Leaders in biotech and pharma discussed powerful initiatives to foster diversity and inclusion in the industry in Investing in Diversity, a popular on-demand virtual session at the Biotech Showcase Digital conference.
As chair, Paul Hastings, President & CEO at Nkarta Therapeutics put it accurately as he opened the session: “The last number of years have made us reflect and understand that we’re falling short in living up to our potential sometimes, whether because of unconscious biases, institutional racism... or a multitude of other factors,” he said. “Regardless of reason, my own personal opinion is that we have to do better. We need to approach the issue from front to end.”
1: Join an angel investment network
The panel members discussed how investment can be used to increase opportunities for entrepreneurs in under-represented groups within the industry. Hastings provided the example of Gaingels, a non-profit network of investors which exclusively supports LGBTQ-led companies.
Meg Zweig, COO at Rock Health revealed that there was a trend uncovered by Rock Health’s latest report on diversity in the digital health sector. Under-represented groups such as black women were found to be more likely to be involved in investment groups within their communities.
However, Zweig emphasized the benefit of investors paying particular focus to communities that they are not part of. “If we can all be a bit more inquisitive and curious to understand problems that we may not have grown up with, that will also go a long way, so it isn’t just reliance on people to fund and support people from their own groups, but opening your apertures.”
2: Change the dynamic within your organization
The discussion then explored how company leaders can create change within their own organizations to be more reflective of the patient population, such as through internal communications and hiring the right people.
“It’s so important that we are open to review, with honest eyes, the raw truth within our own organizations and then figure out how to address that,” said Lucy Abreu, Senior VP at Syneos Health. “We can start with who you say you are to the world as a company, and do your actions match that? Are we asking our employees for feedback, do we understand what they care about?” She added that company leaders have a responsibility to set the tone for the culture and relationship dynamics within their organizations. “How do we create the safe spaces within our organization? How do we address the problems & policies that we have in place? Are we being a model to others?”
Anthony Sun, CEO, Zentalis Pharmaceuticals explained that it takes more than just ticking boxes in hiring senior leaders to achieve diversity and inclusion within the workplace. “One thing you don’t want to fall into as we seek diversity is the realm of tokenism... It actually doesn’t work because, as a senior management team in a public biotech company, you have to be able to function and work closely with that person, because you believe in that person, regardless of race, sex or anything else.”
“The best person may not be the standard ‘best people’ that were around twenty years ago. The person may be a younger person or someone with a diverse background that you want to give a shot for. At Zentalis, we just want to hire the best people, and the crazy thing is, when we’ve looked at it through an open lens, we actually find that we get a very diverse population.”
3: Become a mentor
The panel also explored ways to give back to the community. Julia Levy, CEO at QLT Inc. described her experience over the last three years as a mentor at Creative Destruction Lab, an independent nonprofit mentorship program based in Vancouver and other locations in the US and Europe. The program nurtures startup entrepreneurs who aim to improve economic productivity and human welfare. “It’s an incredibly useful program. It’s so diverse, you don’t notice it,” she said.
She added, “I like to spend my time mentoring because, giving people a leg-up, just talking to them and making suggestions when people are in crisis, it can be life-changing for those people. Those are the moments that you kind of cherish, because you know you’ve helped someone, when you see them go forward and succeed.
“It takes very little to help people. It’s really quite easy to do, and also gives you so much satisfaction. I don’t know why more people don’t do it, because it makes you feel good.”