Meet Jae Yeon Choi of MSD

Managing Director of MSD Taiwan Jae Yeon Choi’s career took a sudden turn when she interviewed for a position in the pharmaceutical industry. Choi immediately knew she had found the right place and has for the last two decades been dedicated to improving the industry, first in Korea and since 2020 in Taiwan.

Choi’s biggest motivation at work is the mission to make a positive impact on more patients in Taiwan. Her humble, team-focused managerial approach has earned her numerous business awards.

TOPICS Editor Julia Bergström caught up with Choi in September at MSD’s Taiwan office, where they discussed the responsibility shouldered by leaders, the importance of being yourself, and how public-private partnerships can revolutionize healthcare. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

What attracted you to the pharmaceutical industry? Do you see any advantages of not having a “typical” pharma background?  

My first permanent job was at a government agency, but I did not like its rigid and hierarchical culture. I wanted to change my career by getting into the movie industry, which I had long been dreaming about back then, I pursued an MBA degree and tried to knock on the industry’s door. However, there was a huge gap between my aspirations and reality, so I had to experience a setback. Then I was invited to interview with Eli Lilly. I joined the interview because I thought it would be interesting to delve into this industry because of the noble mission – it’s about saving and improving people’s lives. My internship program was awesomely interesting, and I met many very intelligent and impressive people. I realized quickly that this was the industry for me.

Back in the early 2000s, when I joined, I started somewhat disadvantaged but my unusual background quickly became my advantage because it was a humbling experience, and I had to study a lot by myself. These days there’s not really a “typical” pharma background unless you’re in manufacturing or R&D.

One of the advantages of having my type of background was that the industry used a very conventional business model, and the team was very much focused on people who had knowledge and experience with the pharma industry. I thought about the business model and the message a bit differently because I saw things from a family member’s point of view. My dad was a diabetic patient, and I lost some relatives to cancer, which enabled me to see things from the general public’s perspective.

Did you have anyone you would consider a mentor in your early career? How did their guidance help shape you as a professional?

I’m blessed to have had many mentors throughout my career, but if I had to pick one, I’d say my mother. She was an entrepreneur back in the 1980s and 90s in Korea in the construction materials industry, which was extremely male-dominated back then. She was one of the very few female drivers, and she was one of the very few female entrepreneurs when she started. From a young age, I saw how much responsibility she shouldered.

She taught me why trust is the starting point of everything. And equally importantly, she highlighted a sense of responsibility. Ultimately, you are responsible for your people. Unfortunately, my mom’s company went bankrupt due to the financial crisis. But she took care of her people until the very last moment. We had to sell many personal properties because our culture believes in the power of leaders’ personal sacrifice and commitment. My mom retired quite a time ago, but some of her old employees are still our friends and considered family members.

That sense of responsibility for and trust in people is something I still carry today. I try to be involved in the recruiting process as much as possible because it’s not just about the company selecting people – the candidates are also selecting the company and me as a leader. Work is a mutual learning experience, so I want to make sure there’s an alignment of the mission we’re pursuing and that we all move toward the same goal.

How have you developed your management style over the years? Do you have a particular leadership philosophy that you follow? 

I became a country leadership member at a relatively young age. When I first took on a managerial role, I tried to copy charismatic leaders because I thought that was the leadership standard. But very soon, I realized that you can’t lead if you’re not being yourself. I’m pretty approachable and a strong team player, so I worked on amplifying those qualities instead of pretending to be someone I’m not.

I often think about legacy and impact. Managers take care of their job during the course of their tenure, but leaders think about what kind of legacy they will leave behind so that the organization continues sustainable growth after they leave. My definition of success is that people won’t remember me after I’m gone – meaning that the organization will be able to continue to be successful, capable, and strong. That requires empowering others and not gatekeeping knowledge.

What motivates you to do your best every day?

Mission is my biggest motivator. In pharma, the harder you work and the more effort you put in, the more lives you can save and improve. Every job contributes to society, but the impact is so visible and tangible in pharma. My dad used one of our products when he had diabetes, and I witnessed first-hand how his quality of life improved and how he could spend more time with family.

At work, we have many debates. We sometimes agree to disagree but, in the end, we all want to positively impact the lives of patients, caregivers, and families. I’m very proud when I tell my kids about my job. At first I had a hard time explaining what I do, but now I explain my job by saying, “mom is helping people live longer and healthier.”

You and MSD are active advocates for public-private partnerships in healthcare. Why is this so important? Do you see any positive changes on the horizon? 

When we talk about PPPs, it easily becomes just industry jargon, but I see it as a must. We, the industry, know the science and innovation, and the government knows how to efficiently bring our innovations to the broader population. The most important thing is that we have the same goal.

I’m very glad that the government is dedicated to the Taiwanese people’s health. We may have different agendas and perspectives, but when we all focus on improving the Taiwanese public’s health, we have endless opportunities to achieve amazing things. We saw a great example of best practices for public-private partnerships in Taiwan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even when tackling a complex topic like affordability, which is something that one party can’t resolve alone, I see a willingness from both sides to collaborate here. If we work together, we’ll see things from different perspectives and maximize synergies.

What advice would you give to young professionals looking to advance their careers? Is there a certain mindset that helped you along the way?

My first advice is to get to know yourself. We often think about how to please others, learn from others, and forget that we may have the answer ourselves. In your career, having a philosophy and knowing your goals and passions will be very important. And you’ll need to know when enough is enough.

Secondly, be kind to yourself. You’ve already started a very challenging journey, so give yourself a break. Don’t criticize yourself too much.

Thirdly, prioritize professionalism. Own your profession. You’re not just working for a company – you are your own brand, and you possess valuable knowledge and qualities. If you think of yourself as a professional, you won’t work just to please your boss or your company, but you will work for your mission and your own goals, which can carry you further.

What do you like to do in your free time to unwind from work?

Learning agility is one thing, but unlearning agility is equally important, so I make an effort to unwind and vacate my perceptions. I found that the best way to do that is to play with my kids.

I often ask my kids questions about issues I’m dealing with to gain new perspectives. They’re ten years old and very creative, and when I play with them, I can focus on other things than work but also borrow their wisdom. I truly believe that we learn from each other.

Another interest I recently discovered was ping-pong. I was inspired by a game during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics between a 17-year-old Korean player and a 58-year-old player for Luxembourg. What are the chances that two players with a more than 40 years age gap can create such an exciting game together in the Olympics? That’s possible in ping-pong.

I quickly realized just how wonderful and fun ping-pong is. When I play, I can only focus on what I’m doing. It’s a great way to unwind and vacate your thoughts, just focusing on this tiny little ball. I’m not too fond of sports with a lot of gadgets – the simpler, the better. Ping-pong is affordable, and it doesn’t get impacted by the weather, so I’d recommend it to anyone. I also look forward to playing with my twins like the two players who overcame their generation gap in sports.