Women of Western Wake: Christine Vannais

Christine Vannais has one document that she keeps on the wall behind her desk. It’s an email she wrote just weeks after becoming the first female Chief Operating Officer at FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies (FDB), an international biopharmaceutical organization.

In April 2020, while the world shut down, Vannais saw a chance to help. She learned that Novavax was looking for a partner to begin manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine, and she wrote, “I think we can help. We can do that process in North Carolina.”

Chris Vannais and her aunt Diane Vannais. Submitted photo.

“One email started a chain of events that galvanized the site and started a path for this long-term partnership with this client who has a tremendous vaccine. It was a really big pivotal moment for me,” said Vannais.

She admits that even as she hit send, she wondered if they really could manage the undertaking. The facility already performed 24/7 manufacturing, and accepting this job would require scaling up processes and staff while simultaneously ensuring safety measures such as social distancing. But with her strong background in CDC and OSHA regulations, and with a team excited and prepared to give “150%” to be part of such a vital process, Vannais had confidence in the step.

In the sleepless months that followed, FDB began work on the Novavax vaccine, President Donald Trump visited the Morrisville facility, bringing national attention to their work, and they continued producing life-saving medical products for existing pharmaceutical partners.

“She’s a lighthouse,” said Liza Rivera, who serves as vice president of global marketing communications for FDB. “I don’t think Chris realizes how her leadership has motivated people. I see her style and I see her fearlessness and I think, ‘That’s how I want to lead.”

And while Vannais is working to save the world, she also gives her time to speak about female leadership. “I never expected for people to find my career path interesting, but I will share when I’m asked,” Vannais said.

Submitted photo.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Vannais’ fondest memories involve a family campsite in Maine. She fished with her grandfather, gardened with her aunt and hiked miles of unspoiled wilderness.

She developed an undying appreciation for the natural world and thought she wanted to be a park ranger. After three years at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, she interned at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. While there, she spent time with her aunt and uncle, who worked at Colorado State University as molecular biology researchers, and learned about the school’s Environmental Health department.

After her internship, Vannais was less enthusiastic about being a park ranger and wondered if she could fulfill her desire to protect the natural world another way. In her senior year, Vannais transferred to CSU to study environmental regulations and safety.

“Chris did her research and enrolled at Colorado State because the program was stronger and held better credentials for graduates,” said her aunt, Diane Vannais.

Vannais took a job as a safety and compliance consultant, a field that required constant learning and travel. She quickly advanced from employee to project manager to taking the lead on large contract jobs.

Chris Vannais enjoys spending time with her husband and son, especially if they can be outdoors. Submitted photo.

At one of those jobs, at a pharmaceutical site, her path shifted again. She fell in love with the combination of scientific processes and the possibility of providing care and cures the pharmaceutical industry provided.

She took a job with Schering-Plough and learned aspects of the business from engineering to regulatory audits. When Merck acquired Schering-Plough, Vannais added biologics to her resume. She moved to the Kansas City area to run a site that researched, created and packaged animal vaccines.

When a North Carolina job opened in 2012 that combined her love of biologics, her background in safety and manufacturing, and happened to be near the new home of her retired Aunt Diane, she jumped at it.

After nearly a decade of running the manufacturing at FDB, she was promoted to COO on April 1, 2020, the first woman at FDB to rise to that level of management.

Chris Vannais, shown with her aunt Diane, right, and her grandmother, left, graduated from Colorado State University. Submitted photo.

And while words like fearless, lighthouse and inspiration are often used to describe Vannais, she is the same Chris to family and friends. She gardens and goes boating on Jordan Lake with her husband and 15-year-old son. They fish while she dives off the back to swim. She takes good-natured ribbing from her son for missing a Pokémon GO event because she “had to host President Trump.”

Rivera says that Vannais’ authenticity and style, in addition to her success, makes her a sought-after speaker.

“Chris is an extremely genuine person,” she said. “To be able to see a deserving individual, who happens to be a woman, being in this role and being trusted for her abilities… it brings you hope.”

In addition to sharing her story and encouraging young minds, Vannais often gives this advice: Don’t apologize, be confident and find an organization that values you for what you bring.

“Be willing to take risks with your career,” she said. “There might be scary or big steps forward or sideways to get other experiences, take them! Always keep that hunger to learn. I think that’s been a successful recipe for me.”

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