Virginia Lazala: The Mentor

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Virginia Lazala, VP & Legal Section Head, Novartis

Spend some time with Virginia Lazala, and you’ll come to the realization that you actually can have it all.

Lazala holds two prestigious positions: vice president and legal head of the Latin America and Canada (LACan) region for Novartis Oncology, an independent business unit within Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. She is also head of legal for Novartis Oncology Global Human Resources. She was a hands-on mom and raised two now-grown children that she’s incredibly proud of. High school students, up-and-coming attorneys, and Novartis employees alike seek her professional advice, which she loves sharing through numerous mentoring programs. Her network is stronger than titanium, and she loves sharing it. Accolades, too, honor her accomplishments, including being named one of Hispanic Business’s 15 Elite Women to Watch. One more thing—the woman can pedal circles around anyone in her daily 5:45 a.m. spin class.

“Yes, you can have it all—just not all at the same time,” Lazala counsels those seeking her guidance. “As a working woman and mother, I’ve had struggles and made choices—sometimes very difficult choices.”

To jump these hurdles without regret, Lazala focused on the big picture—rather than expecting to “have it all” on a daily basis. Embracing this philosophy has helped her skillfully and triumphantly navigate the life she dreamed about from an early age.

A DREAM COME TRUE

“My mother and I left the Dominican Republic and moved to the South Bronx when I was five. So, I have that immigrant work ethic. My mother taught me that you go to school, work hard, and that’s how you fulfill the American dream—which is why we came here in the first place,” Lazala recalls.

With education as step one toward her dreams, a young Lazala began her academic career in a New York City public school’s gifted program. A Better Chance, dedicated to giving talented young, underprivileged people, and people of color increased access to academically advanced independent and public schools, awarded Lazala a scholarship to attend high school at the prestigious Friends Seminary in Manhattan. Next, it was on to Wellesley College for undergrad and then Georgetown University Law Center for her JD degree. It was official: Lazala was the first in her family to complete high school, earn a college degree, and, to date, graduate from law school.

Immediately after passing the bar, Lazala joined the Office of the Bronx District Attorney as an assistant DA, where she stayed from 1986 to 1989. Then, for eleven years, she honed her litigation skills with several different private law firms.

In 1998, Lazala faced one of those “very difficult choices.” Should she press her career forward or briefly step off the fast track to be a hands-on mom? “It wasn’t an easy decision—my career has always been important to me. But my family has always been most important,” Lazala stresses. So she took a position that would allow her more control of her time as in-house senior vice president and bank counsel with Hudson United Bank (now TD Bank).

By 2000, Lazala followed a lead into Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, located in East Hanover, New Jersey, and an affiliate of Novartis AG, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. As her children grew, Lazala gradually expanded her role within Novartis and eventually settled into her current position with Novartis Oncology.

When Lazala lays out her academic and professional timeline, she’s quick to punctuate milestones with people and programs that helped her step ever closer to fulfilling the American dream. To honor her benefactors, Lazala is dedicated to giving back, whether on a global level through her position with Novartis Oncology or through mentoring programs.

IN GOOD COMPANY

Giving back is a big reason why Lazala remains with Novartis Oncology. “I work beside brilliant people who are hell-bent on finding cures for different oncology diseases,” she stresses. “It’s wonderful to say I work for a company that helps save lives.”

As head of legal for the LACan Region, she supports medical, marketing, and sales efforts so Novartis Oncology can maximize every opportunity to safely and legally bring cancer drugs as quickly as possible to the eleven countries and sub-regions under her watch.

Lazala proudly plays her role in helping Novartis Oncology meet its goal to improve the lives of cancer patients around the world. At the same time, it’s a responsibility fraught with challenges. “From a legal perspective, getting our oncology products on formulary and bringing them to Latin American countries and Canada can be difficult,” Lazala says. “Many of the countries I deal with are politically unstable, which explains why a lot of pharmaceutical companies have left these regions. We have not. We put patients first; we’re not going to abandon them.”

In her role in Novartis Oncology, Lazala helps oversee the Novartis Oncology legal team, located in the company’s East Hanover site. Taking a page out of her human resources clients’ playbook, in 2015, Lazala took the lead in doubling her team’s size—a move necessitated by Novartis Oncology’s acquisition of the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) oncology drug portfolio.

Lazala is admittedly proud of building out the new legal team, since the additional staff helped Novartis Oncology bring the newly acquired GSK oncology drugs to more patients and societies. Although, Lazala adds, it was an arduous task. “We were a small, cohesive, and very collaborative legal team. It was important to bring the right people on board so we could protect that dynamic. And the way Novartis Legal works, every day is different. We needed lawyers who can switch their focus on a dime. We did it and we’re a phenomenal team,” she says with pride.

PAYING IT FORWARD

Moving from the global stage to a one-on-one scenario, Lazala also gives back through mentoring programs—some official, some on the fly.

“As I was coming up, I benefited a lot from others helping me. So now, if I can help clear a path for others, I’m happy to do it.”

One mentoring avenue is the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Program (NJ LEEP), which provides inner city high school students with mentorships and internships. Lazala has been involved with NJ LEEP for four years, serving on its board, working with students, and, along the way, earning the program’s Diversity in the Legal Profession award.

“As I was coming up, I benefited a lot from others helping me. So now, if I can help clear a path for others, I’m happy to do it.”

Virginia Lazala

“This is an amazing program,” Lazala says. “It’s based on a law curriculum. That means our students are debating complex legal issues, which helps them learn to think on their feet and articulate their position clearly and concisely. They’re often doing this in front of New Jersey Supreme Court justices. In this way, we help our students improve their academic skills, interpersonal skills, and ultimately gain entry into college—and to date, 100 percent of our students have gone on to college.”

Lazala also devotes considerable time to mentoring attorneys and others within the Novartis company. “One of the things I enjoy most is helping newer employees  learn to navigate our matrix. I’m a connector by nature, and I know a lot of people in the organization, so I almost always can point my mentees to the right person to help resolve an issue or answer a question,” she says.

Some of this mentoring is official, through Novartis programs that match employees with mentors. However, Lazala adds, “a lot of what I do is not official. I’ve been known to take young employees under my wing.”

And as Lazala watches each mentee take flight, she assures them that they can have it all—just not all at the same time. But eventually, if they work hard and keep dreaming, they’ll have a life that embraces those they love as much as the professional success they seek.