Meet BoonHuey Ee of Merck Healthcare

BoonHuey Ee, general manager of Merck Healthcare Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, is a Merck veteran with more than two decades’ experience in the healthcare industry. Ee has acquired in-depth knowledge of local and regional markets and had extensive exposure to various complex healthcare environments from her various managerial roles across the Asia-Pacific region. As a firm believer in partnership, collaboration, and inclusion, Ee is engaged in multiple industry associations and is the co-founder of the Asia Chapter of Global Women in Leadership in Merck.

Ee connected virtually with TOPICS Associate Editor Julia Bergström in October to talk about management, self-awareness, and diversity.

What made you decide to go into the healthcare industry? What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of working in this area?

Looking back, I realize it was a series of serendipitous events that brought me to this industry because I can’t remember intentionally choosing it. My older brother heavily influenced me; he’s a doctor and inspired me to go into medicine.

I grew up close to a clinic. After graduating from high school, I decided to walk up the road and ask if the doctor needed any help and ended up working as her assistant for a few months before going to college. That experience intrigued me and led me to my college major, which was chemistry and biology. My final thesis focused on antimicrobial resistance, complementing my internship experience in hospital labs.

The most rewarding aspect of my job is knowing I’m helping patients. Merck’s purpose is working as one for patients; our everyday work contributes to helping patients have better treatment, as well as to create, improve and prolong life. So, I am reminding myself to continue being patient-centric.

You’ve worked at Merck for nearly two decades in various strategic roles. How has the company’s business strategy changed over the years?

My 17 years at Merck have enabled me to follow the company’s progress and waves of transformation. It’s been exciting to experience this evolution.

Merck is not just a pharma company; we are a science and technology company, operating in healthcare, life sciences and electronics. This has helped us diversify risks and ensure sustainability for generations to follow. I can see the value and impact of Merck’s strategic priorities during COVID-19, from supporting more than 80 companies in COVID-related projects to bolstering the electronic industry’s supply chain and developing new medicines for high unmet needs. I am proud to be part of this.

We want to focus on being the global specialty innovator in healthcare, and work as ONE to create, improve and prolong the lives of patients. We will continue to focus our R&D efforts on Oncology, Immuno Oncology & Immunology as we continue to grow the very resilient core businesses we have. 

What lessons have you brought from your various roles?

All the roles have offered me different experiences, and I am thankful for these opportunities – my various regional roles have exposed me to different cultures and needs of the diverse APAC countries.

My experience in China was particularly interesting. China is a massive and strategic market – very unpredictable and incredibly fast-paced. Every three months, there was something new, a policy change or an announcement affecting our business, and every province is almost like a different country. Working in a very strategic market and having access to all these global leaders gave me a different perspective on what is possible. Learning to be agile in such an environment is critical.

But regardless of the market or position I found myself in, I soon realized that if you go beyond your employees’ gender, nationality, and ethnicity, everyone wants the same thing. They all want to be recognized, to figure out how they can develop and contribute to the team’s success.

You are an avid advocate for public-private partnerships. Can you share some highlights from partnerships you’ve been involved with? Why do you think this is important?

Among other projects, Merck has worked with H. Spectrum (a health tech incubator backed by Foxconn Group) to set up an innovation lab focusing on healthcare and technology, and we partner with the Ministry of Health and Welfare on the government’s precision health initiative. They’re very clear about wanting to build a biomedical industry and focus on precision healthcare, and for them to choose Merck as one of their partners is an honor.

We work with many stakeholders, and each one will have their own priority and agenda. If we can develop shared goals and priorities and understand the stakeholders and how we can contribute, it accelerates everyone’s development.

Whom would you say has had the most significant impact on you as a professional? What lessons did they teach you about doing business?

If I had to choose only one, it would be Dr. Belén Garijo, the current CEO of Merck Group. I knew her when I was working for Merck in China. She made the biggest impact because she pushed me so hard and had high expectations for me – I’d say she’s challenged me more than anyone else. She also inspired me to think big, focus on my goals and aspirations, and find possibilities – what opportunities are there, how do we get them, and how do we motivate others to get there with us?

How have you developed your management style over the years? What is your leadership philosophy?

I’d say I have a high degree of self-awareness. A leader doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room, but they must have a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses and how to leverage them. I also believe in leading with heart, to engage with people down to their core, so I spend a lot of time interacting with my team.

True leadership is about sincerely caring for your employees and wanting them to be the best version of themselves. It’s not enough to assume that they will be inspired by seeing you do your job – you need to be sincere in your engagement and treat everyone as an individual. As little as a half-hour chat once a year can make an enormous difference.

I also constantly talk to people about imposter syndrome. We always think that others are smarter and more capable than we are. A lot of us will feel like we’re not good enough – we expect ourselves to be perfect from the start and tend to forget that work is a continuous learning experience. It’s okay not to be perfect.

You’re also passionate about diversity and inclusion, which prompted you to co-found the Asia Chapter of Global Women in Leadership (WiL) in 2019. What benefits do companies that promote diversity enjoy? Did you face many challenges as a woman in biopharma?

There’s no reason not to promote diversity. Research has proven that diverse companies with an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging generate better financial outcomes and have higher degrees of innovation. Diverse senior management teams also lead to better decision-making.

A high percentage of Merck’s business comes from the APAC region, so we want to have more Asian representation in our global and senior roles. The voices of the employees from this region are critical to our business. Being a female Asian coworker, I’m definitely excited about this.

As a female leader, I face challenges all the time – I’ve always had to work hard to be seen, acknowledged, and respected. Reflecting on my experiences from the past 20 years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to change people’s biases, whether conscious or unconscious. Instead, I’ve learned to call people out, move forward, and not be impacted by prejudice.

Merck’s share of senior female leaders used to be around 30%, so we put a global action team together to investigate where we can promote diversity throughout the lifecycle of an employee. Since then, we’ve gone up to 40% female representation and intend to have a complete gender balance by 2030.

We need to provide our female and early-career employees with the confidence to raise their hand, ask for new projects and assignments, and be more proactive – and as Asians, to learn how to speak up and make themselves visible.

What advice do you have for young people looking to get involved in the biopharma industry?

Having a science degree is usually the first step, but biopharma and healthcare companies are not just commercial or technical positions; we also have human resources, accounting, communications, and an array of other exciting posts to offer.

At the beginning of your career, experience is key. Internships are vital to exploring if the industry is right for you, and they give companies a chance to get to know you.  

At the end of the day, success is closely linked to your attitude, proactiveness, and self-awareness of your skills and strengths. When I interview a group of candidates, a degree is just the basic requirement. I will also want to see who you are. Can you communicate, can you engage? What are your aspirations? Are you able to digest complex topics, adapt, and learn as you go?

How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”

I love getting foot massages – the more painful, the better – because it helps me regain my energy and relax. I’m also an avid photographer. For me, photography is about challenging perspectives. I’m not particularly eager to carry around heavy equipment, but it’s incredible what an iPhone can do nowadays. I particularly enjoy exploring Taiwan – it’s such a lovely island. The ocean always gives me peace, and even during typhoons, I like to stand by the coast and watch the waves.

My husband and I also go sailing around Taiwan. We consider ourselves explorers, and I think our expeditions abroad will continue in the future.