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The WOW Series

Julie Kim, President, U.S. Business Unit of Takeda

In this podcast Julie explains how diversity drives better decisions – but only if organisations have the courage to accept and embrace it. She also describes the experience that led her to fundamentally change her approach to leadership, the importance of trust, and how finding purpose in her work has helped her achieve both happiness and success.

Listen Time
40 minute listen

Moving at a young age from Seoul, Korea to Cleveland, Ohio, Julie Kim often felt different. Much of her successful career and life has been shaped by that experience of being an outsider. As the only non-medical doctor in her family, she has also forged a different career path.

She started her career in consulting, where the fast pace and opportunity to work on difficult, complex problems was a good fit for her intellectual curiosity. But despite her perception of the pharmaceutical industry as ‘too big, too bureaucratic and too slow,’ a persistent recruiter persuaded her to take an interview at Baxter – and the rest is history. The opportunity to make a difference has seen her progress through different roles at Baxter, Shire, and now Takeda, where as part of the executive team she was also tasked with creating a new business unit focusing on plasma-based medicines. 

*At the time of recording, Julie's title was President, Plasma-Derived Therapies Business Unit, Takeda. Her new title is President, U.S. Business Unit, Takeda.


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Frederic Brunner: Good morning. Today, I'm very happy to have a conversation with Julie Kim. Julie is the president of the Plasma Derived Therapies Business Unit of Takeda. She had an amazing career that started also at Baxter and Shire before she made it to the top at Takeda. She's here today to have a conversation with us to reflect on things that made her successful. Julie, it's a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Julie Kim: Thanks for having me, Frederic. I'm really happy to be here with you.

Frederic Brunner: And the thing I'd like to start by discussing with you, Julie, is every leader that I encounter tends to have what I call a starting package, like the family or where things happen in the childhood. I would love to hear about what was your starting package? 

Julie Kim: Sure, so I was born in Seoul, South Korea, to parents who I would say had very progressive mindset in regards to women in particular, because Korea is a country that historically has been very patriarchal, so my mother was a practicing physician, which was almost unheard of for her generation. And after I was born as a girl and not a boy, they made the decision to immigrate to the United States so that she could continue her career and I could also have better opportunities. So that I would say was the very beginning starting package. The other things I would add is that they chose Cleveland, Ohio for their first home, so not necessarily a city that, especially back then, that had a lot of diversity.

So in the schools that I attended, there were maybe a handful of non-Caucasian students in the school. And so I also grew up often as an outsider, as the one who was different, and having to deal with that for basically my entire life thus far, and so that has also shaped me. So the first piece is that I had progressive parents who supported me, the second piece is that I grew up in an environment where I was an outsider and had to manage being different. So those are two things that shaped my personality, that shaped how I view things, and that have carried through into my professional career and we can talk about that later.

Frederic Brunner: Interesting, can you tell maybe a couple of words on how was that to be that outsider or let's say maybe at school or you might rely on certain strengths and others, like how did you establish yourself in such an environment in Ohio and probably having certain strength and weaknesses and how did the environment react to you and what did you bank on to be successful during that kind of school time? 

Julie Kim: Yeah, I mean look, as kids, we all try to figure out how to fit in and how to make friends, how to do well at school. So for me, I wasn't the athletic one, I wasn't the funny one, I didn't look like any of the other kids in my class. So I relied on books, on the academic side, I studied really hard, I did well in school, and so that was how I created an identity for myself and how I tried to fit into the fabric of school. So I was that nerdy, smart kid in the class but at least there was a place that I could call my own. And so that was a big part of my identity for a long time, being smart, being able to figure things out, and that's how I started my career. I chose a career in consulting because in consulting, having the best idea, being smart is valued, it's something that for the first part of my career was a great way to rely on a strength that I had versus all of the other things that were different and didn't really fit in so well.

Frederic Brunner: I like that, I like that... We all try to fit in, I think is very true, and like the fact that you found the clarity on what can you use in such a different environment, such as Cleveland, Ohio. So you made the transition from the career that you started with consulting, how did you decide from, let's say, a consulting career to choose kind of a life science career? Can you explain a bit like it was the passion or what happened that you ended up choosing life science? 

