclusion; what do you see as the role of corporates in driving equity and inclusion? How do we ensure that all voices are being heard? 

Fortunately, I think the case for diversity and inclusion is stronger and more widely accepted than in years past, and for many companies the question isn’t whether they should be driving diversity and inclusion, but rather how they should be driving it effectively based on their specific circumstances. I see the role of corporations in driving diversity and inclusion as multi-faceted: providing a foundational and consistent platform for all employees to understand what diversity and inclusion are, and why they’re important; setting company goals around diversity and inclusion; and committing resources to ensure the plans and goals can be met. In addition, as is done through partnerships like Business Equity for Indy, companies can come together to ensure that the impact of their efforts is magnified through a collective effort. This includes developing shared goals, strategies to meet them, and sharing of best practices to help all participating companies make progress given they may be at different stages of their journies. At Lilly, our company objectives require that each of our teams embed diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do. Not only do we have company-wide goals and metrics that we need to achieve, but we also set expectations and behaviors for leaders and employees to increase representation, be inclusive, and create equity. We hold leaders across the organization accountable to these goals, expectations and behaviors. 

Do you believe ‘the table’ needs to be reimagined? 

I’m reminded of the recent McKinsey report findings that women are still dramatically underrepresented in leadership, making up only 1 in 4 C-suite executives, and women of color making up 1 in 20. Getting different voices to “the table” is a first step but often not enough. For diverse individuals that may be able to reach “the table,” they may still be the “only” or “one of a few”, meaning voicing and influencing can still be challenging. We definitely need not only more diversity at “the table”, but also a variety of mechanisms by which diverse perspectives and voices can really be heard. For me, this means relying less on closed-meeting decisions where representation is limited and more on open dialogues, forums and/ or councils where diverse perspectives are cultivated, shared and can be leveraged. Companies with DEI teams and Employee Resource Groups have a rich resource in these groups. For example, at Lilly, each of our company’s Executive Committee members sponsor one of our Employee Resource Groups, and this is just one way that issues which are important to our underrepresented groups become known and are elevated to the highest levels of the organization. A recent example was the opportunity to better support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) employees that came out of feedback from the Organization of Latinx Employees at Lilly. The effort was championed by the group’s Executive Sponsor; and our HR, Legal and other teams across Lilly worked together to introduce valuable additional support by covering the costs of filing fees for employment authorization renewals for some of our most vulnerable employees. From a health equity perspective, getting to impactful, sustainable solutions relies on the active engagement of and partnership with the communities facing the disparities being addressed. The traditional “table” of those who have reached it doesn’t cut it. 

What is the change brought about by the inclusion of minorities in leadership positions? 

First and foremost, the inclusion of minoritized persons introduces diversity of perspectives – which in and of itself sparks creativity, innovation, and contributes to a higher degree of success for organizations. With an increasingly diverse city, state, and country, and a growing global economy, these diverse perspectives are a value add because they can help to better connect companies and organizations to their increasingly diverse stakeholders and customers. In addition, representation matters. The inclusion of minorities in leadership positions provides others with examples of what can be aspired to. I talk to many early-career professionals who comment on the importance of being able to see people who look like them in leadership positions. I think this tells them a couple of things: a) there’s at least one path that has been charted by someone who looks like them, and b) the company values them and is willing to invest in their success. 

Looking to the next 10 to 20 years, what will representation look like in corporate America? 

In the next 10 to 20 years, representation should mirror the makeup of our country, which we know is becoming increasingly diverse with Latinos and other racial minorities serving as the United State’s main demographic of population change. Whether or not we make sufficient progress will require bold action and will depend on public policy and private sector efforts to break down existing and systemic barriers; this in addition to corporate America’s ability to accelerate and improve its efforts to attract, retain and effectively develop minority talent. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we should all be eager to do our part to help get us there. 

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