By Jodie Morrison, CEO of Cadent Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
It’s been over three months since stay at home advisories and social distancing protocols abruptly arrived in Massachusetts. Calls for a return to normal and getting “back” to how things once were are growing louder by the day. In recent weeks, protests calling for racial equality and an end to systemic injustice have unfolded across the nation. The disproportionate share of minority populations dying of COVID-19 coupled with recent cases of police brutality, are a catalyst for change that has been long overdue. People are growing restless on every level and for good reason. As business leaders, we have an opportunity to find ways to use this unrest to question the status quo and evaluate where to drive change.
In March as the east coast began to feel its first direct impact of COVID-19, an article about past epidemics and their role in changing the course of history, circulated on social media. A link was made between the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and the resulting strides made within the gay rights movement. The author argued that the increased visibility for this community served as an accelerator of greater integration within society. While many people died to pave that path and there is still a long way to go, it’s a better world today for the LGBTQ+ community than it was 40 years ago. As I reflect over the last few months, I have to wonder: What will we look back on and realize that this time period changed for the better?
While the answer will undoubtably come with time, here is how I hope the civil unrest and the continuing pandemic will change our industry.
“Diversity and Inclusion”: Words are not enough
COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused upheaval to our businesses and as leaders we have focused on keeping operations running and our teams motivated and productive. But it has also highlighted key aspects of the health disparities and underlying racial and income equality across the country. Data show that those with lower socioeconomic status, less access to information, and healthcare resources are adversely impacted by the virus. A recent STAT article referenced the rate of black American deaths to white American deaths at 2.4x. As medical anthropologist Clarence Gravlee put it in Scientific American: “If Black people were dying at the same rate as white Americans, at least 13,000 mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and other loved ones would still be alive.” Couple these facts with the recent death of George Floyd, and there is no wonder that people across the country are marching in the streets chanting “I can’t breathe.”
Similar to the tenements of a functioning democracy, good companies focus on the people who are struggling – whether that’s employees, partners or patients – and we try to embrace our duty to identify those who are silent and advocate for them. Like most of our peer companies, Cadent recognizes that we are stronger when we can incorporate different world views in our thinking. We have a strong commitment to our diversity and inclusion initiative and our core values that include phrases like “embrace the medley of differences.” But as leaders we each need to take a hard look at ourselves and acknowledge that words and good intention are not methods for driving change. Policies, goals and detailed plans for achieving those goals are.
Among the many tweets about racial inequity recently circulated, one caught my eye. It read, and I paraphrase, what’s the academic version of ‘thoughts and prayers?’ Answer: ‘diversity and inclusion.’ While a harsh point, it highlights that despite our best intentions, our current D&I initiatives are falling flat when it comes to people of color. And Biotech is no exception. Survey results published in January 2018 in Nature’s “Biotech’s Pale Shadow” provided detailed racial demographics for Biotech. Of the 54 biotech companies surveyed, only 6.9%/3.1%/5.2% of the workforce/management BOD were Black/African American. This compares to 13.3% of the US population. And the same is true for Hispanics/Latinos who make up 17.8% of the US population but sit at just 6.1%/3.8%/1.7% in those same Biotech categories. We need to do better. The question is… how?
I have spent years as a senior leader advocating for increased gender diversity in our industry. My own experience as a female executive (and my time at Mount Holyoke) fuel this passion and allow me to play a role in defining tangible actions to drive for change. Over the years, I have worked with people like Bob Coughlin and Abby Celniker to start the MassBio gender diversity initiative, driven authorship of an open letter on best practices signed by men and women and worked with Karl Simpson, CEO of LiftStream, to survey and issue a report on gender diversity in our industry. But when it comes to racial diversity topics, I have looked for leaders with direct experience to define solutions that I could implement. Yet if we circle back to the 3.1% Black/African American leaders in our industry, we must acknowledge that these numbers will not be sufficient to drive this initiative alone. Similar to the gender diversity initiative where we worked with men like Bob and Karl, it will take all of us, regardless of skin color, working together to drive change for racial diversity.
While I can’t say that I have a solution, I do have to reflect that my inaction plays a role in the systemic problem we face. As leaders in the industry, we need to work to identify action-orientated steps that can drive change. Unlike the gender diversity work, the issue is not related to climbing the ladder from a pipeline that has a reasonably balanced male/female ratio at the entry level. The pipeline here is a critical part of the problem. We need to actively listen to the voices of those most greatly impacted and identify how we can help foster and drive increases in the pipeline for people of color. These conversations are already beginning to happen including a recent CEO Forum where we discussed changing our recruitment practices by using recruiters with a track record in diversity and by targeting schools off our typical recruiting list who have more diverse student bodies. We also discussed supporting groups like the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, Just-A-Start and Life Science Cares in order to help drive better opportunities for the next generation. If as leaders we commit to taking action, we have a chance to look back at these COVID-19 days as a catalyst for meaningful change.
Just as the recent social unrest has caused us to question if we are doing enough to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the pandemic has also given us an opportunity to pause and question the way we work going forward.
In addition to listening to those marching in our streets to fight racial inequality, there is also an opportunity arising from COVID-19 to listen to what employees are telling us about how they do their work. While the transition to a remote work environment has been a source of frustration for many, it has also opened the door to new ways of working. And I believe it is critical that we pause before returning to the way things were and ask ourselves a critical question… was the old method really working for us or were we just used to it?
Despite the explosion of technology solutions over the last 25 years, the current model of work has largely remained unchanged. We have accepted the long commutes, expensive office space and hard to find employees as the cost of doing business. However, our forced time at home during the pandemic gives us a chance to re-evaluate this model.
At Cadent we did a recent survey of employees (all of which are still remote). Our data show that nearly 50% feel MORE connected than before COVID-19. The data, backed up by progress on our programs and IT metrics, show that 96% are as productive or more than before. I believe we would be making a mistake not to factor these data into our considerations for reentry. The use of videoconferences and increased flexibility for remote working seem obvious places to start. These adjustments to how and where we work have the potential to provide significant upside in the future including lowering real estate costs and increasing access to a broader remote pool of employees.
There is no doubt that the system has been itching to be adapted, and COVID-19 pushed us to adapt more rapidly than we ever imagined. The re-ordering of priorities and use of technology has sustained many of our teams, driven productivity and provided better work life balance for people. So why would we “return to normal” vs. returning to a changed world for the better? As business leaders we need to reflect in our planning what we’ve learned about our true “needs” and consider if the old model is needed or just comfortable.
Effective leaders are adept at pivoting away from processes and structures that no longer serve the organization and embracing new ways of thinking and working when circumstances dictate change. Longstanding systemic racism that’s reached a boiling point and a pandemic that has taken lives, have caused serious economic hardships for many and disrupted just about every aspect of the way we live and work. But they may also serve as opportunities to make real and lasting changes. I have to believe that when leaders work together to give the underrepresented a voice and when science solves COVID-19, we have the chance to be left with something better. Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. We are in the middle. For now, I’m focused on what our industry can do now to demand social justice and sustainable solutions and what re-opening looks like in a both safe and evolved model. It’s our responsibility and great opportunity to lead our industry and communities during this challenging time and to ensure we implement positive change for the future.