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

Xconomy Boston — 

In June, Jennifer Petter, the founder and chief scientific officer of biotech startup Arrakis Therapeutics, got an e-mail from a stranger. His name was Ramsey Johnson, a biotech veteran who works in clinical operations at Boston startup Phoenix Tissue Repair.

Johnson was writing about OUTBio, a networking organization for LGBTQ members of the biopharma community. He has worked arduously in his spare time to build the group, from scratch, over the last three years. He’d just read a blog post about how Petter, formerly Russ Petter, had announced her transition. Johnson wanted to get Petter involved in his organization.

“She is definitely the most ‘out’ biotech executive that I know of,” Johnson says.

Petter became a member of Boston-based OUTBio, and she and Johnson plan to meet for lunch in August. Reaching out to a C-level leader was part of Johnson’s effort to expand the reach and impact of his organization. Since it started in 2015 as an informal meeting of 11 people, OUTBio has built a membership roll of about 500, all without a website. It has grown just through word of mouth, emails, and Facebook and LinkedIn pages. It now puts on monthly networking events hosted by Boston-area biopharma firms big and small. It appears to be the only group of its kind, and size, in the country (it is also a finalist in the Commitment to Diversity category of the 2018 Xconomy Awards).

“OUTBio provides a validating space for a lot of people,” says Aaron Edwards, a former Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) employee who was one of OUTBio’s first members. “There’s something very comforting about seeing it in action.”

The organization now sits at a critical crossroads. Johnson says OUTBio could soon incorporate as a nonprofit, and its mission could grow, but OUTBio leaders aren’t yet sure what that expanded mission should include. Should it raise more money to support the LGBTQ community in other ways? Be more of an advocacy group? These ideas are all on the table. Whatever the direction the group goes in, OUTBio wants to move carefully to make sure it listens to its growing membership.

“There’s no reason to take that step further and make it an organization that no one wants to be involved with,” Edwards says.

There is no question that progress has been made over the past decade in providing more support for the LGBTQ community through improved government and workplace policies and benefits. But the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, which has been tracking the climate for LGBTQ workers nationwide for years, outlined some troublingly stagnant statistics in a report published in June. Some 46 percent of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work compared to 50 percent in a 2008 report. One in five LGBTQ workers say they have been told they need to dress more masculine or feminine, compared to one in 24 non-LGBTQ workers. The broad takeaway, according to HRC deputy director Beck Bailey, is things “haven’t changed much.”

While non-LGBTQ workers polled in the HRC report overwhelmingly support their LGBTQ colleagues coming out, for instance, a majority of them still felt it was unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. There is no industry-specific data in the report, but people interviewed for this story also reported similar experiences. They said they felt a lot of personal support from their work colleagues, but added that each person’s story is different, and some might hesitate to come out at work, fearful of how it might disrupt relationships with their colleagues or impact their career. A gay ex-colleague once advised Johnson, for example, to stay closeted because “you never want it to be a reason you’re passed over for a promotion.”

“If you are an individual LGBT person you pick up on those kind of nuanced signals,” Bailey says.

Those issues and others can affect each person’s decisions on whether to communicate their sexual orientation or gender identity to work colleagues. But each case is different. Joseph Vogel, an Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) employee and OUTBio member, says he never came out at work because he was never closeted at work. “It’s not something I try to hide,” he says.

Johnson, meanwhile, struggled coming out professionally, because many of his colleagues knew him as a straight, divorced father of two children. “They had no reason to think of me any other way,” he says. But in 2002, he had a “rip it off like a band-aid” mentality of telling everyone he knew that he was gay, beginning with family and friends, and then colleagues. It was becoming harder and harder to “keep male pronouns out of the conversation” when asked simple questions like what he did last weekend and just didn’t want to live that way anymore. Johnson started with his boss, then close colleagues, and then relied on office “gossip channels” to do the rest. He found only support from those he told.

Ramsey Johnson, founder of OUTBio.

The situation was different for the 61-year-old Petter. She struggled privately for decades, knowing she was different, yet tried to convince herself it would fade. She got married, had children, pursued her career, but had a breaking point where she realized she had to tell everyone the truth. Though just two syllables, getting the words “I’m trans,” out was tough for Petter the first few times she spoke to someone professionally. As Arrakis’s founder, she was concerned not just for her well-being, but others at the company. A lot of the “perceived value” of a company has to do with the management team, she says, and she didn’t want her transition to compromise that value. Perhaps potential pharma partners and investors might be hesitant to work with Arrakis “because of the unusual events around the CSO, me,” Petter says. She planned meticulously to avoid that. (Her professional transition story is captured in this blog post by Arrakis CEO Michael Gilman.)

“People have transitioned and lost everything. Absolutely everything,” she says. “Their family, their job, their career. So the cost then extends beyond yourself also to other people who are dependent upon you.” But Petter says she has been encouraged to see that people have been largely “unmoved” by her transition or, “if moved, filled with good will.”

Bailey says that social networking and advocacy groups can 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.”