When Quita Highsmith started as a national sales director at Genentech in 2010, she began working with a colleague to organize a patient summit. The two looked for studies in which patients of color were included, but they found none. After learning that 90 percent of the participants in clinical studies are of European descent, they knew that action was needed, and their efforts led to one of the creation of one of the three strategic pillars of the company—Inclusive Research. This discovery sparked a DEI journey that landed Highsmith in the role of Genentech’s Chief Diversity Officer, and now she’s making waves across the country.
As CDO, Highsmith is adamant that companies need foster belonging for all employees. Drawing on her own experiences with code-switching, or trying to fit into the majority, Highsmith seeks to create a workplace in which people can be themselves.
“The opposite of belonging is fitting in. And we need to ensure that we no longer have people in the echo chamber, but we are really trying to think more broadly.”
And particularly when it comes to health equity, she adds, diversity is a key element of innovation. When pharmaceutical developments take into account the needs of different populations, both efficacy and buy-in will be greater, she says.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that health equity matters. It has also taught us that people are looking at the data and numbers,” Highsmith says. “Because if we think about these vaccines, and if they had not had representation in those studies, then the uptake by people of color would have been even slower. The marketplace is now understanding that we have to have communities of color engaged in the research.”
Tackling the problem from another angle, Genentech’s diversity efforts also focus on vendors. For all vendors contracting more than $600,000 in sales, the firm now asks six questions about their DEI efforts. This process has sparked change in vendors who did not previously have these efforts underway. It has also positioned Genentech as an influencer.
“When we start asking those questions, it makes people pay attention, because they want to have access to the resources that we have,” Highsmith says. “And so we have to follow the money—wherever we are spending resources is where we have to start asking questions and saying to our own suppliers, if you want to work with us, then you have to step up. And let me just say, it has been working.”
Another initiative by the biotech firm, Kindergarten to Career, focuses on education of future STEM workers.
“I think that having a broad background and a broad strategy is critical for driving real change with Diversity and Inclusion.”
Starting with their own internal changes, Genentech can point to real results. Having realized rapid progress on gender equity, the firm’s officers and workers are now 51 percent women. With a renewed focus on race and ethnicity, Highsmith points out that the company’s Head of product development is a Black man. And research has become more inclusive, too—a recent study of COVID-19 pneumonia counted 85 percent of participants from communities of color, including the Navajo Nation, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico.
“When it is a business imperative, people get on board,” Highsmith notes. “We all have work to do, but we are seeing changes from our most senior leadership in the C-suite to the Genentech Board of Directors where we have made commitments to ensure that we are bringing both gender and race representation to the forefront.”
When asked what she recommends for startups, Highsmith advocates incorporating DEI values from the beginning, and notes that in her frequent contacts with startups she has already seen a notable trend toward diversity in leadership.
“Why not just embed equity and inclusion from the start, and hold themselves accountable as an organization?” she asks.
Most of all, Highsmith believes that the time to act is now. With the pandemic still underway, changemakers have people’s attention in ways that they may not a year from now.
“So we have to amplify the voices of change agents right now, and we have to put Diversity and Inclusion front and center, and we have to stop acting like there is no issue, and we have to recognize that we have to be very intentional to hold this through so that we can hit these 2025 commitments,” she says. “This is our 1960s. When the history books look back on this time, they are going to say that 2020 and 2021 was our moment.”