Innovation comes from a steady flow of new ideas, and the desire to remain innovative and competitive is driving many institutional efforts to boost student and workforce diversity.
The Xconomy Award finalists in the “Commitment to Diversity” category span academia and industry. A common thread among them is an effort to boost the diversity of not just their workforce, but also of the broader community. In some cases, organizational outreach includes supporting middle school programs that get students interested in science and mathematics at an early age. The hope is that the efforts of today help build the recruitment pipeline of tomorrow. Award winners will be announced at a gala on Sept. 26.
Here’s a brief look at each of the six finalists.
Biogen and Women in Bio: From ‘Raising the Bar’ to ‘Boardroom Ready’
Women hold just 10 percent of life science company board seats, says Minita Shah-Mara, director of workforce initiatives, global diversity and inclusion at Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB). In an effort to bring more women into its corporate leadership, Biogen in 2015 launched the program “Raising the Bar: Advancing Women on Boards.” The program was designed to give female leaders within Biogen the skills they need for corporate governance. The six-month program covered topics such as auditing, risk management, and cyber security, and provided networking opportunities. Of the 13 women from Biogen who participated in the program in 2015, nine have since been placed on corporate boards.
Raising the Bar has expanded beyond Biogen. In 2016, the life sciences industry group Women in Bio adopted the program, re-launching it as an industry-wide offering now called Boardroom Ready. Biogen continues to participate in the new program, as a sponsor and as a source of candidates. Of the 20 women who comprised Boardroom Ready’s first class in 2016, four came from Biogen. Four participants from the 2016 class have found seats on boards so far. Shah-Mara says Biogen wanted to open up the program to women from other life science companies.
“If we really wanted to start making headway with the industry, we needed to start engaging more than with [only] our senior women,” she says.
Liftstream Digs for Diversity Data
Drug discovery involves creating and analyzing large volumes of data but when it comes to assessing the diversity of the employees that develop drugs, Liftstream CEO Karl Simpson found there was little data to work with. So Liftstream, a life sciences recruitment firm founded by Simpson, decided to collect some. Liftstream, which is based in the United Kingdom but also keeps a Boston presence, has published three studies about diversity since 2014. A fourth is expected in September.
The most recent study reviewed the composition of corporate boards at 177 U.S. biotech companies that went public between 2012 and 2015. The research found that 57.2 percent of the companies had at least one female board member in 2016. While that represents an increase compared to previous years, the news wasn’t all good. Women chaired fewer than 2 percent of life science company boards; in management, fewer than 8 percent of these companies were led by female CEOs Liftstream calculated that at the current rate of change, it would take 40 years for boards in the sector to reach gender parity.
Simpson says Liftstream wanted to focus on corporate boards because company culture is typically set at the top. Improving female representation at the level of boards and senior management could be a way to spark changes in gender balance throughout the rest of the company. Simpson sees diversity as key to Boston maintaining its biotech success. At companies of all sizes, diversity can affect a firm’s ability to recruit and retain workers. But he argues that it’s also a contributing factor to financial performance. According to the Liftstream study, companies that had diverse boards on average showed a 19 percent increase in share price while those with all male boards showed an average 9 percent decrease in share price.
Liftstream has incorporated its diversity research into its conferences, including events held in Boston, which include discussions about diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and age. Simpson also helped facilitate discussions that led to the transition of Biogen’s Raising the Bar program to Women in Bio’s Boardroom Ready. He says a forthcoming report done in partnership with MassBio will cover the differences in diversity at small, medium, and large companies. Though Liftstream’s research to date has focused on gender diversity, Simpson says future analyses will cover race and ethnicity as well.
“Everyone is looking for a single solution—the single solution doesn’t exist,” Simpson says. “It’s a combination of factors that need to be addressed.”
Solabs: Breaking Gender Barriers in Software
Solabs, which splits its operations between Framingham, MA, and Montreal, Canada, provides software that helps life science companies manage their operations and ensure regulatory compliance. Industrywide, women make up just 5.8 percent of software developers, according to a 2015 survey conducted by Stack Overflow, an online community for developers. Solabs has bucked that trend. The 50-employee company does not have specific diversity programs but says its rank and file is now more than 42 percent female. In some areas, the representation is even greater. Women now comprise half of Solab’s software developers; in project management and client services, more than 80 percent of the staff are female.
“It has always been important to me to strive for equal representation in our workforce, and because of that I think that our employees feel a stronger connection to the company,” says CEO Philippe Gaudreau.
Amri Johnson Opens Novartis Doors to Students
Diversity plays an important role in Novartis’ ability to discover and develop new drugs, says Amri Johnson, the global head of diversity and inclusion for the Cambridge-based Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), the innovation engine for Novartis (NYSE: NVS). Having differences in perspectives and experience in the workforce not only helps individuals reach personal goals, it also helps the company achieves business goals, he adds.
