“After 15 years in the laboratory, Alejandra Solache discovered her true calling: leading teams.
This passion for people and science is put to good use in her role as Vice President of New Product Development for global life sciences company Abcam – #6 on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work UK 2020 list – where she says, “it’s a really agile and dynamic environment”.
A fascination with immunology
“As a kid, my dad used to tell me about the army of white cells in our body that produce these tiny molecules that recognize and fight bacteria and viruses. This triggered my fascination with immunology,” recalls Alejandra.
After getting her Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biological Sciences, Alejandra went on to complete a Masters in Biochemistry and Immunology – both in her birth country of Mexico. Wanting to see the world, she then moved to the UK to do her PhD, the US to take up a postdoctoral role in San Francisco and later worked as a research scientist in Upstate New York.
However, after 15 years in academia, Alejandra started thinking perhaps it wasn’t for her. Very much a people-person, she wanted to experience science, but in a different environment. So in 2005, she made the move into industry, joining an American-based global life sciences organization as R&D Manager for its Monoclonal Antibody Group.
“I never looked back! Previously, I felt like I’d been missing out on something and it was being part of a team that were working together to achieve a joint mission. Suddenly, managing a group, I felt like I’d found my calling,” she says.
“Being able to help people, particularly scientists in the early stages of their careers, to develop their own career direction and harness their enthusiasm, I just love it!”
After working her way up the organization for eight years, Alejandra and her husband decided it was time to move their family back to the UK, so her two boys could be closer to their grandparents
“I wanted to work for a company in the UK with a great reputation, in my area of interest, and whose values for quality matched my own – Abcam was that. I also admired the strategy, culture and how agile and bold they are.”
Tips to build an engaged global team
Alejandra now manages a global team of 250 people, spread across four locations from Cambridge in the UK, to Branford and Eugene in the US to Hangzhou in China. She is responsible for Abcam’s new product development and improving quality standards in antibodies and assays.
“There’s so many things that excite me about coming to work. I enjoy working with really talented people from diverse backgrounds, and being able to combine my expertise as a scientist with my people management skills to help shape the strategies and successes of a global business.”
According to Alejandra, the key to building a high performance, global team is to create a solid foundation of trust and accountability. “You have to have a strong bond where people have the freedom to express whatever they think within the team and to know that it’s not taken personally,” she says.
“As a leader, you need to be driving a strong micro culture within your own team, so that everyone feels like they belong, like it’s their close neighborhood.”
To do this, Alejandra often holds engagement workshops where her team brainstorms how they would improve the culture if it was their business. These ideas are then put into action.
Learning how to navigate the cultural differences with a global team has been a big growth opportunity for Alejandra.
“For example, I get so stimulated working with the team in China because they’re so enthusiastic and eager to achieve. But as a leader, one thing I’ve learnt is to ask a lot of probing questions. Highly motivated teams often say yes to everything without necessarily seeing how difficult something might be or what’s actually required.”
The most important decision of your career
One of the biggest challenges Alejandra has faced in her career is raising her two boys – now aged 17 and 23.
“I was halfway through my PhD when I had my first son, and because I was on a scholarship I had to get straight back into the lab and finish my thesis. I could only afford to take six weeks maternity leave.”
Having an “amazing husband” who shares the load has helped Alejandra juggle her family and career responsibilities over the years, at times putting his career on hold to encourage her to pursue hers.
“I often say to women choosing a life partner is one of the most important decisions you can make. You have to choose carefully because you need a partner who is supportive if you’re ever going to be able to balance work and life.”
Although work/life balance is something you have to actively work at, believes Alejandra. “Work can be so absorbing, so it’s something you need to recalibrate constantly and keep at the top of your mind.”
Alejandra also tries to prioritize time for herself, enjoying yoga, pottery and forest walks. “My mother used to say, ‘Remember to put your own oxygen mask on first’. I try to follow her advice because as women we often put everybody first before ourselves.”
Another piece of advice that Alejandra tries not to forget came from one of her managers early on in her commercial career who encouraged her to believe in her strengths.
“He once said to me: ‘Why do I believe in you more than you believe in yourself?’ That has really stayed with me and whenever I have any self doubts I remember those words. As women, we need to believe in ourselves more.”