Genentech's CDO: Making the Business Case for Diversity

Genentech’s Quita Beeler Highsmith, VP and Chief Diversity, joined us for a candid conversation around their Diversity and Inclusion commitments; the importance of transparency, objectivity, and accountability to build and maintain a diverse workforce; and the prioritization of diversity in their clinical research. Considered the founder of the biotechnology industry, Genentech has been developing groundbreaking medicine for people with life-threatening diseases for over 40 years. Their discoveries include the first targeted antibody for cancer and the first medicine for primary progressive multiple sclerosis. 

In 2020, Quita was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Business by the San Francisco Business Times and Top 50 Chief Diversity Officers by The National Diversity Council. Coming from a background in Government Affairs and Patient Advocacy, Quita joined Genentech in January 2020, before the pandemic and the waves of change & unrest George Floyd’s murder would spark across America. From the very beginning, Quita made it clear that she was joining Genentech as the VP and Chief Diversity Officer, not to be a black figurehead but to be a changemaker. Today, Quita summarizes her role as challenging and rewarding, noting that every day she must wear the many hats of advocate, advisor, educator, truthteller, data story communicator, disrupter, influencer, and therapist. 

With this call taking place just before Juneteenth, Jacqui Robertson, Global Head of Talent, Diversity, and Inclusion at William Blair and Chair of the Chief Diversity Officer Board at i4cp, opened with a powerful monologue reminding us of the significance of our newest federal holiday.  

Call Highlights & Discussion:  

  • Quita’s mantra is captured in her favorite quote by Mae Jemison, “The future never just happened. It was created.” In the times we live in, Quita is seeking out more changemakers – not just allies – for it is changemakers that make the difference. Quita explained that the future cannot be changed alone, so this commitment to change needs to be echoed across leadership and must go beyond the executive team.
  • A resonating theme throughout the conversation was the importance of transparency. Genentech’s 2025 Commitments to Diversity can be found here. In order to make sure that leaders are walking the talk, each officer within the organization was given a blueprint with 18 actions they could take to make progress towards the 2025 commitments. The officers were asked to commit to 2-5 actions, which were then shared for transparency on Genentech’s intranet. By publishing the information company-wide, leaders are held accountable to their goals. Jacqui Robertson eloquently captured these efforts with the statement, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is not a zero sum game. When there are so many opportunities for growth, no one’s seat is being taken away by making more room at the table. To that end, Quita stressed how much Genentech’s efforts of increasing diversity are rooted in true objectivity – both across and within the business.
  • You Budget What You Value. Dollars spent on recruiting, education, and talent are an objective measure of how much DE&I is valued and prioritized.
  • Do Big and Little Things. Anywhere there is an opportunity to make an impact around diversity and inclusion, take it. A few examples of Genentech’s recent efforts: 
    • Fellowship Program with the FDA and Howard University – leveling the playing field by expanding opportunities for learning and experience for African American candidates
    • Ongoing Unconscious Bias Training – education program that continues to change mindsets and prevents stagnation
    • Talent Pipeline, Kindergarten to Career – acknowledging the barriers to entry into the biotech space and working to reshape the talent pipeline
  • The Numbers Do Count. Genentech is committed to increasing diversity everywhere people are counted - in the workforce, executive leadership, management, interview panels, candidates, and especially the biotech research Genentech leads. A notable fact – Genentech’s research around COVID-19 and pneumonia included an 85% diverse population. They overcame the false narrative that people of color do not want to participate in clinical trials by going to communities of color including the Navajo Nation, Jamaica-Queens, Washington D.C., and New Orleans. Genentech also successfully overcame the barriers of trust around clinical trials for communities of color (notably the Tuskegee Experiment's effect of creating distrust) by relying on facts and leading with consideration and empathy. Dive into Genentech’s Advancing Inclusive Research initiative here. Quita also shared her own negative experience around participation in a COVID vaccine study this year that highlights the many barriers people of color face in medical research.
  • Quita’s advice on how to be changemaker: “Ask the question, keep asking the question, ask the right question, ask the question until change happens.” When people are uncomfortable, it is even more important to lean in. Everyone will always be busy doing their job, and everyone will always have an excuse. When you encounter leaders who do not support DE&I, hit people with the data and show that the facts support the importance of DE&I. Echo chambers mean that the same people will breed the same ideas. Diversity and Inclusion is not just about the people you hire, but also the research you analyze and ideas that come to the table. Use facts to make the business case for diversity.

A quote to leave all the changemakers with: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

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