Facing Fears & Embracing Change – How Mentorship Shaped My Career
Rebecca Sendak, Head of Sanofi’s R&D North America Hub, shares her career journey and how mentorship and self-reflection helped shape her path.
I have had a very rewarding career journey over the past twenty years from bench scientist through global leader in a highly technical scientific field. Last year, I decided to be bold and take a leap of faith to the next level of my career. In honor of International Women’s Day—celebrated around the world on March 8th—I wanted to share my journey, and how mentorship and self-reflection helped shape my path.
When I think of a mentor, I think of someone who not only guides you but is also a role model. I’ve had several great mentors throughout my life, from high school to graduate school, and throughout my professional career. Even as early as high school, I had a few teachers who really supported and helped develop my interest in science. I had one teacher in particular who was a strong role model and supporter, and I credit her with my path into the sciences.
Mentorship should also challenge you to take risks. As an undergraduate, one of my professors pulled me aside and said something that would change my path forever. She noticed I was getting good grades in introductory chemistry and said, “Why aren’t you a chemistry major?” She encouraged me to go in a different direction with my major, which set me on the path for studying chemistry, and eventually I earned my Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry.
Similarly, in 2015, I took on the role of Site Head for Sanofi’s Biologics Development organization. I felt this was a stretch for me, but my mentor at the time pushed me out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to apply for the job. He was right – it was one of the most rewarding decisions I made in my career.
And, just last year, I was once again challenged to be bold. A position opened that was really attractive to me and aligned with my career goals, but I was hesitant to apply because I had been working in the same general technical area for twenty years. I was worried I’d make a left turn where I should be making a right, but a close friend’s illness made me realize that life is short. I decided to go for it, and today I am the Head of Sanofi’s R&D North America Hub.
I now have a broader view of, and impact on, the organization and am able to champion the outstanding science being conducted in Sanofi R&D and optimize how we work so we can be the most effective R&D organization.
All to say, mentorship can come in many shapes and sizes, and can truly be life changing. The mentors I’ve encountered throughout my career helped me get to where I am today, and I’ve made it a priority to do the same for other young professionals.
At Sanofi, I am a co-sponsor of a team called JEWELS: Jointly Encouraging Women to be Executives and Leaders in Science. In this role, I partner with both female and male colleagues to encourage women to attain leadership roles. To advance women in science, it can’t just be women having the conversation. Study after study has shown the value of gender balance to teams and companies, and personally some of my most impactful mentors have been men. This experience and others where I have been in a mentoring role have taught me so much and have been truly rewarding.
Here are three ways you can help the next generation of women in science:
- As a Woman in Science, Be Visible and Have a Seat at the Table: Unconscious bias can be insidious. If you walk into a room and there are no women at the table, don’t sit at the edge of the room. It is wonderful to have great female leader role models to follow, but even as a more junior manager or scientist, don’t underestimate the impact to yourself and others by making subtle but important statements by where you choose to sit and how you express yourself.
- Sponsor a Female Scientist: Mentorship is time well-invested. Men and women should take the time to not only mentor—but sponsor—female scientists and help them as they maneuver through their career path.
- Have an Open Conversation About Skills: As a mentor, we often hear our mentees want to advance in their careers but don’t know how or feel “stuck.” Mentors can make a big impact by seeking to understand what their mentees are passionate about and helping them to match career options with their passion and skill sets. Often people in the sciences get consumed by, and stay in, a very narrow focus area. Considering other areas or parts of the business where these skill sets can be applied in a different way can be a rewarding and interesting next step.
To honor International Women’s Day, I challenge you to challenge yourself and help others in their journeys. Self-reflect on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to see how you can improve yourself and achieve more. Think about the many different ways you can help grow the next generation of scientists to become leaders in their field. And, always be bold.