Firsthand Views: Latinos in Pharma

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 7

Latino executives share their experiences and insights on the community’s contributions to the life sciences industry.

When the topic of diversity emerges, it’s common to discuss all underrepresented voices as one connected group. And while minorities’ experiences in the workforce include a number of commonalities across race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more, each group has its own story to tell.

Here, Rogelio Braceras, MD, vice president and head of medical, general medicine business unit, North America at Sanofi, and Nicki Vasquez, PhD, senior vice president, alliance management/portfolio strategy and operations at Sutro Biopharma, share their thoughts on the past, present, and future of the Latino experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

PE: How does the Latino community identify with and differ from other minority groups within pharma?

Nicki Vasquez: The Latinx community shares a lot in common with other underrepresented minorities from lower-income and immigrant communities in the industry. What’s different about the Latinx community is that we’re a very diverse group. We come from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds—we might be black, white, Native American, often we’re a mix of all of the above. The other piece is that we tend to come from very different cultural backgrounds. I’m from a Mexican American background, and there are people from South America, Central America, Puerto Rico, Cuba. That rich cultural experience is a real positive for the pharma industry, because we bring a diverse set of perspectives.

Rogelio Braceras: There are a lot of commonalities among the different minority groups. We are all trying to tackle inequality by addressing questions such as: How can we get more involved? How can we feel more that we belong? How can we diminish the perception to some that we are solely a corporate quota and truly be identified as a force of nature that brings important value to pharma and society?

The Latino community is truly a melting pot. We all come from different cultural backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities. These differences bring an invaluable element of strength and creativity to pharmaceutical organizations.

PE: Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has been impactful to diversity as a whole?

Braceras: In a way, because the Black Lives Matter movement was in the media a lot. It’s not that people weren’t aware there were racial and minority inequalities. It just made it more prominent. It became something more pressing and current. It was definitely an unfortunate event, but the silver lining was that it became a sort of jolt for people and society to say, this is something that’s been going on for a while and it’s time to do something about it.

Vasquez: Over the last year or year and a half—thanks, especially, to the Black Lives Matter movement—things have changed a lot. I work and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. At work and in my community, I can see a dramatic increase in awareness of social inequities and problems particularly facing the Black community but also more broadly underrepresented minorities. There’s a new awareness. It’s a very positive thing. The big challenge now is can we translate this awareness and new sense of urgency into actions. I’m very hopeful that we can.

PE: What can pharma do to address inequality within the industry?

Braceras: Companies should have a genuine commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) strategy. At Sanofi, our DE&I strategy is focused on impact—impact on our workforce, our workplace, and our marketplace so that we leverage the power of our collective difference. We know that the best way to deliver impact is by doing it together as an organization with our people, our stakeholders, and society. We believe that our leaders and teams must reflect the vibrant diversity of the communities we serve so that we are able to act for our patients and customers in a way that makes a difference through our diversity of thought. These strategies should foster an open and sincere dialogue and ultimately an action plan. Another important element to consider is that these strategies, in order to be successful, cannot be a one-time event; they have to be frequent and sustained in the long term.

Vasquez: Building outreach to the Latinx and other underrepresented minority communities and lower-income communities, is essential. It’s an area that we are focused on at Sutro, but in general, I think it’s important for the industry to move in this direction. At Sutro, we partner with an organization called Students Rising Above, and they specifically work with and support low-income, first-generation college students. They support them throughout their college career and connect them with industry leaders for summer internship programs. We’re very active in that program.

For a number of years, I’ve also been a mentor in the Women in Bio mentorship program. While it doesn’t specifically target underrepresented communities, the program is an avenue for career growth. For the first time, it just happens that this year’s summer intern in my group is a recent Latina college graduate and my mentee for Women in Bio is also a young Latina scientist just starting out in her career. It’s been really fun to be able to give back to Latina women at two different stages early in their careers.

PE: What else can companies do to reach the Latino community better?

Vasquez: I feel strongly about supporting STEM education opportunities. It’s absolutely critical. In our industry, anything we can do to promote STEM education initiatives, carrying them throughout elementary school, high school, and college is critical. I loved science from when I was a little kid. When I was about eight or nine, I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas and I was incredibly lucky to have a supportive family. My dad was an electrician, and my mom was a homemaker. It wasn’t that we were surrounded by scientists and doctors. They just said, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. It really was a continuum from my first chemistry set when I was little all the way to a PhD in immunology. I was encouraged all along the way. Not all kids have that, especially those in lower-income and immigrant communities. The kids might be curious, but their curiosity isn’t always nurtured. We have to start young, and we have to target those communities so that children like me can realize it’s really cool playing with test tubes and litmus paper.

