DDF 2018: Diversity can fuel company growth outside of a strong profit case

“Demographics are destiny,” Amri Johnson, Novartis’ global head of diversity and inclusion, told attendees at FierceBiotech’s 2018 Drug Development Forum (DDF) in Boston.

To best address diversity, or a lack thereof, companies need to build formal, proactive systems within their organizations, Johnson said—not only to gather a wide array of perspectives, experiences and assets but also to help new employees feel invested in the company more quickly and to help them do their best work.

“Scientific innovation is hard,” Johnson said. “But given all the tools and advancements that we have, maybe we aren’t seeing all the innovations that we could.”

When it comes to hiring women, for example, a report from MassBio found that across the industry as a whole, hires appear to be split evenly by gender. However, entry-level hires tend to skew toward women, while management hires see a much smaller percentage of women: about 20% for leadership positions and around 10% of board members.

At the forum’s panel on fine-tuning priorities to improve biotech companies’ diversity, speakers said it was more than just a strong business case that diversity can lead to increased profits; it's also essential to fuel long-term growth.

“If you don’t diversify the talent pool and extend your reach to appeal to multiple talent groups, you’re going to see a lull,” said Karen Anderson, senior VP and chief human resources officer at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, which has seen its organization expand as much as 40% year over year.

Typically, biotechs can grow through referrals, Anderson said. “It tends to be who you know,” which can lead to groups of similar individuals. Companies need to “balance referrals with outreach to talent to change the paradigm,” she said. In establishing a diverse sourcing pool of candidates, companies can better meet supply and demand challenges by not missing a portion of the population.

One of the first times Alnylam contracted a search firm to help fill a spot on its board helped to expand the company’s network in a more formal way. “When we did the first pass, we had no diversity from going through the rolodexes,” Anderson said, adding that the concerted effort led to contacts in different skill and experience areas that the company didn’t have before.

“It can only change if there’s change at the top,” said Lori Lyons-Williams, chief commercial officer at Dermira. “It has to be all of us in the room caring about it for it to change.”