NIBR’s diversity efforts include what Johnson calls “grassroots groups,” which are self organizing but still under Johnson’s leadership. One example is a women’s resource group, which is composed of senior-level women, primarily scientists, who undertake various initiatives, such as bringing in speakers to discuss ways to create gender equity. Johnson says these efforts include partnering with male colleagues who are also committed to gender equity, a collaboration that fosters “a culture that enables all to bring their best selves to work.”
NIBR also reaches out to the community outside of the company. Its Students & Scholars program offers summer internships and research opportunities at NIBR for college students and graduates nationwide who are interested in the sciences. Many of the participants come from under-represented communities. Students are matched to NIBR mentors, and participants in the summer program complete a research project over a 10-week internship. Since 2010, more than 260 students have gone through the program, and 112 of them are from historically under-represented communities, according to NIBR. Post-baccalaureate students work on projects over the course of two years, which prepares them for graduate programs. All 34 post-baccalaureate scholars that have come to NIBR are from under-represented communities, and Johnson says those students have gone on to doctoral programs at MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and other top universities.
“Many of the students leave the programs with scientific publications in high impact journals,” Johnson says. “While not the focus of our program, we now see many of those who have been in our Scholars programs either expressing the desire to return as postdoctoral scholars, and/or recommending their friends to explore opportunities at NIBR and Novartis.”
Susan Windham-Bannister: A Career Focused on Diversity
One way that NIBR and other Boston-area biotechs can find interns is through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The center makes available to companies a database of college students who are interested in science internships and covers the stipend of four students from community colleges who are hired by startups.
Susan Windham-Bannister began Internship Challenge after becoming the center’s first president and CEO in 2008. Half of the students in the program were women and half were people of color, and although Windham-Bannister left the center in 2015, those numbers have not changed under current CEO Travis McCready, according to the center. Many of the participants—the center counts more than 3,000 students so far—have gone on to jobs at local life science companies and some have started their own companies. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘As a result of that program, I’ve decided to become an entrepreneur,’” Windham-Bannister says.
As an African-American woman, demonstrating that women and people of color can contribute to the STEM fields has long been a mission of hers. Under-represented communities are the fastest growing demographics in the U.S., Windham-Bannister says, and that means that life science companies will need to draw more of their employees from these communities.
Windham-Bannister now runs her own consultancy, Biomedical Growth Strategies, but her efforts to support diversity continue. She has collaborated with MassBio and the BioPharma Executive Council on this front, including drafting an open letter this year on increasing gender diversity in the life sciences, a follow-up to a letter last year that included discussion of diversity initiatives. More than 200 Massachusetts companies signed the letter, which was presented earlier this year at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco.
“If we’re not encouraging women and people of color to pursue these fields, industry is going to look up and they will be woefully short of talent,” Windham-Bannister says.
Joan Reede Connects Harvard to the Community
When Joan Reede, Harvard Medical School’s dean for diversity and community partnership, first joined the university, she found some diversity efforts. But she also noticed that there was little sharing of information within Harvard or with the larger community. She went on to create more than 20 programs intended to support women and minorities at the medical school. One of these programs is the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Policy which aims to prepare physicians for roles in improving healthcare access for minorities and others who have challenges getting care. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts’ commissioner of public health, is an alumnus of the program. Reede says that close to 80 percent of the 128 fellows who have gone through the program have held faculty appointments throughout the country.
Reede has also made connections between Harvard and its surrounding community. The medical school has started after-school academic programs for middle and high school students and offers professional development programs for teachers. This outreach led to the formation of the Biomedical Science Careers Program (BSCP), a non-profit organization led by Reede that provides students of all backgrounds, from high school to the post doctoral level, with the guidance and support to pursue careers in the sciences. Growing beyond its New England origins, BSCP now serves students across the country. In 2018, more than 1,000 students from 200 schools will be represented.
“Some may end up in industry, some may end up in classrooms, some may end up in clinics,” Reede says. “But it’s based on the students and what they want to do.”
Reede says making multiple programs available to students and faculty at various stages in their careers will help improve recruitment and retention of minorities and women. The medical school class that entered Harvard last year was 51 percent women. But Reede says much remains to be done.
“When I look at our youth in Boston and Cambridge public schools, I don’t believe that many of them see our organizations as places of future employment, places that they could be leaders, places where they think they belong,” she says. “We’re in this amazing academic and scientific community that thrives on asking questions and finding solutions. We need to do the same thing as we think about diversity.”
This is the fourth in a series of articles about our 2017 Xconomy Award Finalists. See previous articles about finalists in the CEO, Startup, and Young Innovator categories. The winners will be announced at the Awards Gala on September 26.