There is no question why Novavax sought out Dr. Henrietta Ukwu in 2021 to lead as executive vice president and chief regulatory officer for the global biotechnology company that is committed to addressing serious infectious diseases.
As a respected author of a 2011 textbook on global regulatory systems—which set the standard for global regulatory leadership principles—and her follow-up book on leadership in 2020 titled ABCs of Leadership, Ukwu’s advice denotes a leader who isn’t just an expert physician but also a thought leader in an incredibly complex, global industry.
Ukwu has worked on the front lines of two pandemics. At Merck, Ukwu helped develop Indinavir, a protease inhibitor that, when used in combination with other protease inhibitors, can markedly decrease morbidity and mortality in people with HIV. Over the past few years at Novavax, Ukwu helped the company deliver its own COVID-19 vaccine after the pandemic swept the world in 2020.
In her current role, Ukwu is tasked with cultivating relationships with regulatory agencies across the globe to help position Novavax for successful delivery of innovative vaccines for diseases like COVID-19, influenza, RSV, and malaria. She has helped the company collaborate with leading organizations and regulatory agencies across the global vaccine landscape to help ensure access to vaccines and increase uptake worldwide.
“We value the relationships that have been fostered with important decision-making entities that support Novavax’s opportunity to serve as a true difference maker in the collective current and future battle against infectious diseases,” she explains.
V Is for Vision
Bringing awareness to the field of regulatory affairs is a broader component of what Ukwu sees as an invaluable trait for a leader: vision.
“Vision always comes first. Without knowing where you want to go, you’re never going to get anywhere.” Ukwu says. “You ultimately walk your way backward from where you want to be to determine the gaps, develop the strategy, and figure out how to get to your destination and achieve the goals.”
There’s another word that comes up a lot when speaking with Ukwu: courage. Whether it was transitioning from academic medicine to a pharmaceutical company early in her career or leading increasingly larger teams working on cutting-edge treatments for debilitating diseases, Ukwu has had to become comfortable with discomfort. Steep learning curves are just part of the journey, and navigating those curves offers its own reward when one reaches the summit.
As one might expect from the author of leadership books, there are dozens of words that Ukwu doesn’t let pass through her lips without paying attention to their meaning. The C’s alone get ample airtime.
“It’s not just courage, but curiosity and creativity,” Ukwu says. “Curiosity is what attracts leaders to change and what brought me to Novavax. Seeing the buoyancy and the robustness of the portfolio makes my adrenaline flow.”
Tribute and Testimonial
Ukwu’s appreciation for leadership runs deep. Growing up in Nigeria, Ukwu fondly reflects on her father’s incredible example of leadership. He served as a community leader and would go on to become the account general for one of Nigeria’s twelve states, and later the chairman of the African Continental Bank. Ukwu’s father lived his faith, which Ukwu carries on to this day.
“My father was my first cheerleader, my champion, and my absolute idol,” Ukwu explains. “He also gave my family the anchor of God and the Holy Spirit. God gave me this life, and my mother and father showed me how to live our faith in the world.”
She carried on her father’s leadership legacy and earned her own recognition in 2022 as one of PharmaVoice’s 100 Legacy Leaders, the 2012 Pharmavoice Inspirational leader, and the 2011 TOPRA Award for Regulatory Excellence and Leadership.
As a result, she’s set a path for all three of her children, who are physicians, to follow in her footsteps, “while wearing their shoes and leaving their own footprints”—something that inspires more personal joy for Ukwu than any award could ever bring.
Ukwu is a physician, an infectious disease expert, a thought leader, a leadership guru, an author, a wife, a mother, an executive, and a person of faith. She is responsible for over twenty-seven global product approvals across multiple therapy areas and platforms. What could possibly be next for someone who has done so much?
“I throw parties regardless of how busy I am,” Ukwu says with a laugh. “Whether there’s anything to celebrate or not, I just love to be surrounded by family and friends. That’s when my energy is at its fullest.”