Julie Kim: Sure, well, as I mentioned before, my mother was a physician, my father is a physician, my two younger brothers are physicians, so I'm the black sheep of the family that did not become a medical doctor. So I guess I always had health care as part of my life, I did... When I started university, I did start as pre-med, but as I progressed, I figured out that that wasn't the path for me, but I still had a very strong desire to help people. To want to make a difference. So when I went into consulting, I chose a healthcare boutique consulting firm.

And then from there, the transition into a pharmaceutical company actually didn't come by me seeking it out. I was contacted by a recruiter who wanted to present this opportunity, and I said, "Look, I'm not interested," because for me, at the time, I was on partner track, I was doing well in consulting, I viewed the pharmaceutical industry as "Well, that's big bureaucratic, slow. I don't want to be there, I like the fast pace of consulting," so, it was through the persistence of this recruiter that I finally took an interview just to get him to stop calling me, and I liked what I saw, and so I made the switch into... At the time I joined Baxter.

Frederic Brunner: Very good. One thing that I would love to talk about is, you shared with me once that you had an a-ha moment in your career on how a successful leader behave with others, and I think it was when your, when your mother passed. You told me that you had a big shift from how you thought before, one should be successful to lead others, and what became, I would say the new Julie came. Could you share what did you discover and how it impacted your career? 

Julie Kim: Well, let me go back to a couple of the things that I mentioned at the start. So, growing up as an outsider and the one being different, you create a very thick skin because you have to protect and shield yourself. I stopped really thinking about what other people thought about me, because most of the time, as a child, what they thought about me, it wasn't nice to hear. It was a lot of teasing about how I looked and that I was different, so I learned to shut that out to protect myself, it was a self-defense mechanism. So I had developed this very thick skin. I also shared that what I relied on when I started my career was the fact that I was smart. Having good ideas was something that was valued in consulting. So the early part of my consulting career was driven by the fact that I could come up with good ideas, I could solve hard problems and I worked really hard. But I didn't really care about the people around me, and I just focused on the work that needed to be done. So you can imagine that that sometimes probably resulted in situations that didn't make me the most pleasant person to be around.

But my mother passed away, and at her funeral, the church was filled with a lot of people that I didn't recognize, and I remember being quite upset about this fact. This is a very personal moment for me, for my family, and who are these people that we don't know? Why are they coming to my mother's funeral? And my father had said, "Look, these are individuals that, in one way, shape or form, have been touched by your mother and they wanted to come and pay their respects." And you know the proverbial flash of, if I got hit by a bus today, and that was my funeral, I probably wouldn't have filled that church, and that was the sort of A-ha of, okay, maybe it's not so good to not care so much about others and their... How I make them feel, how they make me feel and how we work together. And so it was a real turning point for me where I started to pay attention to not just the work that I was delivering, but how that work is being delivered. And today, there are so many books about the what and the how, it's not just what you do, it's how you do it, but back then, there wasn't a lot written about that, and I wasn't conscious or aware of that, and that was a turning point for me well where that was something that, even though I couldn't have described it at the time to you in this manner, that was the point at which I said, "Okay, I need to figure out how to deliver the same type of strong results, but do it in a way that created a more positive environment so that people would want to work with me again and again." So that was a turning point. It was a hard way to learn that lesson, but fortunately, it happened relatively earlier in my career, and so it's been something that I've focused on since then.

Frederic Brunner: Powerful moment, realizing that maybe the church would not have been full for you and the desire to change it. I can see that. Would you think... And we will never know the answer to that question, but would you think that without having had that moment of realization, you would not have had the same career, that you would not have been able to, by mastering the how... And was that a key success factor for you to become who you are today? 

Julie Kim: I would guess that at some point, that lesson would have been learned. That lesson would have been learned, because again, if I reflect back on... I've been working now for almost 30 years. If I reflect back on that time period, there has been a lot of focus in leadership courses, management courses, about balancing the what and the how, so I think eventually the lesson would have been learned. Would it have slowed me down? Probably, probably.

