Women in Science: How curiosity and determination inspired Hayley Crowe's journey from bench to c-suite

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT

© Ecolab
© Ecolab

Related tags Purolite Biologics Resin Women in Science

Hayley Crowe is executive vice president and general manager of Ecolab’s Global Life Sciences sector, comprised of Ecolab’s Purolite and pharma / personal care businesses. We sat down with Hayley to discuss how adversity inspired her determination to make a difference and how she is helping female colleagues address their imposter syndrome and 'mental attack'.

BPR: Could you give us an overview of the work that you do at Purolite? What do you oversee at the company?

I’m excited to share that we recently combined our life sciences business with our Purolite business – so I now have a global life sciences business, which is a new endeavour! However, day to day I have full P&L responsibility, which includes everything from R&D, innovation, and product marketing, to the operations of six plants and more to come.

I think the most exciting part for me, because everyone has their favourite bit when you’re in a general management role, is thinking about growth in the future. How do you take what you have today and grow the business in a way that’s meaningful to your customers and your employees. A lot of my time is spent thinking about what’s good for the customers, employees, and our overall strategy.

It’s really a combination of everything. So, you might move from a P&L meeting to an innovation review in an hour. Then maybe the next half an hour, you're talking to your product marketing team about a new product they're developing. Then 30 minutes later, you're talking to HR about your talent strategy. It’s a highly agile role, and you must flip between every topic.

BPR: When did you realise you were interested in science or pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry?

For me it was very early on. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she spent a lot of time with us in nature. We’d go out and look at the trees – I had a tree book to identify all the different types of trees! My family didn’t have a whole load of funds, and that was a way to keep children engaged – being outside and getting books from the library and making activities out of it. So, I think that piqued my curiosity of how the world works.

Mom got me a microscope when I was five, and that really sparked my interest in this micro world that you can’t see. I’d go and collect leaves or bugs and stick them under there and just start looking! I was intrigued by the world you could see – but what was even more intriguing​ was the world that you couldn’t see.

So, I think that's how it started. I just had this innate curiosity for learning new things. Then in high school, my dad was diagnosed with stage four multiple myeloma, and they gave him two months to live – which sealed that feeling that I must do something about this.

There was no real treatment for him at the time. A bone marrow transplant was suggested, but they didn’t know if it would work, and it was experimental. As a family we lived through four years of hospitals and treatments. He did get the transplant, but ultimately, he ended up passing away of a bacterial infection.

So, at the time, the cancer had gone into remission – but he died of strep pneumo – and I just thought, how could this happen? How could I be the daughter left behind? As they say – why does this disease take the good ones?

We couldn’t make sense of it as a family. So, for me, I thought, what I can do is give back, and I can try and make a difference in advanced science so there are more treatments and therapies to help the next generation – including my child and others. After this period, six months later my best friend died of lung non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma, my aunt died of cancer, and my uncle died of stomach cancer.

I always wanted to make a difference. I used to tell my mom; I’m going to save the world! She would laugh at me, but I’d say watch me!

While my career progressed from there, my drive was that I’m not doing enough in this role and this job; I’m not impacting enough. As a researcher at the bench, you’re solving one problem on one project, and over a 10-year timeframe, you’d be lucky if that drug made it from R&D to pre-clinical.

Why I ultimately made the switch out of pharma research at the time was because the impact didn’t feel big enough. I thought – how can I advance science faster across more people? That’s what made me make the leap from a bench research scientist into supply of pharma – because I thought, if I can’t do my experiments and make enough progress with the science I have – how do we move faster? How do we bring better products to the market to help more scientists and multiple companies across the world?

BPR: Could you tell me about your personal journey in the industry?

I’m grateful for all the experiences I had doing bench research. I had a lot of great mentorships, a lot of learning, and I’ve worked closely with a lot of what we sell today! I understand the concepts, and I can quickly pick up and learn just about anything because I spent so many years at the bench.

I also had great mentors while working at Pfizer and Novartis, and that gave me a lot of freedom to operate. They would say – here is the task, this is what I need you to do, let me show you a few tools – now go. That really enables your creativity to learn and do a lot of different things. It helps you build that base.

Then the leap into the supply chain side – I would say it was backed by this internal feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. However, I don’t have a PhD, and there is a glass ceiling in terms of advancement within some pharmaceutical companies. So, I said – I’m out of here! What’s next? I made the change, and I loved it because that’s when I really started to understand how supply feeds into research, and how it feeds into manufacturing.

