Ong Ai Hua shares how leaders play a crucial role in unlocking the potential of people, encouraging innovation and diversity, as well as managing her personal and professional roles.
As a child, what brought you into Science?
From an early age, I was curious about the world around me and throughout my childhood I enjoyed experimenting and problem-solving. At school, I found a natural outlet for my curiosity through chemistry class, which quickly became my favourite subject. My passion for chemistry and science grew stronger and stronger the more I studied. By the time I graduated from high school I was determined to pursue a career in research and development.
When I completed my studies, Singapore was not yet the vibrant scientific research hub that it is today however the healthcare sector was attractive to me as it provided the opportunity to follow my passion for science while building a career in business.
Tell us a little about your background growing up and how it led you to where you are now?
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family environment. My family believed in the importance of education and would save every cent to support their children through school to enable them to reach their full potential. My grandfather migrated to Malaysia from China to seek a better living. He had little education as he needed to start working from an early age but he was fortunate enough to make it in life. He wanted to provide equal educational opportunities for every child and he helped the community establish the first Chinese school in Northern Malaysia. My grandfather would frequently remind us of the importance and value of education for all, regardless of gender and social status.
I am passionate about giving back to the community, including through my role with Beyond Social Services, which helps children from disadvantaged background to stay in school. I share my grandfather’s passion for education and I believe it is vital that when parents are absent or unable to support their children, the community should be ready to step up and help. Children are our future and education is critical to support them in making their way in life.
Your background is in science, what made you go into strategic management?
Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs helped to shape my mind and career towards business leadership. I had early exposure to the realities of running a business through my grandparents, who set up a rubber plantation, and with my father’s businesses.
A career in healthcare hits a personal sweet spot as it combines my passions for business and science and, importantly, it makes a positive difference to people’s lives. I am privileged to work in an organization that continuously invests in the research and development of innovative medicines that save lives and improve the health of communities.
What is Janssen’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in your workplace?
Diversity and inclusion is front and centre at Janssen and our parent organisation, Johnson & Johnson. We firmly believe that diversity and inclusion are key to ensuring a dynamic, innovative and agile workforce that is driven to deliver the healthcare needs of the future and this belief is reflected in the quality of the people we attract.
This commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of the attributes that makes me so proud of working at Janssen and I humbly like to think of myself as living proof of this commitment. Having joined Johnson & Johnson Medical more than 25 years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to work across multiple sectors of Johnson & Johnson in a variety of roles. The opportunities I’ve been provided to learn and grow my skillset have paved the way for me to lead the Asia Pacific pharmaceuticals division of one of the world’s largest and most diversified healthcare companies. My story and career path are a testimony for what you can achieve at Johnson & Johnson and Janssen.
What has been the biggest change you have noticed in terms of inclusion over the years in the company?
I’m proud to say that from its inception, Johnson & Johnson was an inclusive organisation. In fact, when the organisation was founded in 1886, eight of our first 14 employees – more than half – were female!
At the same time, we recognise that promoting diversity and inclusion is an evolving process and over the years the company has embraced many cutting-edge programs to support female employees. The Women’s Leadership Initiative is one such example. Since its launch in 1995, this highly successful mentorship program has led to a significant increase in the number of female leaders across our worldwide organisation. Today, more than a third of Johnson & Johnson’s corporate executive base is female – this is also the case for our own Leadership Team here in Asia Pacific.
In addition to these internal programs, Johnson & Johnson has several external programs that cultivate future female leaders in science, technology, engineering or math – otherwise known as STEM fields.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to emphasise that gender-focused programs and policies are one of the many ways in which Johnson & Johnson promotes diversity and inclusion, and encourages a supportive workforce.
Employee wellness has been at the heart of workplace philosophy and our very own Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute offers a range of program designed to support employees improve their energy levels and enjoy a healthier work-life balance. In this same spirit, we have established a wellness gym in our offices in Singapore and embraced a strong focus on exercise and a healthy work-life balance.
Increasingly, and particularly with the changes brought on by millennials, we have been mindful of providing for flexible working environments. I also believe that our new office space is encouraging interaction, innovation and creativity.
Ultimately, all these elements have played an important role in ensuring a more diverse, inclusive and dynamic workforce.
How do you establish strong diversity across the APAC region?
We are privileged to live in such a diverse, vibrant region. The challenge all businesses in Asia Pacific face is how to harness the abundance of energy and creativity to ensure we are bringing out the best from all our colleagues. As a leader, it is my responsibility to help unlock the potential of all our people by celebrating our differences and encouraging diversity of thought that will generate new ideas and ways of working.
How do you encourage innovation in your team?
I believe the best way to support innovation is by encouraging risk taking and providing an environment where failure is not penalized, but used as a learning opportunity. Leaders play a crucial role in this respect.
Indeed, I have embedded this approach in Janssen Asia Pacific’s dedicated innovation fund, which exists to support innovative ideas that fall outside of normal business plans. It is our way to nurture and celebrate a culture of innovative thinking. By providing teams with the time and funding to approach challenges differently, and celebrating their achievements, we are fostering innovation that will help improve the health of people across the region. We have some really impactful projects come to life in this way.
What has been the greatest challenge for you both as a woman in science as well as a businesswoman?
I think, for me, the lack of female role models was a major challenge. When you are forging your own career, it is natural to look to inspirational leaders with whom you can identify or aspire to be like. Unlike at the beginning of my career, it is now the norm for women to be in senior leadership positions and I’m proud of the strong female representation on our Janssen Asia Pacific leadership team. I hope this demonstrates to women across our organization, and indeed the industry, what is possible in their own careers.
At Johnson & Johnson, we continue to support women’s career development. Our Women’s Leadership & Inclusion Employee Resource Group, connects colleagues from across the organization to resources and events that help to inspire and inform our efforts to foster an inclusive organizational environment that champions the advancement of women.
In terms of work/life balance, this is important for everybody regardless of gender. I personally believe that the key to enjoying proper work/life balance is giving all your energy to what you are doing. When I am in the office, I am completely focused on driving our business but when I am at home, I find time to disconnect and give my full energy to my husband and our dog, Kiwi. We live in an age where we have access to so much information and it can be tempting to try to engage all the time but, as our colleagues at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute remind us, we must find time to stop, rest and recharge.
What would you say to aspiring females who want to take up science as a career?
I would say go for it! If you are curious about the world and you are passionate about research and discovery then a career in science will bring you a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction.
A strong scientific background will also help equip you for the challenges of the future. There are a lot of uncertainties about what the workplaces of the future will look like, but we can be sure that women with agile minds and strong problem-solving skills will always be in demand.
I have witnessed many positive changes for women in science and business during my own career and I am proud to be part of a company where female scientific minds flourish. Remember, if you put your mind to it, anything is possible!