Frederic Brunner: You speak... Staying on the topic on the how, you shared once something that I found interesting, that there are different ways to give trust. There is the school of, you earn it or you give it first, and I know that this is a topic that is dear to you. Can you tell to the people who listen to us a bit. How are you thinking about this? Giving trust or earning trust? 

Julie Kim: Yes, so again, this is one that I have changed camps over time. Again, earlier in my career, I would have been in the camp of, you need to earn my trust, so Frederic, if you and I were starting a working relationship or starting a project, before I gave you my trust, I would probably give you some challenges to see, "Okay, is he up to it? Does he have the capabilities? Can I really empower him to do this, or can I really trust that we can do this together?" And I would have been guarded and waited until you've given me enough data points that I felt comfortable, "Okay, alright. Now, let's really go." Whereas now, I would start with a position of, you have my trust, so unless you do something to lose it, you have my trust. And we can move much faster because we don't have to take that time for you to prove yourself to me before we really become productive as a team, as a partnership. So that's the difference. And this one, I would say there is a book that I would recommend to everyone, it's one that's been out for a number of years now, but it's called The Art of Possibility, and in it, it talks about this concept of what happens when you start by giving trust at the very beginning.

And what you usually find, and I have found this, that when you start in a position of trust, that motivates individuals to work even harder because they don't want to lose something that they already have. As human beings, we are hard-wired not to want to lose things, it's actually... There have been a number of studies that show human beings will prefer not to lose something versus trying to get something that they don't have. So it's building on that human nature aspect of it. So if you already have the trust, you're going to work that much harder to keep it. And that's what I've found. That teams work much harder when they know they have the trust, they'll go for it.

Frederic Brunner: Very interesting, and probably also, again, a lot of people who believe that you have to earn the trust and people will work harder to earn it and just the opposite, right. But following the same lines, I think you also mentioned once, you know, that you have a different stand between, if we take again, the old ways of doing business and the new ways and what works. Like some leaders think my team is to go through the same thing I had to go through and some leaders say things have evolved, I'm gonna make it easier for my team. Can you share a bit where you stand on that and how also is that a success factor for you? 

Julie Kim: I think this holds particularly true if you are in an under-represented group, in industries, companies where there is a strong sense of that old Boys Club. This is something that already exists. If you happen to be a part of that club, but if you're not part of the club... And so when I look at, for example, and there's someone that I'm thinking of in particular, who was the president of the division that I worked in, and I was one of the few female vice presidents, and she made things really hard for me. I don't know if she was doing it intentionally or not, but it was really hard, and I know that for her, she developed in her career during a time frame where you really did have to be tougher than the men in order to get ahead. And I have a lot of respect for her. But the piece that didn't work so well for me was the fact that rather than trying to take that experience to make my experience better, it was, "Okay, no you... I suffered through this, I had to be as tough as nails, you need to be as tough as nails."

And my approach was not the tough as nails approach, my approach is a much more collaborative approach, and so because I was not like that, it created a lot of tension. And so for me, when I... Especially for people who are coming up through the organization or who have just joined the organization, my bias is to share as much knowledge, experience, advice as I possibly can, because I think because I had to go through what I did, I want others to benefit. There's no reason why others should have to suffer in the same way, and so if I can make your career better by sharing with you some of the things that I've learned along the way, then by all means take the information and make the most of it. I think you often hear that criticism too of women, women not supporting other women and I think this is part of that cycle that needs to be broken and it has to be "Look, let me help you, let me help you go faster than I was able to go, because I had to suffer through all of these different challenges." And so that's something that I try to impart within my team in the organization that I work for, but I also ask others to do that as well.

Frederic Brunner: I think it's really believing in that, but I also think it requires courage to kind of break the cycle, and I don't know if you're open to share but you shared once with me a very powerful example of the courage you had, I think it was in the case of maternity situation to pave the way for other women. How to deal with that when the system is a bit, when you say that you're a bit under-represented and having the courage to make it easy for others and not make it difficult.