I also realised that when I was at the bench, I was my own worst enemy. You feel very knowledgeable at the bench, but when you go to the supply side – you think wow, I only knew 10% about this topic. Then you're surrounded by a group of experts on that topic and thinking – I wish I would have listened earlier when the sales guys came in! It really taught me how the business side of science works, and I started travelling globally to understand where the industry is. One thing that’s interesting is that science is a universal global language. While you might speak different languages – science is the same, and I find that exciting. It’s a great global connector.

So, I got deeply involved in helping solve science problems around the world. I never thought of it as a sales job – I was using the tools for the company I worked at to solve people's problems.

That part has remained the same throughout my entire career. It's always about what does the customer need? What problem are we solving? Is it something new and innovative that they haven't been able to fix before? Moving out of product marketing into sales – I made my way around various roles. My advice to anybody is to never say no. We all get imposter syndrome and think gosh – can I do that job? I always say if the next job makes you a little nervous, then it's probably the right job.

I came to Ecolab to build the life sciences business. The big challenge at Ecolab was that we had to define that ourselves. We started with strategies and looking at our current products and how we could expand – that’s where Purolite really started to catch our attention. We really wanted to get into bioprocessing, specifically purification. We had the know-how of GMP manufacturing, what it takes from a quality system standpoint; we knew what to do but we had to add it to our portfolio. I’m incredibly proud of the growth and innovation we are witnessing with Purolite as part of the Ecolab family.

BPR: What challenges have you faced as a woman or otherwise?

It’s interesting to think about how my gender has affected my career. I can tell you I’ve had lots of experiences which have not been pleasant. Comments like – “….oh you only got that job because you’re a woman and they’re trying to hit diversity numbers.” A lot of what I'll call micro and even macro aggressions; that has happened a lot.

But I never let that affect me. My thought was – good for you, glad you feel that way, moving on! I think it can be hard as a woman to rise above that. I attribute that back to my dad who was a great supporter. I had a great support network and didn’t let those things affect me, because I tried to rise above it.

I’ve also had mentors and bosses who are there to hold my hand and say hey, don't listen to that, we're going over here. Let's keep moving. Whether that's been at work or at home – there has always been a sounding board. Does the bias hold back other women? Yes. Is there a glass ceiling? 100%. I’ve been lucky to get through it.

The impact for me has been more of a mental attack than a career attack. That mental attack is real. There is more impact than people realise. I have a lot of women leaders on my direct team, and I’m helping them through it every day. People who say – I don’t think I can do that job. Really? Write me one page, tell me why you can’t, and I’ll sit with you and go through it. I'm going to be here to support you. That’s what my bosses did for me and what I’m trying to do for the next people coming up.

BPR: How would you describe your overall management style?

I would say that I'm very collaborative in style. It’s a team, we’re in it together, and everyone adds value. Diversity is crucial. Not just men, women, and people of colour, but also global perspectives. I like to surround the team with multiple views so we’re not missing a voice.

I strive to seek solutions for customers rather than being right. I focus on what are we selling for the customer while growing the company. If you keep the team centered from that standpoint, it takes away the risk of people taking things as personal attacks when you’re talking about business problems.

That’s a big transition from an older style of management. We talk about really hard things, and I’ll be the first to apologise if I mess up. The approach is, now we have a problem, and we have to solve this thing. I think that style fosters inclusion, diversity of thought, and the best solutions for our customers. Because there is no dumb idea; we may just choose to not use one. I’ve had people say I’m the hardest boss to work for because my expectations are through the roof – but they’ve learned the most working in the environment that we provide.

BPR: If you had one key takeaway for other women who might be interested in a career similar to yours – what would it be?

Don’t hold back. I had one of my best mentors, who was my boss at the time, and we had to deliver our plan for the year ahead. I have what I think is a decent plan and I start presenting it to her. She says – how do you feel about this? I said – it’s OK, it feels incremental. So, she says – what would you really do? I blurted out my genuine thoughts – I’d invest over here, hire five people, etc. My boss said – why did you not say any of that? Why didn’t you bring that to the table? And it was because I thought she would say no!

As a leader now, I say to people, bring whatever you want to the table. Bring your biggest thoughts. Let me say no to it, but don’t say no to yourself. Leaders appreciate that more. That was a pivotal moment in my career shift from being a leader to a high growth General Manager. It’s time to take the big ideas. Now, you can’t do it flippantly. You have to bring data to the table, support your thoughts with data and market trends. But don't hold back, because those ideas are what will drive the future.

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