There are no job titles and all the 'neighbours' know what each other is capable of. Gilda credits some of her success with being fired, taking her clients and staff with her and creating a company she is extremely proud of. Read her fascinating story told through our Women in Science interview.
Could you give us an overview of your work?
I established PQE Group as a start-up in 1998 in Florence, Italy, offering quality services to pharmaceutical companies for all phases of the drug lifecycle, from molecule creation through clinical trials to production, regulatory approval, and distribution of the licensed drug. Specifically, from the very beginning, a very significant part involved the verification of regulatory requirements, emphasizing "computer compliance" or the preparation of all the documentation necessary to demonstrate that the implementation of a computerized or automated system does have positive impact on the quality of the drug.
Since 2011, growth has been exponential, today reaching more than 2,000 employees worldwide and, in addition to Italy, offices in countries including China, Japan, India (two offices), Israel, Russia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Spain (two offices), Switzerland, Great Britain, the United States (five offices), Mexico, Brazil, France, Canada, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia. In addition, in recent years and fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic, PQE Group has developed new service models dedicated to remote and virtual reality technologies to guarantee the same quality to its customers and create a strategic asset for competing companies. In one of the most challenging years globally, PQE Group saw an 18 percent growth in revenues and, for the first time, the sale of products integrated with services for offshore activities through Smartglasses and advanced software.
When did you realize you were interested in science, as a young child, teen or older?
I grew up in a family of medical professionals; both my mother and father were physicians and my sister is a nurse, so I’ve always been exposed to science and wellness. Growing up in that environment led me to have strong feelings about healthcare. Although I did not become a medical/healthcare provider, I matched my family background and culture with what I studied – data science and statistics – and that is where the magic happened for me.
In the years that have followed, I have developed an extremely diverse and international background. I worked in numerous cities in Europe, as well as in Canada, and just before starting PQE Group, I worked for an English company, which led to my becoming an entrepreneur (more about that to come). In comparison with today’s entrepreneurs, this happened at a later stage of life, so I’ve experienced the path of growing my career working for others to ultimately establishing, and growing my own company into a large, global organization.
Could you describr your personal journey bringing us up to where you are now?
After graduating from Bocconi University (Milan) with a degree in Economic Statistics, I worked for a major magazine in Europe on the editorial side and I then moved to Canada where I continued my education at McGill University. Clearly, data management is highly important to me and, as an IT and statistics professional, I view data management and IT as two critical areas that combine to become one essential entity. As a result of this viewpoint and my extensive experience, based on the numerous validation projects I have performed and the training activities I have conducted for regulatory bodies, I am now seen as an expert in the field of IT systems validation internationally, and I am also a certified Tick-IT and PDA auditor and have participated in numerous training meetings on FDA audits and inspections.
Following completion of my education, I worked in the Information Technology sector for national and international companies including Siemens Data (Milan) and Edicon (Montreal). Before founding PQE, I held the positions of IT Manager for the Menarini Group’s Spanish subsidiary in Barcelona, Operations Manager for F&J Systems Italia, and Executive Validation Consultant for M.I.S.
And then I became the general manager for the Italy affiliate of a company headquartered in London -- one of the first companies in the world that managed data integrity for life sciences and validated IT systems for pharmaceutical companies. It was then that it became clear to me that this was the future – the impending transformation from paper to digital systems. In an effort to make more money, the company decided to sell software as well. While this may have been profitable in the short-term, I knew that as technology is constantly changing it would not work in the long-term. I was also asked to sell software and validation services together, which I was very opposed to because how can you validate software when it is the very software you sold? There was no neutrality in this; in my opinion, it was unethical and I refused to do it. And so – I was fired from my job. It was then that I decided to start my own company – one where employees had job security and respect!
Fortunately, the clients I was working with when I lost my job chose to stay with me; those early employees became my senior executive staff and are still with me to this day, 25 years after establishing PQE Group.
What challenges did you face, as a woman or otherwise, along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?
As I’ve mentioned, the idea of starting my own business came in 1998, when after some successful years as a consultant, I was fired for not supporting my employer’s vision of selling, simultaneously, software products and validation services. My vision since that day was to create an organization that would appreciate and respect its employees, help them learn, grow and be successful, and at the same time, support pharmaceutical clients to achieve quality and compliance for their products. I wanted to create a business where people think outside of the box, especially in the male-dominated field of IT Consultancy (40% of PQE Group’s employee base are women), where most of the competition utilizes staffing agencies. Our approach is based on having core employees with a high level of expertise - homegrown managers and young talents that can develop their skills within our community, providing turnkey solutions and effective management to our clients.