Julie Kim: So one of the challenges... So I will have to put some context on this, this is in the US, where maternity leave typically is six weeks. So in Europe, the context is very different. You have much longer maternity leave, so you don't necessarily have the same type of challenges. So, I had children quite late in life, so when I had my son, I was already at senior director level, and so when I came back to work, I had chosen to continue to nurse, and so I had to take a couple of breaks during the day to go to the mother's room to pump. And for me, this wasn't a problem. But I remember there was a woman who was much earlier in her career, and she was really struggling because her manager and others were giving her a hard time for taking these breaks to go to the mother's room to pump. And so, I decided to make it more known what I was doing so that everyone saw, this is a normal thing. This is not something that we need to be ashamed of. This is not something that takes away from anyone's productivity.

At the time, this was before smoking was banned in US office locations, and so the number of times, let's just say, men were going out to take smoking breaks, I'm sure, far outweighed the time that was spent in the mother's room doing something very vital for her and for me. So, it was a choice that I made to be more obvious about it, to make it easier for her, because she couldn't do anything in her situation, she felt, whereas, because I was more senior in the organization, I could, and I wouldn't get the same pushback that she would.

Frederic Brunner: To wrap up, whichever, much like what you said, Julie, is for me kind of a theme, which is, there's no need to make people feel miserable to develop them faster. You can really help them with what you have at your disposal, which I think also a lot of management practices are starting to recognize now, but I think you fully have embraced it, it seems and I very much like that. The next thing I will need to discuss with you, which I guess everybody would like to hear from you is, what I would call diversity in practice. There's a lot of, I would say, talk about diversity, but I think what I really would like to get from you is, where is the value in diversity? Why diversity? Why should we do it well, and what does it mean for you? 

Julie Kim: So, I think when it comes to diversity, there is so much data that is available today to demonstrate the benefit of the robust decision-making that comes by having diverse views at the table, and fundamentally, that's what it's about. So if you think that a single individual, regardless of how smart they are, how much experience they have, can always have the best answer, that's probably not a good assumption to have, and so when you have multiple voices at the table, you have the ability to challenge, to question, to ask questions and potentially take things in slightly different directions, and this type of diverse conversation is what will bring about more robust decisions and better decisions. So, that's at the fundamental core. Now, yes, we talk about physical diversity, and a lot of times that physical diversity brings with it different experiences, different backgrounds and capabilities that help with that discussion, but if you take someone... If you take a group of five people that are physically diverse, yet they all had the same type of upbringing, the same type of education, the same work experiences, you won't get the real diversity that is needed to drive better business results, so you need to have that real fundamental diversity.

And today, a lot of that does come with having people from different backgrounds, different physical diversity happens to bring those different experiences and capabilities to the table, but that's not always the case. So we have to make sure that we check that even though we might have the physical diversity, that we have the true diversity present at the table, cause that is what will drive the business results in the end.

Frederic Brunner: I like that. So really the true diversity is the diversity in what you can see and diversity in what you cannot see. It's really... It needs to be diverse no matter what.

Julie Kim: But if I can add one more thing though, Frederic, it's not sufficient to have that at the table, if the leader of the group and the individuals in that organization are unwilling to accept, to acknowledge that diversity, you also don't get the benefit.

Frederic Brunner: I like that. That is very powerful. I never thought of that, but I think it's an extremely good point that the enablement and making sure that that diversity can lead to these benefits from the management, I very much like that. One thing I wanted to ask you is, as leaders, we learn from successes, we also learn from difficult moments, right? And I wanted to ask you a bit, did you learn in difficult moments... I have two occasions in mind, one is obviously Covid. I think if we're honest, Covid was, as a person, difficult for everybody. It created a stress. I'd love to hear a bit... First, how was Covid for you as a person? What did you find difficult? And how did you deal with it? 

