We Are Lilly: From Ireland to Indiana

Today’s guest post comes from Fionnuala Walsh, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Global Quality at Lilly. She has worked at Lilly since 1988, beginning her career at the Kinsale, Ireland, manufacturing site. In 2002, she relocated from Ireland to corporate headquarters in Indianapolis and became a global leader in quality.

I get my love of words and stories from my heritage, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that love. I bet if you ask anyone else who grew up in Ireland, they’ll agree that the ability to tell a story is more important than where you went to university. But what may surprise some people is that my love of stories explains a lot about my love of working here at Lilly.

In fact, telling stories is a hugely important part of the business we’re in overall. For one, a crucial part of quality assessment is being able to tell the story of what’s already happened. But there’s also the story of making molecules into medicines, and the experiences that drive each of the incredible employees I have the privilege of working with each day.

Stories really do shape our lives every day, but here at Lilly, our story sets us apart from other companies. Our history is the history of a family, and it’s one that resonates deeply with my own life – starting back in Ireland all the way through to today in Indianapolis.

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Growing up, I was lucky enough to catch my father’s curiosity. I had a chemistry set and was always trying to make potions, and although I frequently had minor explosions, my parents kindly tolerated my tinkering. To balance my father’s curiosity, I also inherited my mother’s tenacious drive for excellence. Case in point:  If I came home scoring 19 out of 20 on a test, her first question was always, “But did anyone get a 20 out of 20?”

At school, those principles of excellence and curiosity I got at home were put to great practice in my two biggest passions, art and science. Although for a time I thought art was my true calling, the nuns all insisted that I set myself up for a “sensible job” and pushed me towards science. With the help of a truly excellent teacher who went above and beyond, I found myself enamored with biology and chemistry.

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That’s not to say that art no longer had a place in my life. There’s a wonderful line in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Among School Children” in which he asks, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” That’s a great approximation of the relationship I see between art and science. Art captures reality as it is, and in a sense simplifies it, and science is all about getting down to the essence. When you look at them together, you can see that true innovation is really the art of science.

Both fields are also built on a deep optimism, and I inherited an appreciation of that from my father. That optimism carried me and my family across the Atlantic into the supportive community that is Lilly. When my husband and I decided to make the move to Indianapolis, we weren’t sure what to expect. It was certainly going to be different from Ireland – flatter, with more animals, maybe even some snakes. (St. Patrick never came to chase them away from here!) But when we got here, we knew we had made the right decision.

Although I’ve never been the type to put up shamrocks or hang shillelaghs from the wall, I still feel the roots of my Irish heritage. I’m happy to say that, today, my roots have found fresh soil here in the States. Even though America doesn’t have the golden paved sidewalks I imagined as a child, it still has the promise of hope, and that’s more than enough for me.

Learn more about Fionnuala and her work in Lilly Global Quality here.

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