Aoife Brennan

Hiring In A Syndemic

Posted October 20th, 2020 by Aoife Brennan, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Talent


By Aoife Brennan, CEO of Synlogic Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC

I have many fond memories of St Patrick’s Day—most of them involve marching in the parade with a plastic bag and a few extra layers under my girl scout uniform. When you grow up in Ireland, cold rain is not grounds to cancel anything.

Although the writing was on the wall for weeks prior, it wasn’t until the parade in Dublin was canceled this past March that I accepted that COVID would have impacts far greater than I was prepared to accept up to that point.

In the first few months, there was a ‘batten down the hatches’ approach. Our CEO and Board calls focused on employee safety, patient safety, and clinical trials as we rapidly developed procedures using the best available evidence. Since those first few months we have learned a lot about COVID. One of those leanings is the powerful interaction between COVID and race. Racism and racial inequality interact synergistically with the virus to cause excess disease burden within communities of color—the definition of a Syndemic.

Where COVID challenged us to batten down the hatches, the combination of COVID and social injustice forced us to raise our heads. The Syndemic has re-focus energies in areas where we should have already been doing more.

As a first step, I and many of my colleagues have signed the Mass Bio Pledge for a more equitable and inclusive life sciences industry. At Synlogic, we have been collecting and examining our internal data on hiring, diversity and inclusion. We have a lot of work to do, in a lot of areas. But today I want to talk about adding people to the team. While hiring during COVID, important questions that we ask ourselves are:

  • How do we address both the requirement for ongoing physical distancing as well as ensuring that we are starting with a diverse pool of candidates?
  • How do we better evaluate candidates without bias, and foster a talent pipeline that prioritizes economically and racially disadvantaged groups?

Some things that we have learned as we embark on this journey:

  • No excuses. There is always a reason why you must fill a position urgently. You have to constantly hold yourself accountable to the investment of the time and energy required to run an inclusive process. Otherwise, you default to those within your immediate network, which likely maintains the status quo.
  • The finger on the scale. It is important for someone on the hiring team—not the manager or recruiter—to have an eye on the process of the search. This role is to look primarily through the scope of diversity and to question along the way have we done everything we can to recruit a diverse slate? How about including this person with an atypical background in the mix?
  • The group interview. COVID has thrown out the all-day in-person meetings followed by the team debrief. That’s a good thing. In it’s place, Synlogic has had success with a group exercise format. Not everyone was on-board initially—it is a lot of extra work both for candidates and for participants, but we have found it to be a useful biomarker of performance. We design an exercise that would be typical for the role, such a scientific seminar, a mock governance meeting, or a mock program team discussion. Each candidate on the short-list gets an identical set of pre-reads. Then, in a 4-6 person Zoom, we play it out. Candidates like the better insight into the requirements of the role itself as well as the group dynamic that they do not get from individual meetings. We like seeing people under different kinds of pressures and circumstances.
  • The pipeline build. We need to double down on building a talent pipeline providing an entry point for ‘outsiders’ into our industry. My friend Sam Truex wrote a nice blog post on this recently. At Synlogic, we have had a long and successful partnership with the Gloucester Biotech Academy (GBA), a program that prepares students for careers as entry-level technicians in biotechnology and life sciences laboratories. We support the program by offering internships and currently have 4 employees who are graduates of the program. Aly, a Laboratory Technician and graduate of GBA is pictured working in the lab this summer. As we shifted work in the lab over the summer our group of prior interns were invaluable. They had experience from rotations in many areas of the company and were enthusiastic about cross-training to keep critical experiments on track. We are currently evaluating a number of other training programs and hope to expand our partnerships in the coming year.
  • The academic network. Academic labs and clinics are an important source of biotech talent but careers in biotech are often opaque outside of the small network of labs which birth many VC-backed start-ups. We recently looked at the composition of our advisory boards and realized that we were overlooking a potential win-win-win; including more diverse perspectives on our programs and science, providing peer visibility opportunities for BIPOC, and exposing BIPOC physicians and scientists to industry as a potential career path. Building more diversity into our ad boards and panels of advisors is a main priority for us going into 2021.
  • The power of perseverance. I think it is early days for us. We will have some successes and some lessons learned, which was also true in the early days of our COVID responses. What we have learned is doing nothing and saying nothing is not an option.

While it has been a difficult couple of months with more to come, I am holding out hope that as an industry, revamping our hiring practices will be a useful tool in advancing a more racially just biotech industry and result in a stronger, more diverse and inclusive biotech workforce.

I anticipate celebrating St Patrick’s day 2021 with an Irish coffee in my kitchen and will raise my glass to progress on some important initiatives including chasing the snakes out of our hiring processes.

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