Portrait image of Role Model Helen Yuanyuan Cao
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Role Model: Helen Yuanyuan Cao

Role Model: Helen Yuanyuan Cao

Photo by Soeren Funk

Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!

I was born in China and moved to Germany with my family at the age of 11. After attending school in Germany, I spent time in the US, China, France, Belgium and now have been living in Switzerland for 6 years.

Being exposed to different cultures and different ways of thinking and interpreting the world from an early age definitely shaped my view and who I have become. Perhaps there is also a sense of curiosity that came from the different exposures as I studied three degrees, starting with business, followed by international affairs and then neurobiology.

Career-wise, I started in Management Consulting at Bain and then moved to the space of biotech and life sciences almost 15 years ago and this is where I have been since. It is an industry I feel very committed to given how innovative and exciting it is and because of the impact on society overall!

After spending time in companies of different sizes and roles of increasing responsibility I am today Chief Operating & Chief Innovation Officer at a medical diagnostics company. I also lecture in universities on innovation and mentor and invest in startups. In addition, I am on the advisory board of the MBA program for Digital Business and Digital Marketing at University Nürtingen Geislingen.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

My parents are first-generation immigrants and instilled a type of can-do attitude in me. As an immigrant you are constantly faced with new things and situations that are completely unfamiliar, so you just have to figure out so many things on your way. You learn and adapt to it. Also, growing up I never heard gendered messages from my parents, in the sense that girls do certain things vs boys do other things. I was born during the one-child-policy era of China and perhaps if you only get to raise one child, you think they can do everything. It also helps that I come from families of strong women.

How did you become interested in tech?

If we define technology as a method to apply knowledge to solve problems then I was interested in it early on, coming from a family of scientists. My personal interest is particularly linked to technology applied to the field of biology, life sciences and healthcare. These are such fascinating fields and developing at lightning speed.

In addition, I am also interested in consumer-related technological changes in general, from a product and tools perspective as well as how these technologies change society.

Spending two years in Silicon Valley showed me an ecosystem, an innovation culture that was palpable everywhere. Witnessing how fast sometimes new technologies are translated into companies and changes in people’s lives and societies at large was fascinating. In addition, I think it is also important to think critically ahead of societal impact of technological advances.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

I love working in biotech and am certainly proud to be working in this industry. The field of diagnostics is key for clinical decision-making. And due to the COVID pandemic, the importance and impact of diagnostics has become known to the broad public in a way that was never the case before.

I am proud if I can make a positive impact on the lives of people around me in the day-to-day. Anyone who is leading teams has a tremendous impact on the lives of their teams. When I became a team leader more than 10 years ago, I realized that I had this responsibility to create a positive impact in how my teams feel about their work and their lives. How they go home differently at the end of each day depends on how they experience their work, how valued they feel as people. 

I believe that fundamentally we hold keys in creating a positive impact in society by creating workplaces that are inspiring, nurturing and that help people grow.
square image of Role Model Helen Yuanyuan Cao
Helen Yuanyuan Cao
Indical Bioscience

 With increasing team responsibility, I experienced that aspect more and more and am proud of it.

What was your biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?

I witnessed a few company reorganizations and restructurings early in my career, the first time during an internship when I was still in high school. The human impact came as a shock to me then.

While the reasons why such reorganizations are done are often understandable, I saw that how they are done is what matters to the lives of people impacted. In the roles I had I certainly also had to make decisions about reorganizations and restructurings from time to time and in those times, I asked myself what the best possible “how” was.

How does digitalization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?

Certainly biotechnology, medical diagnostics and healthcare at large are advancing fast with digitalization, and this brings more career opportunities to all in the industry, I would say women and men alike.

In addition, digitalization really helps to connect more people that are geographically not in the same location. This is a big deal as it vastly increases networks and therefore impact. It increases the exposure of people to contacts as well as ideas. I have an international network, both professionally and privately and rely on digital means to maintain and nurture them.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

I sometimes get asked from younger women (and men) looking for career advice which areas/industries/functions they should develop their careers in. In addition to following your own intrinsic area of interest, I would think about how the world of the future looks and which topics may belong to the future and go towards that direction. Now, we are not particularly good at predicting the future to be sure. That said, it is possible to recognize which industries are on the rise and which are not.

Developing oneself in rising industries means more interesting topics and more opportunities as well. You will grow with the industry and any expertise developed will be in high demand.

Another piece of advice that is given often and rightly so is to build your network. In addition to networks within the organizations I worked in and the several universities I attended, I am a member of several external networks such as GenerationCEO, a network of female executives as well as Women’s Forum, Capital 40 under 40 and 2hearts Community. Over time these networks have grown to be incredibly helpful and strong, beyond what I could have imagined when I first started building them.

Just imagine what the person sitting next to you in your first semester in college or first job is doing today and you realize that the members of your network grow with you and you with them.

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