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Aliya Omer (MSE 2002) is currently the vice president and head of Global Portfolio and Program Strategy for Kite Pharma, a pioneer in CAR T-cell therapy—the reengineering of individuals’ cells to fight cancer. Omer’s team shapes the long-term portfolio and pipeline strategy for the organization and to do so, relies on the diversity of thought and expertise across a wide range of functions spanning from discovery research to marketing. Her team has driven transformational change by launching and embedding an enterprise operating model in which cross functional teams come together to address mission critical questions across the portfolio, acting as a crucible for the organization.

“Cross functional teams operating with a high level of psychological safety and a high sense of belonging are crucial to create an environment that allows many different voices to come together and ensure they are empowered to make the best decisions to drive innovation to serve cancer patients,” said Omer.

Omer’s journey to this role began when she walked on to Carnegie Mellon University’s campus with the intention of pursuing medicine. She studied biology and pre-medicine and even served as the president of Doctors of Carnegie Society (DoCS), until enrolling in the Intro to Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) course where she recognized the potential to make an impact on the healthcare industry in a different way. So, come junior year, she shifted her focus to a double major in MSE and biomedical engineering.

While pursuing her studies, she was also a competitive athlete and the first Indian woman to play on CMU’s basketball team. Omer is not unfamiliar with this. As a woman of color in leadership, she is often the first to be in a position, and this realization has shaped how she approaches her leadership and development.

You have to be curious, vulnerable, and humble in order to learn and to lead.

Aliya Omer, Vice President and Head of Global Portfolio and Program Strategy, Kite Pharma

“You have to be curious, vulnerable, and humble in order to learn and to lead,” she explains. “You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone in order to see a lot, learn a lot, and grow as a leader.”

Omer identifies as a South Asian, Muslim woman who is part of a global family with relatives from across the world including India, Germany, Mexico, and beyond. “A global perspective really opens your mind in terms of moving away from solving problems and moving towards solving paradoxes,” Omer explained.

After her initial entry into the healthcare industry as an R&D scientist at Johnson and Johnson in consumer products, her desire to broaden her perspective and impact led her to pursue an MBA at INSEAD, a leading business school with locations in France and Singapore, where she worked with business leaders from around the globe, further strengthening her commitment to diversity as an invaluable source of learning and enrichment.

Passionate about having a direct impact in oncology, she joined Novartis, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, pivoting her career to the commercial side with great success in a variety of roles.

In 2017, Omer assumed the role of oncology general manager of South Latin America, with responsibility for Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Her experience in Buenos Aires exposed her to different healthcare systems and their existing disparities from a new lens. Additionally, she understood that an imperative part of her success would be to prioritize her own learning about the language and culture that shaped her new role.

As part of a high-performance team building process, she led her colleagues in exploring the seven dimensions of culture, an exercise that highlights the idea that culture is relative and emanates from a set of shared values. This exercise opened up a space to explore the impact of unconscious bias and how to develop trust and understanding in their work together. This served as a springboard enabling the leadership team to successfully drive a turnaround of the business and exceed performance expectations.

In addition, Omer co-chaired the diversity and inclusion efforts for the US business and sat on the Global DEI council for the Oncology business unit with Novartis. Part of measuring this progress was making their goals transparent. Under Omer’s guidance, the organization she was leading at the time was able to double the percentage of female first-line managers and launched enhanced recruiting efforts for candidates from diverse backgrounds. Her own experiences have inspired her to become a fierce advocate for DEI by challenging assumptions and dismantling stereotypes. She is an active mentor to many and has benefited herself from the generosity of mentors throughout her career.

Omer prioritized the engagement of her DEI values during the transition to her current role and the building of her team. She was also invited to engage in DEI efforts across the organization. Currently, Omer sits on the People and Culture Advisory Council for Gilead, Kite’s parent company, and is an advisor to the women’s employee resource group.

The ability to take data and translate it into insights that create value and are actionable separates a good engineer from a great one.

Aliya Omer, Vice President and Head of Global Portfolio and Program Strategy, Kite Pharma

At the end of the day, Omer says that her day-to-day successes all come back to the foundational engineering and leadership principles that CMU taught her.

“What separates a good engineer from a great one is this ability to take data and translate it into insights that create value and that are actionable. The same can be said about a good leader—their ability to proactively seek and digest diverse perspectives across internal and external stakeholders and synthesize those perspectives into the best solution,” she said. “CMU taught me how to do all of that, and it’s helped me in each step of my career.”