Xconomy’s Diversity Award Winners Show How to Foster an Inclusive Workforce

Xconomy Boston — 

How did Joan Reede, Harvard Medical School’s head of diversity, decide to pursue a medical career? Credit television. As a young girl, Reede says she was interested in nursing. Her aunt was a nurse and she thought nursing was a woman’s job. But while in junior high, she stumbled upon the popular 1960s TV medical drama Ben Casey. The experiences of the neurosurgeon title character changed her mind.

“Doctors are in charge, I decided I should be in charge,” she recalls thinking. “So in seventh grade I decided to be a doctor. It never occurred to me that they were men, it never occurred to me that they were white.”

Reede became a pediatrician, and worked for years for Boston Public Schools before joining Harvard in 1990. She is now the dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School, where her work includes finding ways to improve the school’s retention of minority students and faculty, and connecting the medical school to the broader community. She has created more than 20 programs to support women and minorities at the medical school. For that work, Reede was one of the winners of Xconomy’s 2017 Commitment to Diversity Award. The other diversity award winners this year were Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB), and Women in Bio, a national nonprofit promoting careers and leadership for women in the life sciences.

As a African-American woman, Reede says awareness of issues of equity and social justice was part of life. She grew up in the Boston area, and remembers visiting family in the South, where she witnessed segregation firsthand. Her family always emphasized education, which Reede took to heart. She tutored fellow students in high school. In college, she tutored in prisons. And during medical school, Reede spent her Saturdays helping high school students with their microbiology work.

Reede says she was driven to those tutoring roles to try to provide for others the opportunities that she herself was given. Reede’s mother graduated college the same year she graduated from medical school. Her grandmother only finished middle school, and her great-grandmother was a slave. Reede says that it was the legacy of these and many other individuals that helped her become a physician.

While working for the Boston public school system, Reede noticed how difficult it was for students and even staff to find resources, and she tried to bridge those gaps. For example, Reede recalls a child expressing an interest in law. She scrolled through her Rolodex to find an attorney she knew who would be willing to talk.

Reede is still helping to make connections, but now she’s trying to build them between Harvard Medical School and the broader community. One of the programs she created at Harvard, the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Policy, prepares physicians to improve healthcare access for minorities and others who face challenges accessing care. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts’ commissioner of public health, is an alumnus of the program.

Within Harvard, Reede says there’s still much to do. While there is a growing understanding about the importance of diversity, Reede notes that there is not a lot of information about which diversity-promoting activities work and which don’t. The physician in her wants to collect and analyze diversity data in order to make evidence-based decisions.

“People think it’s just about race or ethnicity, or just about gender,” Reede says. “But diversity is about all of us. It’s about how all of us can contribute to the mission of our organization.”

Boardroom Bound

Biogen is working to improve diversity on multiple fronts. Three years ago, the company launched its Women’s Leadership Program, which is offered in partnership with Babson College. Minita Shah-Mara, Biogen’s director of global inclusion, says the executive training program helps advance the careers of women working at Biogen by teaching them skills such as negotiation, teamwork, and leadership. The company also offers employee groups oriented around cultural awareness; veterans; women; disabilities; and employees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning.

Inclusion is a hallmark of all of these groups, Shah-Mara says. The company’s Women Innovations Network, for example, has more than 1,200 members—men and women—at Biogen locations worldwide. To expand its reach, the group also connects with women’s professional organizations that are relevant to the life sciences industry.

But what might have been Biogen’s best known diversity program was Raising the Bar, which launched in 2015 to prepare women for corporate governance positions. The program gave participants a crash course on a wide range of corporate topics, such as the duties and responsibilities of serving on the board of public and private companies, financial literacy, crisis management, and investor relations. It also provided them the opportunity to make the business connections that can lead to board seats. Of the 13 women from Biogen who participated in the program in its first year, nine have since been placed on corporate boards.

Raising the Bar caught the attention of Women in Bio, which was thinking about starting a similar program for its members nationwide. Kristi Sarno, a past president of Women in Bio and a consultant with Latham BioPharm Group who accepted the Xconomy Commitment to Diversity Award on behalf of Women in Bio, described the appeal of the program to Xconomy’s Alex Lash during our Awards Gala. She said: “It’s something that women can go out and say ‘I did this because I really am interested and I really am qualified’.”

Women in Bio ended up taking over the program from Biogen last year to bring it to a wider audience. Biogen stayed connected as a sponsor of the program, which was renamed Boardroom Ready. Training for corporate boards is only part of the program. Women in Bio also matches participants with “boardroom coaches,” people from industry who can help participants with the networking that’s so important for finding board positions. The organization says it hosts receptions that draw investors, executives, board members, and others who can weigh in when board positions become open. This fall, the second Boardroom Ready class of 20 candidates began.

As Sarno said at the Xconomy Awards Gala in September: “We understand that taking a class does not get you on a board. But it begins a conversation. The networking is continuing and we’re working hard to make a difference and really impact the industry by having most of these women eventually join a board.”

For this work in creating and running Boardroom Ready and its other diversity-promoting activities, Biogen and Women in Bio were named co-winners of Xconomy’s 2017 Commitment to Diversity Award.

Even though the Boardroom Ready program is no longer part of Biogen, Shah-Mara says continues to affect the company in unexpected ways. For example, she notes an increase in the number of men at Biogen referring women for senior roles at the company.

Shah-Mara describes diversity efforts as a journey. Along the way, organizations should have benchmarks for accountability to mark the progress made in fostering a more inclusive culture. Things may not always go according to plan, but she says there are always opportunities to learn.

“The work is usually not linear, and you learn as much from your mistakes as you do from your successes, so it’s also powerful to celebrate the successes,” Shah-Mara says.

Photos by Alex Gagne and Rythum Vinoben. 

This is the eighth in a series of articles profiling the 2017 Xconomy Award Winners. You can read about Ed Kaye (CEO), Amy Schulman (Newcomer), Nikhil Wagle (Patient Partnership), Armon Sharei (Young Innovator), Bridge Project (Big Idea), Rob Perez (Community Contribution) and Lita Nelsen (Lifetime Achievement).