Julie Kim: Yes, so for me, I would say part of it, when we initially started working from home, wasn't necessarily so difficult. I'm an introvert, so for me, okay, working from home, I can do this. Da da da da da. There's a point at which even for an introvert, there's too much absence of human connection, of connection with people and with others, but that's not the story that I really want to go into. It was more about how to create those connections when you are separated physically, that was the hardest thing for me to figure out how to do, because as an introvert, I had learned over the years how to create those connections in the physical environment, and so it's something that I rely on and that I continue to build upon, but it's a tool kit that I have tossed into this virtual environment all of a sudden, the tool kit that I've been using for all of these years, I can't rely on anymore, and because I'm not a natural extrovert. It's not easy for me to figure out, "Okay, so how do I maintain these connections when I can't do the things that I was doing before in the office?"

So that was really hard to figure out. Is it... Okay, we're having these one-on-one video calls. Is that sufficient? Well, if you dive right into the work and just do the work, it isn't. The other person starts losing that connection and you have the, if you wanna call it, the relationship equity that you and I may have built before the pandemic, and that will last for a while, but if at some point I don't put energy back into maintaining that relationship with you, and all we do is just focus on the work, you're going to feel it, and you're going to start feeling differently. So that's the piece that... Okay, so how do we do this? How do we make sure that we spend the time to also nurture the relationship as well as making sure that the business still carries on and we don't drop any of our commitments.

Frederic Brunner: And if you reflect more largely on your career, would you say that... Did you have one or two difficult moments that typically you never see in the CVs where you say, "There, I learned something that forever I could use?"

Julie Kim: Well, I guess I'll share one situation with you and we sometimes hear about people making choices for their personal life, but then those people tend to fade away and you don't hear much more about them, so maybe sharing this one would be helpful. So when I was living in the UK, when we moved there, my son had a very, very difficult transition into the UK, we didn't think it was going to be a big challenge because they speak English, we speak English. How different could it really be? Well, it was very different, especially in the traditional British schools, and so it took him almost six months to feel really comfortable and settled. And right about at that time, so basically a couple of months later, I was contacted by an individual who was going to be the CEO of the division that was going to be spun out, and he said, "I have two options for you, Julie," one role would put me on his executive team, but I would have to relocate to Boston immediately, the other role would allow me to stay in London and it wasn't on his executive team. Those were my two choices. From a purely professional lens, no-brainer, the role on the executive team, hands down, but after what I just shared with you about my son's transition into the UK, there was no way that as a parent, I could make that decision.

I would not have been able to look at myself in the mirror if I would have done that. I probably would have fundamentally created trauma for him, to uproot him again so quickly, so I took the other role. Many people at the time said, "You're crazy. You're crazy to do this. This is gonna set you back. You've just made a career limiting move, you're never gonna make it to the executive team, cause you've turned this down." I can say well, though they were wrong. Now that I'm here today. But it was a very difficult decision to make, and it was one where in the balance of things, I had to make the choice that was right for my family versus the choice that would have been better for my career and yes, so it's taken me a few more years to get to the executive position, but I still made it here and I would still make that decision again, so to all of you out there who have to make these decisions, some decisions are smaller, some are bigger, but always look at that balance and don't be afraid when you need to, to make those decisions that place the priorities on your family, your personal life over the professional life, you can always make up the professional side, you can't always make up the personal side.

Frederic Brunner: I like that very much. My last question is around success, because a lot of the people who are listening to you now are probably dreaming to be as successful as you became. And I have two sub-questions, one is, how do you think of success versus happiness? And the second is, do you consider yourself successful? 

Julie Kim: So for me, I guess I'm lucky in that the job that I have now, and the jobs that I've had, I find a very strong connection to them. So there's a lot of talk in the business world about purpose these days, and again, I may not have been able to define it is that earlier in my career, but working in an area that has such a strong purpose, which is helping people when they're struggling with the sickness, to me, that purpose and being tied to that is what makes me happy about my job.

So, I think if I were in this same level or position, but not in a role where that connection to the purpose wasn't there, I probably wouldn't be happy, but people might still view me as being successful. But I am both at the moment, and I think it's because of that connection to the purpose that's behind the role that I do. So, to your question, yes, both in terms of the happiness and the success, for me, it's tied together, and it's because of the strong connection to the purpose. Do I view myself as successful? I view myself as having accomplished quite a bit. I'm not at the end of my journey yet, but I've changed how I measure my success over time, so if you would have asked me a number of years ago, I would have told you...

