Camilla Sylvest first heard of the World Diabetes Foundation in 2001. She was a young manager in Novo Nordisk’s Pricing and Pharmacoeconomics department at the time and had been asked to create a new pricing policy for less-developed countries. Along the way, she met Leif Fenger Jensen and the rest of the small team tasked with creating the WDF. Both initiatives were part of an ambitious new social responsibility strategy that aimed to improve diabetes prevention and care in the developing world.
After 2001, Ms Sylvest went on to head Novo Nordisk affiliates and business areas in Europe, then advanced to new management positions in Kuala Lumpur and China. In 2017 she returned to Denmark to join executive management, where her responsibilities include how Novo Nordisk launches new medications, global pricing and the company’s long-term strategy.
Now, she is working with the WDF again, this time as its new Vice Chair of the Board.
WDF spoke with Ms Sylvest about her interactions with WDF over the years, the importance of flexibility, and why pharma companies have a special obligation to society.
How much have you seen of WDF’s work over the past 18 years, and what impression has it made on you?
I have been a general manager in many different countries, and in Southeast Asia I had responsibility for countries with limited resources and access to insulin. Here, I often met the WDF as they went about their work, and that has been very inspiring for me, showing how collaboration can lead to solutions and improve the lives of people living with diabetes.
I have felt close to WDF ever since the beginning – WDF’s activities are close to my heart and close to the work I’ve been doing over many years in Novo Nordisk. That’s why I’m excited to join the Board. WDF provides significant proof of what can be done. The work is very concrete and can inspire others.
What skills and insights do you bring to the Board?
I hope to contribute to discussions about using digitalisation to reach more people and make a broader impact. It’s early days, but perhaps the Foundation’s educational work can reach more people with the help of digital tools.
I also bring experience working with strategy – defining where we want to go, and how to get there. The road is never straight, there are always obstacles. One thing I have learned, from working in China for example, is that even if what we plan does not work out, there’s always the opportunity to find another way. If it is not as easy to execute as expected, we should not feel demotivated: we will find a way to get there.
What do you hope your work with the WDF will bring to you?
I hope my work in the Foundation will bring me more insights into the real, everyday problems that communities face in regard to diabetes, and what it takes to solve them.
I’ve already learned a lot from the other Board members – we have some very experienced global members of the Board that really bring a lot of experience, especially from developing countries.
You are currently at work on a new social responsibility strategy for Novo Nordisk. Why is this important?
Because Novo Nordisk produces life-saving medicines, we have a special obligation to society. Sustainable companies of the future must help society rise to some of its biggest challenges.
We’ve worked with social responsibility for many years, but now that the burden of diabetes has grown so large we need to carefully consider: what is the biggest contribution our company can make?
I believe the biggest contribution we can make is innovation. But not everyone can benefit from innovation because of affordability and access issues. And even if we innovate and find access and affordability solutions in every country, we’re still only treating the symptoms. This is why we also need to invest in prevention. It’s good to get treated and diagnosed, but even better never to get diabetes.
If we don’t do this, the contract we have with society will be broken. People will ask, is it fair what pharma is doing? Could they do more? These questions come up when the social contract is not in balance.
We need to make sure that we recognise some people don’t have access to diabetes care and finds ways to solve that. The World Diabetes Foundation is an important part of this solution.