More recently, I think that, like so many other companies, the Covid pandemic created huge challenges for us. Italy was hit hard, and many of us got sick, lost loved ones, and of course, we were in lock-down mode for some time. I am so proud of my staff, who persevered throughout and worked from home, identified remote ways of working that were very useful and successful (and are still used to this day), and were creative with ways to support our company and our clients despite the obstacles created by the pandemic. And while I have always given all of my staff substantial leeway to exercise their own ideas and offer new ways of working, perhaps Covid helped reinforce that concept is the best way to lead – give people the ability to grow and thrive, and respect and appreciate their new ideas, unique skill sets, and ways of accomplishing objectives.
Today, I think that a large challenge is to maintain business continuity in a world where socioeconomic, geopolitical, and environmental changes are alarming. In addition, immigration has had an impact on societies – populations are moving from countries to escape war and poverty and to enhance their opportunities - and this has had an influence on our hiring; PQE Group is a multicultural company with a global view that believes everyone can easily move, for example, despite war and instability.
What ignites your passion in your current role?
I have an intense desire to identify treatments for women-specific issues that have, particularly in underserved populations, numerous unmet needs. PQE Group is also excited about its initiatives to promote the Femtech revolution. We recently established a new medical arm, ResQ-UP, which combines PQE Group’s traditional business with medical services by creating a one-stop shop that will provide all required assistance to emerging companies from a basic idea to product approval by regulatory authorities. ResQ-UP intends to provide clinical studies design (acting as a small and niche CRO) for solutions to women-specific illnesses, for example, endometriosis, for which no medical treatments other than surgery currently exist.
I continue to learn something new every day, so being humble and curious at work – that is where much of my passion comes from. I am also an avid reader of books, which help stimulate my ideas. And I feel very comfortable with change – which today, is constant, fast, and mandatory – but it excites me, lifts me up and I do have a passion for continual change.
What is your current work ethos/style?
My vision is, as it always has been, to create a work environment with no discrimination. I recognize and value how diversity and talent development can be a great added value to business models at all levels. I evaluate the company's performance not only by revenue but by the number of people we have hired because my mission as an entrepreneur is to employ as many people as possible regardless of gender, race, religion, and age. And as I have since the beginning, I make a strong effort to meet, understand, and listen to every one of my employees, identify their strongest skills, and ensure their positions utilize those skills.
I’ve been fortunate that the people who make up PQE Group are dedicated, passionate, and kind. Our culture has continued to evolve into one that is focused on being diverse and inclusive, socially responsible, helpful and collaborative. Most of the PQE Group employees participate in CSR activities and team building initiatives. We have internal communications people in all of our regions who regularly disseminate news and information via various channels, and who work with the PQE Group staff in their regions on team and community efforts. We are open and communicative, and ensure that information is shared and participation is encouraged. We work hard, but we also have fun.
Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?
My advice to budding women professionals and entrepreneurs is to stay strong, maintain robust networks throughout your industry, be open to suggestions and help from others, and never stop learning and growing – yourself as well as your company! I think that women should not imitate men, but should foster a new leadership style based more on soft values and a revolutionary approach. Join organizations that have – or for entrepreneurs, be sure to hire -- like-minded people whose values reflect yours, participate in and maintain a healthy company culture, and ensure your colleagues and employees feel empowered and included. Stay on top of industry trends and requirements to ensure clients always receive the most current and relevant support. Fully respect and appreciate your clients, your colleagues, and your staff. And always, be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to enjoy the softer areas of life as well as the tougher requirements of growing a career and/or leading a company.
Never complain, stay open minded, and learn new things every day. Certainly, at some point you’ll need luck, but learn to recognize it and grab it – remember, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Communication is critical– you need to convey what you are able to do. Value yourself internally. Network with colleagues and voice your interests; this is a good way of showing your capabilities.
I like my company to work like a small English village where everyone knows each other. There are no job titles but everyone knows what their neighbors are good at and people come to others not because of who they are, but because of what they can do. For a role in the community, you must be smart in communicating your skills. Be involved in the life of the company. Network. If you work remotely you still need to work with others to grow your career. Be committed to your job and company and show that commitment. Those are some of the things that are most important!