Dunsire was born in South Africa, where she studied medicine. She started her career as a physician, but it wasn’t long before she turned her attention toward the development of potentially life-saving pharmaceutical drugs. Over the next 20 years, she became a leader in her field, earning the 2009 Woman of the Year Award from the Healthcare Business Association.
She has combined the science and business of healthcare to bring new drugs for cancer treatment to market. Dunsire’s early successes in pharmaceutical research, development and commercialization were so significant that her company, Sandoz, brought her from Johannesburg to Switzerland, to work at global headquarters.
From there, she was sent to New Jersey and soon took up the management of the company’s portfolio of oncology drugs. When Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy to become Novartis, Dunsire was named senior vice president and put in charge of oncology for all of North America. She helped Novartis transform its approach and quadrupled the revenues of its oncology unit in just ten years.
In 2005, Dunsire became CEO of Millennium, a company of over 1000 employees that develops and markets new drugs for cancer treatment. She transformed Millennium from a small, promising drug-maker to a thriving biotech company that, in 2008, was worthy of a $8.8 billion acquisition by Takeda Pharmaceutical.
Under her leadership, Millennium was recognized by, Fortune (#20 on the Fortune 100 Best Places To Work list in 2012) , The Scientist and The Boston Globe (#1 among large companies in 2012) as one of the best places to work. During Dunsire’s tenure, the company’s executive team was between 40 and 60 percent female. She credits this diversity to a board that was sought out the right people, regardless of gender. “It was and is a very diverse company,” she told Pharmalive in 2006.
Her leadership lessons are useful for men and women alike. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times, Dunsire advised leaders to let their employees make mistakes and learn from them without management’s interference.
Dunsire also has some specific advice for women who want to lead in biotech. When she was named one of FierceBiotech‘s Top 10 Women in Biotech, she told young women to
Be passionate about your work and the fact that through the biotech work we do we can change outcomes in human health. [...] Be optimistic but grounded–there will be many disappointments, but learn from failure and rise up and do it better.
That is great advice for any leader.
As part recent organizational changes, Deborah has decided to leave the Company at the end of her Takeda board term in June. She will be sorely missed in the biotech community and the small circle of women CEO’s at major global companies so we are looking forward to her next endeavor! Deborah Dunsire is a powerful example of a Woman Who Leads in Biotech and we are proud to recognize her.
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