Susan Sweeney ’91 graduated from Gettysburg College with a double major in management and German studies and an eye toward applying her diverse skillset to a career that made an impact on the world. By 2018, she was listed as one of the Fiercest Women in Life Sciences by FiercePharma, and one year later, she was named one of the Top 25 Women Leaders by Modern Healthcare. She had no idea she’d become one of the biotechnology industry’s most impactful marketing leaders, nor did she realize how few women she’d meet at the top.
Sweeney has been in the biotechnology field for more than 25 years and is currently senior vice president of global marketing, access, and capabilities, at Amgen, one of the world's leading independent biotechnology companies. At Amgen, Sweeney works to understand and communicate the value that the company’s medicines provide to society, payers, and patients. Her road to this role, however, was not a linear one.
Directly after college, Sweeney knew she wanted to live in New York City, but was unsure of how she wanted to make her mark on the world. She then happened to connect with a Manhattan banking recruiter, who was also a Gettysburg alum and German major, and when they hit it off, Sweeney decided to launch a career in banking.
Yet, she felt something was missing.
“My job was really interesting, but I began to wonder what my work was doing for society,” she explained. “How do I make a difference? The biotech industry provides so many different avenues of exploration and ways to make an impact, which intrigued me.”
After a year, Sweeney left banking to embark on a career in biotech and emerging pharmaceuticals, first working at a small medical device company before transitioning to a pharmaceutical consulting firm. There, she began working with Bristol-Myers Squibb and ultimately left consulting to work directly for them on the corporate side for the next 24 years. She rose to the role of president of the U.S. commercial team, overseeing roughly $18 billion in revenue and a plethora of brands that improve, and oftentimes save patients’ lives.
While at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sweeney completed a master's degree in public health at Columbia University and she and her husband raised six children.
Sweeney noted that raising small children while working and getting an advanced degree was “hectic,” and she is the first to acknowledge that our society is not always set up to support families or women in leadership. However, the existence of gender barriers wasn’t something she fully realized until she started moving up the corporate ladder herself.
“I come from a background of working women and graduated with an idealistic viewpoint,” she said. “You see a gender diversity balance in the beginning of your career, but you make a jump to the first executive level, and the number of women drops to 30 percent, and you jump to the next executive level, and it drops to 10 percent.”
Unconscious bias, limited maternity and family policies, and a dearth of female mentors are some of the factors that impact women rising into more senior roles, said Sweeney, who has passionately worked to help improve these areas by championing women, acting as a mentor, and encouraging unconscious bias training and family leave policies. She credits Bristol-Myers Squibb for paying more attention to gender and diversity issues and significantly improving their maternity leave policy while she worked there.
Now at Amgen, Sweeney is a member of the diversity leadership team that works to improve equity and inclusion, considering not just gender, but also race and sexuality.
“We think about how to be more inclusive and how to diversify the teams that work on our products because we know that diverse teams provide different perspectives that result in better outcomes for everyone,” she said.
Proud of the culture that Amgen has built, Sweeney called it an “inclusive environment, which focuses on building a culture of diversity that fosters innovation and drives the ability to serve patients.” Amgen has been recognized in STEM Workforce Diversity magazine and in Forbes’ Best Employers for Diversity 2020 list. She added, “Amgen is a leader in building a culture that I identify with and support.”
In her day-to-day role at Amgen, Sweeney sits on the leadership team that decides if and how the company will move forward with a medicine by gathering data and research, synthesizing that information, and communicating recommendations. With limited dollars to invest, she makes sure the company chooses the medicines that will have the most positive impact on patients. For example, Sweeney worked on a recently FDA-approved drug which is indicated to treat certain patients with advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, a disease for which there is high unmet medical need.
Synthesizing complex information and communicating it to broad audiences in an understandable way is a skill that Sweeney said she honed at Gettysburg.
“I was absolutely astonished when I entered the business world to see how few people really understand how to communicate a point of view,” Sweeney said. “The Gettysburg liberal arts experience and my exposure to multiple disciplines taught me how to bring disparate pieces of information together and undeniably made me a better communicator and more effective at my job.”
Through Gettysburg, Sweeney was also exposed to different cultures as a German major, and then, as a study abroad student in Cologne, Germany. She added those experiences helped her be a stronger leader in a company that has a worldwide impact.
“My team sits all over the world, so studying German as a language and a culture gave me insights into how to understand difference, which then became very useful as I began working in an international environment,” she said.
Sweeney hopes to soon be traveling the world once more on behalf of Amgen. Of the global workforce, she noted that women represent 52 percent, and she hopes to see greater parity in STEM leadership in the years ahead. She encourages young women at Gettysburg College to access its strong and growing alumni network and to particularly reach out to female leaders who inspire them.
“Find mentors. Ask questions. Learn about all the avenues and roles available to you and find what really makes you happy professionally,” Sweeney added.
By Katelyn Silva
Photos by Abbey Frisco and Katie Moos Photography