Biotech Companies Acting on Promises to Increase Racial Diversity

Karl Simpson, CEO, Liftstream

First came the pandemic. Then the economic slump. Then the push for racial justice. Taken together, you have three major challenges for business leaders to tackle all at once.

Because the pandemic has illuminated many racial inequalities, these issues have become intertwined.

In the biopharma sector, many company leaders stepped up. Decisive moves were made to reorganize working patterns to protect their staff, while continuing important work. In some cases, work that is vital to meet the need for new therapies to treat COVID-19 patients, and find a possible vaccine at “warp speed”.

Many leaders have also made statements, and created action plans, to address racial inequality in their companies. While the individual motives may differ, it has provided the industry with an opportunity to re-establish its bonds of trust with citizens; a chance CEOs appear keen to take.

Most employees in biotech and pharma are motivated by the mission to help patients, regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic circumstance. This north star has burned brightly throughout the pandemic. As the industry has risen to the COVID-19 challenge, it has done so while paying attention to the need for conducting diverse clinical trials.

Pfizer/BioNTech reported Nov. 9 that 42% of their 43,538 trial participants who enrolled in their COVID-19 vaccine pivotal trial have racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds. Moderna, another front runner in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, said that 37 percent of the people enrolled in its pivotal study are from diverse communities — 11,000 out of the 30,000 total. Specifically, the trial included 6,000 Hispanic or Latinx participants, and more than 3,000 African American participants.

Diversity in clinical trials is one area where the industry can take direct, immediate, and positive action. It’s a crucial step toward, delivering better patient outcomes and reducing inequities in healthcare. The industry must also address health equity more broadly, including the issue of access to new treatments, especially for people with no health insurance, or inadequate health insurance.

Many of the large companies in biopharma have already been focused for some time on improving access to medicines for low-income and underserved populations.

That’s one place to start. But for biopharma to restore trust with patients and minority communities it will require some internal changes too. These factors rely on the range of perspectives contributing to the process of innovation and the management of companies. For this reason, diversity is becoming imperative in all aspects of the life sciences sector.

What are companies doing? How have they been responding to the intersecting challenges of the racial justice issue and a pandemic? – Here, we look at a sample of companies, large and small, and explore what action they have taken.

Bristol-Myers Squibb

The converging opportunities of more diverse clinical trials, improved health equity, and a more diverse and equal workforce has led BMS to announce a $300 million, 5-year investment. BMS aims to double executive roles for Black and Latinx employees by 2022 and to level up on pay.

Like many other companies, BMS will look to impact the supply chain too, through a pledge to spend $1 billion globally by 2025 with black and diverse-owned suppliers. Plus, BMS said it will double-match donations its employees make to non-profits dedicated to fighting discrimination or inequities in the health system.

This ambitious initiative came about six weeks after BMS added Paula Price and Derica Rice, both black candidates, to its board of directors. BMS, along with other biopharma companies, has also committed to the NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer, to disclose its consolidated EEO-1 data, which details some useful standardized data on its employment of racial and ethnic workplace minorities.


Biogen has a long been committed toward diversity, equity and inclusion. This June, Biogen built on its foundational Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) program to increase its breadth and depth, both internally in areas like hiring and development, and externally in things like clinical trial engagement strategy.

Minita Shah-Mara, head of organization effectiveness & diversity and inclusion

“Our equity and inclusivity journey is ongoing,” said Minita Shah-Mara, Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Biogen, “but we should also be excited about where we are on this journey. It requires collaboration, learning, vulnerability and holding ourselves accountable to meet our goals.”

Biogen is aiming for a 30% increase in Black, African American and Latinx people employed in its leadership ranks by the end of next year. Biogen’s plan also focuses on Asian employees where underrepresented, and women too, until parity or population demographics is achieved by level and function. Biogen is also looking to increase the representation of veterans, people of disability, and LGBTQ individuals. The plan doesn’t stop with hiring. It includes tailored development programming for underrepresented employees who may be ready to move into first-time supervisor roles. Research shows this is a pivotal career stage where the opportunity gap widens, and Biogen should be commended for designing a targeted intervention.  

Biogen’s plan contains specific data-driven goals, and a framework for measuring progress against the goals. By collecting richer sets of data, companies can create dashboards to measure progress. This new analytical approach allows leaders to see how the company is performing by geography, by job function and seniority level. Gathering and analyzing this data also paves the way for a better understanding of employee advancement and promotion, hiring, and team composition. Periodic updates will be communicated within the entire organization.

