OUTBio, a Biopharma LGBTQ Group, Grows Fast & Ponders Its Future

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help make things easier for members of the LGBTQ community. He points to groups like Open Finance and Out on the Street, which brought together gay finance workers from various firms and pushed for workplace policy and cultural changes amongst their employers. “They’ve been very effective at helping employees across industries create change,” Bailey says of such groups.

The idea for OUTBio was born not out of an immediate need for advocacy, but more to just create a community, says Johnson. In 2015, Johnson knew his time was coming to an end at a now-defunct startup called Edimer Pharmaceuticals, and toyed with the idea of starting a new group. He kept meeting more people living in Massachusetts, working in the drug development business, and identifying as LGBTQ. It wasn’t that Johnson felt LGBTQ workers were being discriminated against in biopharma, or needed a larger voice. Instead, “I thought there was an opportunity here to bring people together and build a community where one doesn’t exist,” he says. “Because from what I could tell there was nothing like that for drug development and for biotech.”

So in April 2015, Johnson e-mailed a handful of men he knew were gay and in the drug development industry, thinking—selfishly, he says now—of an excuse to hold an event, network, and maybe find a new job. He offered a place to hang out (Edimer), and to buy some beer, wine, and snacks. The only criteria to attend: identify as LGBTQ or an ally, and be in some way associated with the drug development industry. Tell people you know, he said.

Around 11 people showed up to the inaugural meeting, which was supposed to run a few hours. Vogel, one of the attendees, says it ran past 11 p.m. Everyone went out to dinner together afterwards. “We were all really excited to have a friendly forum and make some connections with people who were like-minded,” Vogel says.

The group grew organically from there, and members voted to change its name from the garbled “LGBT Drug Dev Meetup Group” to the catchier OUTBio. After the first event, Johnson started getting contacted by people who wanted their company to host a gathering. The common template: Johnson gets the invitations out and tracks RSVPs, and the host company supplies the food and drinks. The second event took place at Bluebird Bio. Monthly events soon followed at Alnylam, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Sanofi, Biogen, Takeda, and more. Johnson says that while Boston area companies had been setting aside cash for so-called diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, they weren’t sure what to do with it. “I think they saw OUTBio as an easy way to kind of show that they were taking an initiative in the diversity and inclusion space,” he says. “So they used me, and the mailing list, as a mechanism to have an event.”

Fast forward to 2018 and OUTBio hosts monthly events at different companies and venues and each tends to draw over 100 attendees (185 people RSVP’d for its latest event this week). Johnson gives the host company some freedom on format—like a presentation on the rollout of a D&I initiative, or just an idea of what the company is up to and the job openings it has. All the while, Johnson has pulled the strings. On nights and weekends, he maintains the membership lists, acts as the liaison for event hosts, and searches for new places to hold future gatherings. “It’s become second nature at this point,” he says.

Edwards and Vogel—who have both become members of the OUTBio steering committee—say there are a few things that make OUTBio particularly valuable. Edwards says it has created a support structure for LGBTQ biopharma workers that more and more companies have participated in. That, in turn, has helped companies identify ways to improve their own diversity programs and show they outwardly support the LGBTQ community.

For example, Vogel, a clinical trials manager at Alnylam, said that Alnylam’s participation in an early OUTBio event sparked the formation of a diversity group at the company. The team has worked with HR to review hiring practices and has its own voice on Alnylam’s website. “I’ve been really amazed by the support we’ve gotten from our management team,” Vogel says.

Johnson adds that he commonly hears from people who either are new to the area or moving from academia to industry. “There’s not a lot of opportunity to network with likeminded people outside of your own company,” Vogel says.

With the group gaining traction and getting larger, Johnson is now thinking about what it can become. He wants it to use its growing power to raise money so it can help the LGBTQ community in other ways; perhaps, he says, to provide scholarships, career advice, or other assistance to LGBTQ youth interested in the life sciences. Maybe it can advocate for LGBTQ issues. “I’d love for us to get to the point where we’re able to give back to the community a little bit more,” Johnson says.

That all has yet to be determined. But first Johnson is focused on the basics. He has reached out to some attorneys and taken a workshop to start the process of incorporating OUTBio as a non-profit. And he’s secured some URLs for a website.

Part of Johnson’s plan for growth is recruiting C-level biopharma executives who have come out or transitioned. There are only a few amongst OUTBio members, Johnson says, and he has been actively searching for someone who can come to events, speak, or just “be a champion for LGBT rights” and for diversity within biopharma. It’s no surprise, then, that Johnson quickly reached out to Petter after her story became public.

Arrakis Therapeutics founder and CSO Jennifer Petter.

Yet Petter says she didn’t transition professionally to make a political statement. “It’s a thing that has happened to us as a company and me as an individual,” she says. But with a laugh, she adds it would be “surly” of her to just tell her story and fade back into the background. Her interest in being more public about her experience is piqued.

“If there’s ways that I could be helpful,” Petter says, “then I’d really like to find those ways.”

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