"Well, I got promoted, I now manage this size budget before I only manage this size budget and my team is now this big and before it was this big." Those are the things that I probably would have rattled off to you about, "These are proof points behind my success." But what I look at now, for example, I'm really thrilled that I have a couple of people on my team who have been able to take on new stretch assignments and that I help them to get there. I'm really proud of the fact that my team has accomplished a variety of different things, and my job was to help them to clear... Clear the hurdles, facilitate things. But those are the things that make me feel successful, versus, oh my budget is so big now, or my team is so, so large now. So, in defining success that way, I would say I am achieving some success, but it's better for you to ask the people on my team or the people that I'm mentoring to see, do they feel like they are being successful, and if they are all saying yes, then I would say yes.

Frederic Brunner: I like that. And I heard really two things that I very much... Resonate with me. The second is really, you need to define what is really success for you, and the conventional definition of bigger size is better cannot be just it. It can be part of it, but not limited to. And I also like, for me... And I believe what you said that success with not purpose or without being fulfilled can become empty, you don't know what you do that and I would share that, yeah.

Julie Kim: I mean, look, especially as... And whether you're a parent or you're taking care of your elderly parents, or you have other things in your life that you're doing... Work takes you away from that. And so, for me, and I think for many people, if what is taking you away from what you love, it needs to be equal value, equal purpose, equal drive, in order to take you away from that without you feeling negatively about it, and that's part of that connection, I believe, and that's why some people feel happy, even though they spend a lot of time at work because there is that connection, 'cause they know that that balance, when you're taking away that time, you're using it for something purposeful.

Frederic Brunner: Julie, I'd love to end up our conversation with five quick rapid-fire questions, if that's okay with you? 

Julie Kim: Sure.

Frederic Brunner: Alright, the first one. What did you want to be when you grew up? 

Julie Kim: I actually wanted to be a brain surgeon. I thought it... I didn't know that the term neurosurgeon, but as I said, my parents were doctors and I thought the brain was a really cool thing, so I wanted to be a brain surgeon without really knowing what that meant. [laughter]

Frederic Brunner: Alright, what would you tell your 20-year-old self when you look back now? 

Julie Kim: Don't be afraid to be yourself. Don't try to fit in so much.

Frederic Brunner: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently? 

Julie Kim: I don't know that I would do too much differently. Maybe learn some of those lessons earlier [laughter] as I said, try to be more myself. When you spend so much energy trying to fit in, that's not productive energy, and that energy could be used on things that you can actually do to make yourself better or to provide better outcomes and results, so, not spending so much energy on those things that don't really matter, that's a kind of a generic statement, but that's, I guess, what I would change.

Frederic Brunner: Guilty pleasures.

Julie Kim: Oh, guilty... Korean dramas. [laughter]

Frederic Brunner: Very good. And finally, what is the moment you're the most proud of? 

Julie Kim: Oh, that's a hard one. So I'll give you a work-related one, there are... There are lots of personal ones, but I'll give you a work-related one. The moment that we decided as an organization to put together a coalition to try to find a treatment for Covid 19. It was... We created a coalition with basically our competition, so working with people that on a day-to-day basis, we were fighting against to win market share, but setting all of that aside to say, "Look, this is the biggest public health crisis that we have ever faced, and so, we would be better if we were working together, and so let's do that." And making that decision, bringing everyone together, even though the results didn't end up the way that we wanted to, I'm still really quite proud of Takeda for wanting to do that and for my peers in the industry, for also wanting to work together on that.

Frederic Brunner: Together we're stronger.

Julie Kim: Yes.

Frederic Brunner: Very good. Julie, thank you very much. For all of you listening, this was a chat with Julie Kim, president of the Plasma Derived Therapies Business Unit of Takeda. You can find the entire podcast on Julie it was a such a pleasure to have a chance to share very powerful moments. And I'm grateful we had that conversation. I wish you a great day.

Julie Kim: Thank you, you too.

Frederic Brunner: Thank you for listening to our podcast, we hope you found it insightful. You can listen to more episodes and register to receive notifications when new podcasts are published on our website,


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