The DE&I strategy, encompassing extensive staff training on inclusive hiring, promotion and retention, extends beyond the walls of the company’s offices. For one thing, Biogen recognizes its ability to boost financial empowerment for minorities. Biogen is increasing its spending with minority-owned businesses. This financial empowerment strategy has already resulted in Biogen depositing $10 million with OneUnited Bank, the largest Black-owned bank in the United States.

Biogen recognizes that serving patients is the priority, and that is embedded in its DE&I strategy. There are multiple components to the external side of Biogen’s strategy. It is seeking to boost minority participation in its clinical trials, to conduct more studies of underrepresented groups in disease areas relevant to the company, and to invest more in patient engagement, education, and access to medicines in underserved communities. As with BMS, Biogen is willing to submit to external scrutiny on how it’s doing on these goals. Biogen is one of the companies that has agreed to disclose its consolidated EEO-1 data. Taken together, with the internal and external components, this is a serious plan.

Sutro Biopharma

Smaller companies are getting involved as well. South San Francisco-based Sutro Biopharma, a developer of drugs for cancer and autoimmune disease, has been following through on the CEO’s open letter to employees and stakeholders in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. CEO William Newell has committed company resources to improve the company’s connections with underrepresented and lower socioeconomic communities, having linked in with local organizations like Students Rising Above and Peninsula Bridge. Sutro opened its doors this past summer to nine interns from diverse backgrounds, offering these students real work experience, despite the operational challenges of COVID-19.

Bill Newell, CEO, Sutro Biopharma

Newell says Sutro is just beginning. Sutro is becoming more intentional about addressing racial diversity at all levels of the company, from the board of directors down. The company has created a diversity section on its website with curated content, and all the employees have T-shirts emblazoned with the word SAWUBONA, a Zulu word meaning ‘I see you, you are important to me and I value you’. Newell said several factors have compelled him to become more active. He’s been feeling the call of the broader movement for racial equity. He’s been working to learn more about the subject. And Sutro has grown to a point where it has resources to take meaningful action.  

Newell, a member of the BIO board, is serving on the trade group’s Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion committee. He is also on the board at the California Life Sciences Association, which is also adopting a strategy for DE&I. He is very engaged in the topic, and his early efforts are commendable. There is still a lot for Sutro to do, but Newell is showing what can happen at a development-stage biotech company when the CEO is personally committed.

Xilio Therapeutics

Waltham, Mass.-based Xilio Therapeutics is a venture-backed cancer immunotherapy startup, at an early phase of development, like many companies in the Timmerman Report readership. The CEO, Rene Russo, is an advocate for diversity. She signed MassBio’s Open Letter 2.0, which asked leaders to commit to several commitments on racial and ethnic diversity.

Rene Russo, CEO, Xilio Therapeutics

Russo’s public pledge coincided with the company concentrating its DE&I efforts in the past few months. Xilio hired a chief human resources officer, Jason Robart, to help formulate a human capital strategy, of which DE&I is an integral part, rather than somehow being separate. The view at Xilio is that it has to be part of the corporate planning process. 

As a relatively young company with good intentions, Xilio has an opportunity to turn DE&I into an integral part of how it grows up. This is a good time to act intentionally. In Xilio, as with many small and early-stage ventures, the reliance on networks for hiring is high. This network dependence has the potential to seed homogeny. People tend to hire other people who look like them. To counteract this well-known unconscious bias, Xilio is being very intentional about reviewing and assessing the job profiles for which it is recruiting, thereby widening the aperture through which to view prospective employees. More diligence about the relevant experience of candidates too, will support this more expansive hiring approach.

“Xilio’s success in developing therapeutics that serve the needs of a diverse patient population will be enhanced by having a diverse workforce,” Russo noted. About one-third of the company’s current workforce identifies as racial or ethnic minorities, while about half are women.

Xilio has experienced a groundswell of interest in DE&I by employees since the racial injustice protests swept the country in June. The company has conducted some initial survey work to understand better the composition and needs and preferences of the workforce. As a science-based organization, data will be a key component of measuring the effectiveness of its DE&I efforts, but the company will also monitor some of the less quantifiable indicators. “Successful DE&I efforts will show up in the numbers, but perhaps equally important, they will also show up in how we do business,” Russo said. “When we see a material and consistent change in the nature of conversations and in the behaviors of employees, we’ll know that we’re making progress.”

To help develop a comprehensive DE&I program, Xilio has formed a DE&I council made up of employees, including senior leaders. This council will also have members from outside the company too, to introduce external accountability as well as infuse different ideas.

