Being part of the writer’s community has given me the opportunity to get to know a lot of interesting people.
Reconnecting with people from all aspects of my life via the magic of social media has given me the same opportunity. This month’s interview features my friend Kelly Rebmann. Kelly and I went to The College of Wooster together years and years ago and have reconnected over the years on Facebook. Her job takes her all over the world and her posts about her work, travels, adventures and life in general are typically among my favorite reads every week. In addition to her work and posts, Kelly is a really good writer with a unique voice, who I’m hoping we can coax into writing more…Please help encourage her with copious comments on this blog!
So, Kelly! What have you been up to since our days at Wooster?
Well, it's been an interesting journey from there to now. I intended to take some time off and travel after college, but I got nervous. It felt like I was supposed to start a career right away, so I got a job in Medical Publishing in Philadelphia.
It hardly paid the bills. I lost something like thirty pounds because I really couldn't afford groceries after rent, car, school, and other bills (poverty is such a great diet plan!). I was waitressing at night to make ends meet and wouldn't turn the heat on until temperatures reached freezing. It was good incentive to find a better job, and eventually, I found Sanofi Pasteur-a vaccine manufacturer. I've worked for them since 1997 minus a two-year stint from 2010-12 in New York City with a different pharmaceutical company to launch a drug for COPD.
A bit of irony is that now I travel all over the world with my current job with Pasteur.
What drew you to working for Pasteur? How did they get on your radar?
I was connected through a head hunter. I was working for a medical publishing company during the day and a lot of night shifts at a local T.G.I. Fridays. My car was belching out black smoke and I was trying to get enough money to fix the head gasket before it warped my whole engine. I was really tired of literally rolling the pennies to get enough cash together to get the subway to work. Everyone should go through hard times because it really does make you hungry for something better.
A friend of mine had scored a field sales job and was doing well, and I thought, “I am SO SURE I can sell things! And that sounds like a good gig with healthcare and no night work.” Let me be clear, there are eighteen sh*t tons of night work in Pharma Sales and selling things is hard. I was dead wrong on those fronts. So, I interviewed in the Poconos and got the job, and that’s where a very excellent career began! I never expected to be with them 20+ years later, but now it’s essentially a family in many ways, less a job.
I really enjoy your posts from all your travels, but I don't really understand what you do.
I am the Head of Vaccine Medical Capabilities for Sanofi Pasteur, which is a fancy way of saying that I am in charge of identifying and developing the non-science skill sets of our Global Medical Team, which is roughly 360 people all over the world.
I identify what we should be good at, namely things like Presentation and Communication Skills, Emotional Intelligence, Strategic Thinking, and Leadership. I figure out how good we need to be and if we are good at those things now. Then I develop and execute training to make us good. This is a brand-new role in the organization, so my partner and I have been doing things from scratch, which is exciting but messy and busy. It means I'm sometimes building a class while I'm flying across the world to teach that same class. There's too much to do, not enough resources, and never enough time. It's a helluva good time!
It sounds like it! Do you have to adjust the approach you take to teaching based on the country?
In short, yes. In general, I have to speak much more s l o w l y than I typically do, and I cannot speak in metaphors. As it turns out, I speak in almost ALL metaphors. They make no sense to a global audience, so you have to rehaul how you communicate completely. Stripping down the way you talk and focusing on speaking the most absolutely simple English while you are trying to teach complex content is… challenging. But English is not their Mother Tongue, so they need… see? Mother Tongue. Makes no sense to a Chinese audience.
Everyone I work with speaks English but the levels vary. So, in Japan, I have a translator. I speak and he/she is simul-translating via headphones for the team. The Portuguese will allow me to teach without a translator, but on complex concepts, I have someone retell content in native language. I can understand all accents, but I struggle with the South Koreans and the Japanese. However, the Japanese call me Kerry-san, so I will do anything for them. I adore them.
I have become so much more culturally aware and patient with my current global role. Many cultures have zero concept of what my sister refers to as the “hula hoop” of personal space. Indians will literally put their body on top of your body whilst waiting in a line. This is not comfortable, but you learn to just see things as different and not bad. However, I really wish deodorant was more prevalent. My nose is armpit level to most people. It will nearly kill me in a public transportation situation.
Is this the sort of thing you thought you'd do when you graduated? What was your path like from there to here?
God, no. I thought I would be married, have two kids, a fence, and a dog. Maybe be, I don't know, a writer of some sort. I sort of skidded through college. I was a Biology Major who should have been an English Major, and I had no idea what I could do when I left Wooster.
Falling into a Pharmaceutical Sales job with Sanofi Pasteur was a gift that led to a thousand other gifts: great skills development, the chance to move all over the US, making great friends that are now like family, and a job that turned into a career.
I started in Sales and it turned out that charm, hard work, and being a bit pushy is a good combination for that job. Then, I graduated into Training and Management and then Marketing. A few years ago, I made a left turn and took a global role that started this heavy travel I've got going on now. It's been fascinating.
What is your favorite thing about your career right now?
The travel. I'm from a one-horse town in Pennsylvania. I never dreamed that there would be a day that I would walk to work along the Champs Elysees in Paris or eat chicken feet with Malaysian coworkers in Kuala Lumpur. Or even learning to cha-cha in Colombia at a business dinner because we all had a little too much red wine after a long day of training. I couldn't have dreamed it.
I have learned so much about the world and how to swim in it successfully from this job. It is a gift. A tiring gift sometimes, because it is hard to be away from home and run a household, be the breadwinner, be a good daughter, friend, and neighbor, but it is an incredible gift.
What is your least favorite thing about your career right now?
