Memorial lecture reveals what quest for COVID-19 vaccines reveals about purpose of business

Emma Walmsley & Zanny Minton Bedoes

The Chief Executive of GlaxoSmithKline, Emma Walmsley, has discussed what the quest for COVID-19 vaccines has revealed about the purpose of business during this year’s Helen Alexander Memorial Lecture.

Walmsley, who topped Fortune Magazine’s ‘Most Powerful International Women’ list in 2018, is the first (and only) woman in the world to run a major pharmaceutical company.

Now in its third year, the Lecture honours the memory of Dame Helen – an extraordinary, pioneering and much-loved figure known for her humanity and inclusive approach to business – who served as an endearing ambassador for the University of Southampton as Chancellor from 2011 until her death in 2017.

The Lecture, first delivered in 2018 by Christine Lagarde, the then-Managing Director of the IMF, is supported by Dame Helen’s family and by four organisations with which she was closely associated: The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), The Economist, the University of Southampton and Informa.

Dame Helen Alexander
Dame Helen Alexander

This year’s event, held online for the first time, took the form of a virtual fireside chat with Walmsley hosted by Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist. With an overarching theme of “Women on Business” the two discussed a number of issues relating to the impact of the pandemic for pharmaceutical companies and wider economy, as well as the role of business leaders and a diverse workforce during this unprecedented period.

“There is so much excitement in innovation,” said Walmsley. “The acceleration of investment, and the advancement in technologies in vaccine testing has been staggering.

“We recognise that so much of our research starts at universities and we are so proud and thankful to have such a great relationship with the University of Southampton,” she continued. “It’s these strong relationships that provide the UK with a true competitive advantage in research & development.”

All of the event’s online guests had an exclusive opportunity to join a live Q&A session, opened by University of Southampton Professor Diana Eccles, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Fourteen students from across the University also played a prominent role in the Q&A, asking thought-provoking questions about leadership and Walmsley’s own career trajectory as well as the role of innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, and guidance on graduate employment during this challenging time.

Professor Eccles praised the partnership between the University of Southmpton and GSK, commending the multiple ways the two institutions work together – from respiratory research through to cancer immunology.

“It is partnerships with industry, like the one we enjoy with GSK, that enabled us to move quickly to address the pandemic and which has highlighted the need for collaboration to solve our big human challenges,” she enthused.

Professor Mark Spearing, Vice President (Research and Enterprise) at the University, said: “Emma’s talk explored purpose in business and, in particular, the value of a diverse workforce. The University is proud to be a founding partner of this important annual event and even more so because it celebrates some of our core values including diversity and inclusion.”

The full lecture is available to video here online.

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