An Industry that Depends on Diversity Should Defend It

Paul Hastings, CEO, Nkarta Therapeutics

[Editor’s Note: I asked Paul to write in response to a biotech executive who’s marketing a new book that claims diversity and inclusion in business is “the defining scam of our time.”]

As CEO of a cell therapy company, I know that the human immune system is a pointillist masterpiece, containing trillions of B and T cells with unique antigen receptors that allow them to latch on to and neutralize endless permutations of potential threats.

Within the human body, our diversity is – quite literally – our greatest strength.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for all the tragedy it has wrought, helped ignite two long-overdue conversations in America: one about health equity and another about the value of diversity and inclusion in a time of heightened attacks against those who identify, look or love differently.

In so many ways, biopharma CEOs sit at the intersection of both this new disease and this new dialogue. I know many CEOs and industry leaders who have been championing diversity and inclusion long before it was as popular to do so, but I celebrate the current focus on addressing systemic barriers. As a an openly LGBTQ CEO and a longtime warrior in the diversity trenches, I’m endlessly proud that a growing majority of my biopharma CEO colleagues are embracing this leadership role.

Some critics don’t believe that advocating for diversity and inclusion is in the job description of biotech CEOs and dismiss our efforts as “woke” and insincere.

Here’s what I believe: To lead a company charged with creating “living” biologic medicines in 2021 is to understand, as a fundamental matter of science, the life-sustaining value of biological diversity. The value of diversity is equally self-evident when we look up from our lab benches and look out at our colleagues around the conference-room table.

To create a culture of innovation, experience as a five-time biotech CEO has taught me to insist on teams full of people with different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and ideas. CEOs who fail to proactively seek out such synergies aren’t just “unwoke”. In my opinion, they’re asleep at the wheel.

The truth is, some biopharma leaders have hit the snooze button for far too long on diversifying clinical trials, on building inclusive leadership teams, on hiring outside of homogenous comfort zones and on assembling culturally competent teams that can understand and meaningfully connect with underserved patient populations.

Now, from the ashes of the COVID and George Floyd tragedies, progress has a chance. There is no filibuster in the biopharma C-suite. Industry CEOs have great power to effect change and be part of an industrywide effort to invest in health equity to regain public trust and affection.

We are in the midst of a paradigm-shifting global pandemic that preys on the immunocompromised, the underinsured and the unseen. Conversations are changing. Companies are engaging contract research organizations to amplify efforts to reach diverse populations. Health equity and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets are becoming more substantial line items. Investors now demand it.

The biotech industry is charting a more compassionate, inclusive, patient-focused course, one Zoom meeting at a time. If dedicating time and resources to achieve that kind of overdue progress is “woke,” I don’t ever want to go back to sleep.

Paul Hastings is the CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics in South San Francisco.

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