I am never enough. It is never enough. No matter how many hours I work, how good I am at prioritizing the work, no matter how good I am, I simply cannot provide everything that is needed and I cannot meet everyone's needs. No project is done well enough, people's needs aren't fully met, things are ignored because even though they are important, they are simply a lower priority. It is truly exhausting to feel like you are giving it 110% and you are never enough. It wears on you in a way that is hard to explain to people who are more casual about their jobs or have different kinds of jobs.
You travel a lot. To date, what are your favorite and least favorite places you've been?
Least favorite is easy: Frankfurt. It is dreck. Dull, gray, boring economic center with no meaningful historic things to see. Lots of drug addicts lying around. I was sure I was going to be murdered on my walk from the train station to my hotel. I left and went to Wiesbaden. Ask me about the co-ed Roman bath house.
My favorite is so hard because every city has its own spirit. I'm a total Europhile, so I have to admit I thought I would hate Asia and I love it.
One of my favorite places was India. It is heartbreaking in a way I can't explain. The poverty is so vast and so bad in Mumbai--it is truly indescribable. People literally living on top of garbage. Mothers with naked babies living on top of garbage, everywhere. I have never been so shocked and sad in my life, but then, there is so much beauty too.
You can throw a rock and hit five pop-up temples. A few pieces of wood cobbled together with a statue on top and passers-by have placed red soda pop bottles all over it in offering. Then, cows walking down the street and random people just take care of them because they are sacred. And the food is amazing! The people are gracious and they bow to say hello. It's all so gorgeous and amazing.
OK-tell me about the co-ed Roman bath house?
I was visiting Frankfurt on my way to vacation in Prague. A friend of mine writes a travel blog and told me about a spa that was built on the actual site of a Roman sweat bath. You follow the same rituals as ancient Romans, raising your body temperature slowly then plunging into a cold pool. I was intrigued and then she told me it was fully naked and fully co-ed. I’m from Pennsylvania. We barely get naked for the shower; we are prude-y. But I thought, “I am a world traveler now. And I don’t know a soul there, so what the heck. Try something new!”
It happened that I got hair extensions just before the trip, so I had this extraordinarily long blonde hair. Like a Viking. No kidding. I looked like Lagertha the Shieldmaiden. So, I show up at the spa, take off all my clothes in the girl’s locker Room, put this giant white-girl weave in a braid, steel my shoulders, and stride into the spa like Lady GD Godiva. I was petrified but determined.
The spa, as you might imagine, was 90% men. Shocking. An interesting fact, 80% of the men were Asian. I’m not making any further comment about it. Just an observation. A few observations:
• Most of the men can describe every birthmark on my body
• I can describe every ceiling tile in every room
• However, I will say that circumcision is not common worldwide, it appears.
I walked around like I owned the joint, just determined to enjoy an ancient experience. I was, however, carrying around a piece of paper with instructions that turned into a wet, soggy clump by the time I was done.
I got the giggles only once. When I was in the dry spa and a 120-year old German man came in and crawled up beside me on the upper bench. Whilst he was giving that a go, he put his bottom DIRECTLY in my face. His backside was literally 3 inches from my nose. I just simply burst out laughing. The spa lady had poured water on the rocks and was whipping a towel around her head like a hellion and this man’s little scrawny bum was in my face. It was just so surreal and so beyond I just lost my mind. I had to leave.
All said, it was a great experience. I did, indeed, feel like Lady Godiva, Lagertha- Bigger and Bolder than before. So, cheers to shocking experiences!
Cheers to that! Besides that, what's the strangest thing you've experienced overseas?
God, I could tell ten stories here, but here’s one!
After 10 days in India, I was exhausted and tired so I booked a spa treatment. I had a flight later that night and a few hours to kill so I thought it was a perfect end to a long week. I didn’t know the local conventions for massages in other countries though. Do I get naked? Do I not get naked? Sometimes there is no English-speaking person to guide you through it, so you wing it and hope for the best.
This time, I had an ancient Hindi woman as my therapist and she spoke no English at all. She gestured for me to take off my clothes and left the room, so I stripped bare, laid down, and pulled the sheet over me. She came in, took the sheet off me, and motioned for me to sit up. Now, I'm fully naked, sitting up on the table, and, um, confused. She turns away from me and is doing something that I can't see. It's dim in the room and her hands are busy with something, but I can't imagine what’s coming. “Is that Oil?” I wonder to myself.
She turns back towards me with her hands cupped in front of her and comes closer. She separates her hands and something is in them, but I can't see what it is. She raises her hands over my head and then turns her hands over and slaps me on top of my head with both hands. And I mean SLAPS me. Then she starts rubbing her hands back and forth in my hair like a madwoman. At this point, I know that it was oil and herbs in her hands. I don't know what herbs but they are VERY strong smelling. After a minute of vigorous head massaging that left me looking like a drunk Yeti, she indicates that I should lie down. The rest of the massage was lovely but I smelled like all of India. I took THREE showers before that flight, but when I sat down in Business Class for the sixteen-hour flight home, the Japanese gentleman next to me scowled and took out a fan and started waving it at his face. I was mortified. Indian herbs are powerful!
What was the purpose of the herb-smacking?
I have no earthly idea. Health?
What do you hope to be doing in ten years?
Selling tomatoes on the side of some country road. I will be half dead and ready to retire at 55 and if I stop buying shoes, I think I might could do it.
What question do you wish I'd asked you today?
What's the worst thing I ate on my travels? It's a toss-up between chicken feet, snake soup, or jellyfish, but jellyfish is the winner. Terrible, slimy, cold, nasty.
Where and why did you eat Jellyfish?
It’s absolutely disgusting. I’ll tell you more later
And finally, what are you three favorite words?
Zephyr, Wexford, Love
Those are great words and are a perfect ending to our talk! Thanks so much for sharing some of your adventures on “Kugs says Aloha!”