Moving Beyond the Conversation

Posted May 24th, 2021 by Rene Russo, Jodie Morrison, in From The Trenches, Leadership, Talent

Co-authored by Jodie Morrison and René Russo, former CEO of Cadent Therapeutics and CEO of Xilio Therapeutics, respectively.  

Over the last 5 years, biotech executives have been increasingly focused on the importance of greater diversity in our companies. As two women who have served as both CEOs and board chairs, our own paths to these positions drive our passion for this topic. And while gender barriers in the workplace are not the same as racial barriers, there are some parallels in the roadblocks and challenges faced. The broad issue of diversity and inclusion demands urgent attention and plays a critical role in the successful growth in our companies and in the industry at large in the years to come.

To look forward, it is helpful to look back. In 2016, Karen Bernstein and Kate Bingham penned an open letter confronting the industry with its less-than-flattering portrayal and use of women at major biotech industry events. This spotlight on the blatant sexism we were facing and call for “enough” was a positive catalyst for change. The letter was signed by almost every major name in biotech and helped elevate the conversation. Similarly, as the nation marks the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death (May 25) and has seen other, painful acts of violence against Asian-Americans, these tragic events must serve as a catalyst in the biotech industry to drive action to further expand diversity in our industry.

While we as an industry have made some progress, there is a great deal of work left to be done by all of us to increase both gender and racial diversity in our industry. According to a report issued by BIO, female representation hovers around 30% at the executive level but falls to 18% at the board level. Representation of people of color is significantly lower with 15% at the executive level and 14% of at the board level.  As biotech leaders, we both have work we need to do to improve diversity within the companies we are affiliated with currently- and so we understand first hand the challenge facing the industry.  We also know that our organizations can only succeed because of – not in spite of – a commitment to increasing diversity in all forms in the workplace. Here are the steps we are taking.

Acknowledge the Business Opportunity

Diverse workplaces are stronger and drive increased profitability. Research has shown that companies led by diverse teams perform better in an increasingly globalized economy best navigated with the help of a wide-range of perspectives. According to a 2020 report from McKinsey & Company, organizations with greater gender diversity were 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability compared to their counterparts. Similarly, companies with greater ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

Drive for Diversity

A great example of a grass roots efforts we are currently involved in occurred within the CEO Forum, a peer-to-peer information sharing group made up of 150+ biotech CEOs initially created to support leaders in biotech and their efforts to navigate the COVID-19 crisis.  Philanthropy efforts were managed by a Community Giving subcommittee (on which we both were members) which was focused on guiding initiatives like the COVID-19 Relief Fund and donations to shelters housing people impacted by COVID-19. But as racial issues came to the forefront last summer, we realized the peer-to-peer crisis management aspect of the CEO Forum had great potential to take on diversity as part of our initiatives.  The unacceptable lack of diversity in our industry, particularly at the C-suite and board levels, led us to question our past approaches.  We both remain active in the group- renamed the Community Impact committee- and organized it around four basic pillars designed to drive diversity and inclusion:

  1. Awareness, data and education
  2. Employment practices
  3. Philanthropy, and
  4. Positive impact on research, drug development, and patient care

Through the work of this committee we hope to support broad changes in our industry and drive teams to think more openly, inclusively and equitably.  Again, as we have experienced first-hand, biotech has a long way to go and it will require changing systems and processes as we work together to prioritize diversity in our teams and boards.

Philanthropy will be a key aspect of this effort. To this end, we both serve as board advisors/board members to Life Science Cares (LSC), which is working to fight the significant social and economic disparities in our community by harnessing the collective power of our biotech industry. One especially noteable LSC initiative is Project Onramp, which is a paid summer internship program focused on giving talented, four-year college students from under-resourced backgrounds their “onramp” to learn about and potentially join the biotech industry.  This work will help feed the future employee pipeline by providing the opportunity for the next generation of diverse candidates to see up close the potential roles waiting for them in in our industry.

Recruit and Retain

While it may be less efficient in the beginning to do things differently, CEO’s will ultimately build stronger and more successful businesses by tapping new talent channels that offer access to a diverse student population.  We have the ability (and we should leverage it) to delay hiring until there’s a diverse cadre of candidates to select from. But efforts need to go beyond recruiting. Once onboarded, it’s important to offer supportive and equitable environments that develop and promote employees with diverse talents, perspectives, and backgrounds.

Lend a Hand to Future Leaders

As leaders, we have an obligation to mentor younger people rising in our organizations and to be transparent about the challenges and what is expected of them. Both of us have had the experience of strong mentors/sponsors along the way and recognize the importance that these relationships played in our transition up to ladder. As part of going beyond the conversation, we need to actively use our platforms to scout and recognize bright and rising stars of diverse representation across gender and ethnicity and support their growth during their career development. We can help these individuals find their “leadership identities” by developing professional blueprints and showing them that anything is possible. As industry leaders, the responsibility is on all of us to expose a diverse group of future leaders to core aspects of the business, such as corporate communications, finance, business development and commercialization, so that they have the necessary experience and strategic perspective to be successful when they rise in their organizations.

It’s our great hope and obligation as leaders to pay forward what we have learned to create policies and practices that will help effectively scale diversity and inclusion efforts within our organizations. We need well-funded and executive-sponsored employee resource groups, women and BIPOC mentoring and leadership programs, cross-functional task forces, paid parental leave, and work environments in which people with diverse backgrounds can succeed. Industry executives have a platform from which to tangibly boost diversity. Holding ourselves and others accountable to deadlines and objectives within diversity programs is mission critical.

Just as our industry looks a little brighter nearly five years after Karen and Kate penned their now famous “black dress party” letter, we hope that, with a sustained industry effort, by 2025 the diversity landscape will be measurably better.  If we do our jobs well, we will be able to look back and realize that the heightened focus on diversity following painful racial events served as a catalyst for lasting change. It also may be that changes we made to the way we work during the pandemic – for example, the ability to conduct remote interviews and hire remote workers – may also play a significant role in how we make this change. One thing is certain, in order to increase our diversity, we must move outside of our standard ecosystem – whether that’s how we work, how we hire or how we network. It is time to move beyond the conversation. Our future depends on it.

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