Coffee break with…Laura Jacobo

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This month’s compelling tale has an international flavour, which starts in South America, migrates to England and blossoms throughout pharma.

Hi Laura – what have you been up to? We have just launched an exciting new product – Priligy. It treats premature ejaculation.

It’s funny, I somehow always end up in the ‘mens’ sexual health’ area. I also sold a drug for Abbott which treats erectile dysfunction.

It’s really a life-changing drug. One in five men in the UK are affected, and am important part of my job is to create awareness about the condition, especially in a country where talking about that sort of thing isn’t easy.

I was brought up in rural Mexico, until I was seven years old, at my Grandparent’s farm – there was no electricity and, if I wanted water, I would have to go to the well. My grandmother was the midwife of the village – providing injections and taking care of pregnant women. She also helped my grandfather look after the animals if they were sick – immunising or giving them antibiotics. One minute she would be injecting penicillin into someone’s bum and the next she’d be doing the same to a cow. She was an incredible woman! When I was older I went to live with my parents, at a house near the beach.

When did you decide that your future lay in healthcare?

My mother was working at a hotel where the surgery was based, and I used to hang around there as a teenager. The doctors were very handsome, so I was always ‘ill’! I decided I wanted to become a doctor, so took biology for my A-levels. This involved a lot of visits to hospitals – watching trauma surgeons and beautiful babies being born. Rather than cutting up a frog, in Mexico, we used to dissect a cow’s heart.

Did you then graduate and go to university?

No, I got pregnant. I was about to take exams to get in the faculty of medicine. I was 17 and just finding out about the world and experimenting! I was very shocked and scarred about my mum’s reaction – I thought she was going to kill me.

What did you decide to do?

I decided not to make any decision until I had completed the course. For the last six months before graduation I was pregnant – even in photos taken with the diploma – and nobody knew. If people had seen me they wouldn’t have guessed. I remember, as soon as I got in the car, after being in the church for the ceremony, it was as if my stomach started to grow. Things happen for a reason; I thought to myself, ‘what if this is the only child I ever have’. I did want to be a mother and I wanted to provide for my baby. Finally, explained it to my family and they were very understanding. Even though it’s traditional to get married – I decided not to.

You had to grow up pretty quickly

I had Sara and then waited 18 months until she could go to nursery. I then started to work with my mother in the family travel agency, where I met my future husband, who was English. We moved to England in 1997. I’d never been there before and it was a real shock to the system because, in Mexico, I never had to worry about childcare. I had nothing, so as soon as I arrived I started looking for a job that would fit between school hours.

What was out there?

I love make up and I responded to an Avon advertisement for a salesperson. The woman who signed me up as an ‘Avon Lady’, talked to me about my Mexican background and my American accent – which was strong at the time – and told me she thought I could be an area manager, in charge of recruiting ‘Avon Ladies’. I said, ‘will you give me a car?’ She said, ‘yes’, so I replied, ‘I’ll take it’.

How did you get your big break in pharma?

A friend of my husband’s was due to work in the research and development department at Roche and part of her training involved operating as a rep for a year. She told me that, as I had a strong medical and sales background, I would be an ideal candidate. I applied for lots of positions and attended many interviews, before getting my first position at Solvay in 1999, where I started off selling an anti-hypertensive called Physiotens.

What were your early experiences?

I wasn’t used to the ‘soft sell’ – where you more or less had to cuddle the doctor! Instead, I would walk in there and talk about how wonderful the product was; the doctor would agree and then I would ask how many they were going to buy. As a result, the sales in that area went up 33%. My partner in the region said that all those sales were down to me and that I was getting into places that he could never have got into. I put it down to my experience in the travel agency, where I would have to secure a sale very quickly. Carpe diem– seize the day – is a philosophy I live by.

What was your next move?

I had settled, moved into a house, and Sarah was doing well at school. After two years I went to Novartis where I worked with Lescol – the cholesterol-reducing drug. The culture was very different there – I had been a big fish in a small pond but, at Novartis, there were thousands of staff.

Then, in 2001, September 11 happened and the economic situation in Mexico became very serious, as people from America didn’t want to fly. My mother was very worried about the travel agency, which was in both our names, so I had to resign and head back home to try and help.

When I arrived, it was dead. Where it used to be full of American tourists, there was no one.

What did you do when you returned to England?

I needed to get straight back into the industry, and was recruited by Abbott. I had to wait a few weeks, but I finally found out I had got a position on a team selling an anti obesity drug – Reductil. It was a real relief to get the role and I was overjoyed. It was a fascinating product to work on; I was going to GPs who were very reluctant to prescribe it, because they thought it was a ‘lifestyle’ drug – but so is Viagra. We had to look at the whole situation relating to the condition and present the data – such as how a 5% reduction in body mass can significantly improve blood pressure. You had to empower the doctor and nurses to educate patients. Slowly the whole landscape started changing – we created an online support system for patients taking the drug, which used a simple numerical system to help people make healthy food choices. In 2005 I was selling 500 packs a month, but by 2009 it had risen to 5000. Then, suddenly, we lost Reductil, because of controversial interpretation of trial data, and I had to find a new job. It was very disappointing because Abbott was an amazing company to work for and, at that stage, I had become an executive rep.

Were you still very ambitious and keen to work in the industry?

By then I had been divorced for three years and I realised that pharma was definitely my career. I joined all the new agencies, updated my CV, joined LinkedIn and went to a few interviews. Soon I had several job offers on the table, and I was about to start one of them, when I got a phone call from Menarini. They asked me if I would meet senior management about a role. I thought I was going to meet the national sales director but when I got there I was greeted by the not only him, but the human resources manager, general manager and European manager, all interviewing me at a huge conference table.

After I told them how I would promote their gout drug they said they would make a decision in the next few days. I said, ‘no, you either take me now, or you don’t take me at all’.

They then went out of the room for a few minutes, came back in and offered me the job.

They clearly loved your refusal to be intimidated by suits!

I like to make things happen!


It’s been a blast, Laura.