October 1, 2019
By Timothy Goodenow
When someone believes in you, everything can change. That’s especially true for a child, who is fearless and willing to work hard to achieve a goal if they know their parents believe in them. Just ask Yanira Santos, head of Site Operations at Mylan’s Caguas, Puerto Rico, facility.
The Puerto Rican-born Santos grew up surrounded by a population of hard workers who are intensely proud of their people and their culture. And that childhood helped shape the journey that led her to become the leader of a major pharmaceutical operation.
“From the very beginning, I learned some key values from my parents,” shared Santos. “They taught me the importance of prioritizing and getting the most out of what’s in front of me. I was lucky to have them, who along with my grandmother, set a clear expectation for me.”
Laying the foundation for having a strong work ethic were her mother, who worked as an operator in the medical device industry, and her father, who was employed by a local telephone company.
High expectations also carried over into the classroom – a place Santos saw as an opportunity to succeed and help establish a professional career.
“My parents told us, ‘We don’t have money, but we can give you the best education possible to position yourself for success,’” Santos said.
Taking it to heart, Santos took her studies seriously and found a passion for engineering.
“I’ve wanted to be an engineer for as long as I can remember. I enjoyed school, in particular math and science activities,” she said.
Santos went on to study industrial engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, and in the summer months, she would work for her mom’s company. These summer jobs provided her real-world experience, testing her ability to improve systems and processes.
Diving into Pharma
Pharmaceutical companies began establishing operations in Puerto Rico in the 1960s. Today, pharma remains the island's most prominent industry.
Santos took learnings from her co-op and launched her professional career with GlaxoSmithKline in Cidra, Puerto Rico. Her first job was as a Packaging supervisor, roughly 25 years ago, in a male-dominated environment.
“I’m blessed to have grown up during the booming era of the pharmaceutical industry (in Puerto Rico),” said Santos. “My very first boss was a woman, and she was leading the operations department and instilled in me the ability to have confidence in myself and my skill set.”
Santos continued to develop as a leader and take on additional roles of increasing responsibilities. She would spend two decades learning the ins and outs of manufacturing operations, asking for more influence across different plants and warehouses.
Her continued rise in management roles was perhaps a result of Santos’ ability to see the “big picture” and an openness to seek input from people across the organization.
“I learned early in my career that one person cannot do it all,” explained Santos. “There are many smart and talented individuals who work alongside me every day. I’d be foolish not to seek their input, whether its strategic planning or every day problem solving on the shop floor.”
Remaining True to Herself
Many industries, including manufacturing, find themselves in a constant state of reinvention and empowering women is a critical component to the future of the industry. Efforts to advance women leaders weren’t always a focus.
“I started my career in operations and it was very heavy on the male side,” recalled Santos. “But I always had confidence in my abilities and did not think of being in the minority. I didn’t try to be someone else. I focused on being me and on the work that was in front of me. And at the end of the day, that was good enough for my colleagues.”
Mylan is supportive of ensuring women’s voices are heard and their expertise is valued. Mylan’s own Heather Bresch, who has held more than 15 roles over her 27-year tenure with the company -- made history as the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 global pharmaceutical company. And today, women lead prominent departments such as Global R&D and Regulatory Affairs, Global Policy, Global Sustainability and Global Communications, among others.
“Often the tone starts at the top, and we have been blessed to have a strong CEO who happens to be a female,” Santos said. “At Mylan, I feel they view roles and responsibilities as being performed by people, not so much by a man or woman. But I continue to see women across our network assume more leadership positions. And that’s a good thing.”
Two years ago, Santos joined Mylan as Caguas’ senior director of operations, before being named site lead earlier this year. She leads an oral solid dose site that specializes in manufacturing high potent products – drugs that evoke a given response at low concentrations, requiring particular care and attention in ensuring the safety for those involved in handling of the materials.
“I come to work each day, energized by the people around me who are deeply committed to Mylan’s mission,” said Santos. “While some days are harder than others, I truly enjoy coming to work because I know what we do matters to people around the world. We have the opportunity to positively impact people’s health.”
Santos’ success perhaps stems from her ability to attack each issue with a sense of urgency. Any failure or setback requires quick action.
“Yanira has the ability to bring a team together and be the team player you want in a leader, while also being able to make a difficult decision on her own,” said Lourdes Melendez, Mylan Caguas’ senior director of HR and EH&S. “Her leadership style and team-first approach is very much appreciated at the site. We are often able to do more and get things done because of her passion and energy.”
Never one to stand still, Santos is active in her community and passionate about preparing the next generation of island workers. She spends some of her time with the Puerto Rico Manufacturing Association and its Women’s Chapter Committee, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and has worked extended volunteer hours with SBP in Puerto Rico.
Youth today are exposed to the concept of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) but tend to leave STEM-related education paths and professions due to the organizational climate and lack of mentorship.
“Mentoring and coaching these students, in particular the young ladies, has been very rewarding. They are our future and some just need a few words of wisdom to encourage them along,” said Santos.
Decades after listening to her parents, Santos is now on the giving end of advice to the next generation of manufacturing leaders.