The company has been working with Project OnRamp, an initiative started by Life Science Cares, which gives interns from underrepresented communities opportunities to work in life sciences companies.

One challenge for Xilio is to reduce its reliance on existing networks, and to be open to hiring more diverse candidates from unfamiliar sources. The company is in a building phase, and diversity often gives way to just-in-time hiring. Xilio has been busily hiring in recent months, adding an independent Chairman, two independent directors, a Chief Medical Officer and a Chief Human Resources Officer. While only one of these individuals is a racial minority, Xilio deserves credit for having three women on the board. 

Genocea Biosciences

When COVID-19 forced everyone to change how their organizations work, Genocea CEO Chip Clark had employees working from home like everyone else. But this dislocation has meant that Clark has had to place extra emphasis on internal communication to keep everyone on the team engaged and connected. Clark has been sending daily notes to staff, in addition to inviting employees to attend the usual company happy hour, if they choose.

Chip Clark, CEO, Genocea Biosciences

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Clark, a black man, had to search for the right response. The Monday morning note-to-all had to strike the right balance in terms of what the event meant to him, the employees, the company and the other stakeholders, not least the patients they’re all trying to help. 

The company made a statement on its website, decrying racism and claiming that it cannot be neutral in the face of such events. Clark’s note to staff, and the public statement, would begin an internal dialogue about the issue and what to do about it. This conversation needed pragmatism and balance, and could not be casual or overly political, although keeping these separate isn’t easy. Clark was keen to remind his team that they were privileged to do what they do, get paid for it, and to be part of a vibrant and dynamic local bioscience economy in Massachusetts.

This dialogue led to the first of the company’s deliberate actions. People needed an outlet for their anger, frustration, and desire to improve the situation. Genocea agreed to provide a company match when employees donate to non-profits dedicated to tackling racial and social justice. While donations are a demonstration of this, the company is also encouraging employees to invest their time and talent, through taking time off for community service days.

The company formed a D&I committee. Clark believes that the company is performing well on workforce composition, relative to peers, but acknowledges there is also more the company can, and must, do. One way he is zeroing in on this is to apply a renewed focus on hiring practices, including widening the scope of recruiting efforts, accessing more diverse candidate populations, and monitoring measurable benchmarks; all supported by a documented process.

Clark says the social context of the current environment has increased his recent drive for change, but that the company’s stronger financial position today and the accountability of external groups driving for progress have all made it possible to set positive changes in motion. He admits much of this DE&I work is hard, but he is committed on continuing to build a company where a range of views is welcome. These include political views, which can be a source of tension on such issues as DE&I, but creating an environment where people can live their values and feel connected to the culture of the company is crucial.


Management teams always have many competing priorities to juggle, but it’s clear that racial equity and diversity is now a top-of-mind priority at many companies. Each company was already making efforts and progress on diversity and inclusion, but the events of this summer have provided new impetus.  

Every company has its starting place, with different end goals in mind, and they’ll approach it in their way, mainly using tools, processes, systems and strategies that have been proven to work, yet need tailoring to their needs. No doubt, each will have ways they can improve on their scorecards too.

All of the companies reviewed are aware of the social context their respective firms operate within. They are working for all their stakeholders, including their employees of today, and tomorrow. Every one of these companies understands that by bringing equity, diversity and inclusion to their firms, they reduce risks which jeopardize their long-term success and sustainability.

Leaders are making a risk/benefit calculus on DE&I, and the scales seem to be tilting ever increasingly towards the considerable benefits that being more inclusive offers. Most leaders recognize they are reliant on the developing generation of talents currently making the bioscience community the force that it is. Future generations of biotech workers will be increasingly diverse. To be an attractive employer, companies will need to be fully inclusive of the workforce, and in their interactions with society.

The slow increase in the representation of Black, Latinx and other racial workplace minorities in the industry is still a problem; no one can pretend otherwise. These companies know it. It should not take the tragic racial events of 2020 to cause momentum to shift, but it appears the wheels are in motion to bring about the change we need to see.


Karl Simpson is CEO of Liftstream, an executive search and leadership consulting practice that exclusively serves clients in the life sciences industry by supporting board and executive appointments, and consulting on diversity and governance. Karl is co-founder of BioDirector, a diverse international network of board director which is improving corporate governance and diversity in the boardrooms of innovative healthcare companies. He is also the founder of the Bioscience & Investor Inclusion Group, an industry coalition developing DE&I solutions for VCs and innovator companies.

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