Quita Highsmith Chief Diversity Officer At Genentech On Diversity & Inclusion

2020 has been a year of change. With the emergence of COVID-19, racial injustices and systemic racism, companies have been forced to further develop and champion their diversity and inclusion (D&I) programming. 

Genentech believes that embracing D&I means fostering belonging within our own walls, advancing inclusive research and health equity in our industry at-large and transforming society through partnerships across healthcare, education and within all communities.

They believe that by focusing on fostering belonging they encourage diversity of background, thought, and experience, they are far more likely to uncover new insights and unique approaches to addressing a challenge. This perspective is particularly critical for Genentech as they work to discover and develop medicines for some of the world’s most serious diseases. They are committed to sustaining an environment where scientific discovery can thrive, where the industry’s most talented people can do their best work, and where innovative medicines can reach those who need them most.

“We drive innovation when we all contribute to an inclusive culture that attracts a diverse group of the best and brightest talent and inspires everyone to freely contribute to their maximum potential and make a meaningful difference for patients every day.” –Alexander Hardy, CEO, Genentech

Quita Highsmith, vice president and Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech, is responsible for leading the company’s D&I strategy. She’s a named author in several publications about oncology disparities, including the Journal of Oncology Practice, American Association of Cancer Research and Contemporary Clinical Trials, and brings more than three decades of experience to her role recruiting, retaining and developing diverse talent, investing in initiatives to support science education, and addressing barriers in clinical trial participation via Advancing Inclusive Research™

Quita is well-known in the biotech industry for being an award-winning visionary and promoting patient inclusion. In 2020, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Business in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times and to PharmaVOICE’s Women of Influence list. In addition to holding a Master of Business Administration from the Johnson School at Cornell University and her undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky, she’s also a mother of two. Her family—husband Quincy and children Quintin and Quinlyn—are affectionately known as the “Q-Crew.”

To learn more about Genentech’s D&I programming, I sat down for a Q&A with Quita Highsmith. 

Q: With COVID-19 and the current national civil unrest happening, diversity and inclusion training and programming has been extremely important. How are you educating the workforce at Genentech while keeping momentum going on the critical work of educating and training employees on how to consider and talk about race, while actively dismantling bias?

A: Now more than ever, the lines between our personal and professional lives are blurred. We can’t be expected to leave our individual experiences and societal challenges at the virtual office door when working from home. It is time to be bold, no more tiptoeing around race at work. 

At Genentech, we created a virtual toolkit for employees to learn and take action. A few months ago, we hosted 12 dialogue circles with participation from 250 employees at each one, so employees could share how they felt about the social injustices happening in our country. I attended every dialogue circle. So many employees wanted to participate that we’ve now created a playbook for our senior leadership team to facilitate conversations among their teams. We also launched “Of Many Cultures” — a monthly virtual speaker series to foster belonging and help employees expand their knowledge-base by hearing about workplace culture, inclusion, and health equity topics. 

Our employees now have an internal network of support that is all available remotely. Our 13 employee Diversity Network Associations called “DNA groups” — such as African Americans in Biotechnology (AAIB), gPRIDE, gVETS, Women’s Professional (GWP), Native American/ Alaska Natives— are focused on cultivating inclusion, giving back, increasing diversity, fostering career advancement and driving grassroots change across the company on key issues. 

A few years ago, we formed an External Council on Inclusive Research with leading experts in the field  who are partnering with us to find solutions that help tackle barriers to clinical trial participation and define the next era of inclusive clinical trial research. We have engaged more than 90 patient organizations and have formed alliances with clinical institutions, government, academia, and industry to increase diversity in clinical research.

Q: What are some key ways you’ve translated your DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) efforts into a virtual format?

A: DEI has always been an important part of our business, and we have made all of our programming and resources easily available both virtually and in live and recorded formats. For example, the Genentech executive leadership team hosts live virtual office hours twice a month. We use this as a forum to listen to and discuss what’s on employees’ minds in regards to the workplace and broader societal issues.  

We are proud to be recognized for putting our values into action as a FORTUNE Best Employer for Diversity, a DiversityInc Top 50 Company for Diversity, a San Francisco Business Times Corporate Pride award recipient, and many more.

Q: What are Genentech’s current DEI programs and strategy? How are you working to foster belonging?

A: Genentech is leading the industry in delivering scientific innovations that drive better outcomes for our people, patients, business, and communities by advancing and boldly championing diversity, equity, and inclusion. We take a holistic approach to DEI that is centered around three core pillars, and how we evaluate all our work and programs: 

  • Fostering belonging for our people 
  • Advancing inclusive research and health equity for all patients 
  • Transforming society by investing in partnerships that strengthen D&I across healthcare and education and within all communities.

We foster belonging by creating an environment where every employee feels valued, included, and able to contribute their best for the patients we serve. 

This fall, we’re doing in-depth interviews with our Black, Latinx, Asian, and White employees in leadership roles to better understand what makes them stay at our company. We’ll come away with insights that can help us inform what we need to improve to increase retention and belonging among our people of color (POC) employees. 

Q: Share more about Genentech’s recent Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts and the vision you see for the company.

A: At Genentech, we are committed to creating a future where everyone can be their healthiest and most authentic selves. We are dedicated to ensuring every patient and employee who comes in contact with us feels seen, heard, valued, supported, and respected.  We foster a culture of inclusion where differences are valued, invest in our employees, and offer professional development opportunities. We are committed to advancing equality and representation in leadership.

We’ve worked hard to foster our employees’ belonging, tackle racial disparities in clinical research and Health Equity Research, and forge partnerships to help spur societal transformation. 

Q: How do you hope to spread awareness for Diversity and Inclusion and Genentech’s programming to future employees?

A: As Chief Diversity Officer, I am tasked with overseeing our enterprise-wide strategy. I report directly to our CEO, and together we are focused on recruiting diverse talent, advancing inclusive research, cultivating a diverse supplier pool, and investing in science education. We believe in purpose-driven giving and partnerships guided by three principles: Embrace equity. Engage employees. Think long-term. 

In 2019, we donated more than $85 million toward building a more diverse future of talent in STEM and medicine, advancing health equity and investing in our local communities. Our employees share their time and talents to make a difference, and our signature giving programs, Futurelab and The Resilience Effect,  foster STEM education and encourage health and wellbeing in South San Francisco and low-income communities around the Bay Area.By creating sustainable career pathways into the life sciences for students of color, addressing the root causes of disparities in our healthcare system, and building more vibrant communities in the places where we live and work, we aim to impact science, patients, and all people positively.

Internally, we have been working more purposefully with managers to eliminate unconscious bias. As part of our commitment and focus on inclusive hiring, we have developed D&I hiring tools and resources to help equip teams to actively and intentionally engage and recruit from diverse talent communities. Our Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Program, through policies, practices, and analyses, guides our efforts to attract and retain the most qualified people for the job and remove barriers to equal opportunity in all employment relationships. We invest in our employees and encourage an environment of inclusivity and belonging so that every individual feels free to grow and have a safe space to speak up.

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