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Reshma Kewalramani, MD, FASN, chief executive officer and president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, understands the importance of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in pharma. Here, she talks with Barri Blauvelt, CEO of Innovara, Inc., and co-principal investigator of Health Alert 2022: Women, Diversity and Leadership in the Businesses of Healthcare1, about how she supports these efforts within and outside her organization.
Blauvelt: Not surprisingly, Health Alert 2022 shows that the healthcare industry has a way to go to achieve gender parity and to significantly increase diversity in leadership at executive levels as well as most levels of management. What do you think could be some solutions to accelerate or transform this achievement?
Kewalramani: In biotech and STEM-based companies in general, there can be an even greater gap in gender and racial/ethnic minority presence at the highest levels, and the reasons behind these gaps start with who is pursuing STEM degrees in college. According to the Pew Research Center (using data as of 2018), Black students earn 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees; 12% of Hispanic college graduates earn a STEM degree. This underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic adults also applies to advanced STEM degrees, especially doctoral degrees.
And for women, research shows that girls like STEM, but they don’t get enough practical experiences and start to self-select out of higher-level math, science, and computer classes as early as high school. In 2018, while women earned 53% of STEM college degrees, just 22% were in engineering and 19% computer science. This contributes to a STEM workforce that’s only 28% women.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the status quo. We’re already doing it [at Vertex]. We have a diverse leadership team (as of the end of 2021) that collectively brings decades of experience to our mission of transforming the lives of people with serious diseases:
Our approach to addressing the gender and race/ethnicity gap at the management and leadership level is multifaceted. Our partnership with Year Up is an excellent example of this. We developed and launched a first-of-its-kind biotechnology curriculum for students whose education journeys have not yet included a four-year degree from a college or university. And I’m delighted that our first class of 10 interns—80% of whom are female and 90% of whom come from racially/ethnically diverse backgrounds—graduated in January, and that eight of the 10 have joined Vertex as full-time employees. We provide a variety of career and leadership development opportunities to all “Vertexians.”
We’re also investing in the next generation of scientists through our commitment to STEAM education, which includes three on-site Learning Labs, and partnerships with students and schools that have limited opportunities to access hands-on STEM experiences. These are just a few examples of the work we’re doing at Vertex to increase diversity, increase equity, and reduce gender and racial/ethnic disparities across all of our positions.
Blauvelt: What advice would you give to these talents early in their careers in pharma/biotech, to be able to rise in their organizations and not be left behind?
Kewalramani: Never underestimate the power of mentorship. This is advice I give to everyone—women, men, and colleagues from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. This is important because life (whether it is about personal decision-making, career decision-making, or decision-making for a company) is about evaluating weak signals and trying to make the best decision by connecting the dots in these weak signals. That’s where mentors come in. They sit on a different perch. They have different life experiences. They read the weak signals differently. And by sharing their perspectives, they often open the aperture for what’s possible.
I’m so passionate about this because I am the great beneficiary of outstanding mentoring. It’s important to remember that mentors don’t have to be similar to you. Seek multiple mentors who come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. Two of my most important mentors are men, and the diversity of thought, ideas, and life experiences are what helped these mentorships flourish.
Barri Blauvelt, CEO of Innovara, Inc., a global healthcare learning and development firm, and co-principal investigator of the Health Alert 2022 study