Another aspect that we need to be mindful of is that kids often get excited in these STEM programs when they’re in elementary school, but we lose them in high school. We need to be reaching to the high school students, especially the girls, keeping them engaged in science, and then offering programs like Students Rising Above once they go into college, just giving them that extra bit of support so that they know there’s this career for them.

I’m always surprised when I’m talking to college students who are getting degrees in biology, chemistry. Very often, they don’t realize that there’s a career path in biotech and pharma, and they don’t realize what a broad career path it is. It can be in the labs, and sometimes they’re aware of that, but they don’t know that there are whole career tracks on the business end of biotech pharma, in clinical development, moving toward the commercial side of the business. There are massive opportunities that they know absolutely nothing about. So I really support industry initiatives where we’re reaching out to the colleges and [presenting] this world to them to explore. I think that’s really important.

Braceras: Reaching into the Latino community is a valuable and important long-term investment. We have to, among other things, foster programs such as fellowships and internships. The key to inclusion is to truly be visible to those communities and interact with them early as young students and professionals. You would be surprised to learn about how many people are not aware the pharmaceutical industry provides great career and development opportunities.

As an example, several years ago, I remember showing my assistant, who was Hispanic, an article published in Pharmaceutical Executive featuring an Hispanic leader. She shared the article with her high school daughter who wanted to pursue a science career but had no idea that a pharmaceutical company could offer a job opportunity. A few years ago, I learned that she ultimately studied pharmacology and joined the pharmaceutical industry. That shows the power of information being a source for inspiration and motivation. We need to find ways to engage with the Hispanic community early on and in a way that is productive and motivating.

Many companies have fellowships in different therapeutic areas, allowing people to engage in something they’re passionate about. These programs also expose individuals to different areas in the company, fostering cross-collaboration and network opportunities.

PE: How do you build diversity into corporate leadership?

Vasquez: There’s a general understanding and acknowledgement that it’s important for an entire organization to have diverse voices and perspectives. But one of the things that we sometimes forget about is that what’s good for the program team, what’s good for an R&D team and a commercialization team, is equally good for the executive suite. We also need to be very diverse, and we’re a stronger executive team if we are.

I’m really lucky at Sutro in that we have quite a diverse executive suite. In fact, we have two Latinos—Mexican Americans, specifically—on our executive team, myself and our chief medical officer. But not every company is like that. As an industry, we need to do better.

Braceras: It’s important that we have diversity at every level of the organization, not only because of the immediate positive impact that the person brings as an individual, but also diversity brings tremendous value to internal and external stakeholders, serving as inspiration and motivation to people within and outside the company.

We want to create a safe and inclusive space where everyone feels they can bring their best selves so that we unleash the full creative potential of individuals and teams. Our impact should go beyond the walls and transform our business, and extend into the communities in which we live and operate.

PE: How does cultural background enrich pharma?

Braceras: There is no doubt it brings tremendous value to the organization and the patients we serve. In particular, because we have to be mindful and consider cultural insights and differences. As an example, the way diabetes management is approached in the Hispanic community is different than other communities because of the prominent role that the family plays in a successful disease management. Therefore, in addition to materials geared toward physicians and patients, materials that involve the family have proven to be beneficial, particularly, when it comes to compliance.

PE: As a Latino yourself, what has it been like being in a leadership role in pharma?

Braceras: It has been extremely fulfilling. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a leader in pharma is that it has allowed me, along with great colleagues and teams that I had the privilege to collaborate with throughout the years, to bring many medications to the market that have helped millions of patients worldwide. As a physician in the clinic, you only help one patient at a time. It is something very humbling that fills me with pride.

However, the journey requires a lot of endurance and discipline. Whether you’re Hispanic or not, you must become a corporate athlete. When you look at professional athletes like LeBron James, he practices two to three hours per day. It’s not that he forgets how to play basketball, but he practices his craft and tries to improve it every day. As a leader, you have to become a corporate athlete, so never stop learning, never stop trying to improve or acquire new skill sets—scientific, innovation, leadership, or otherwise.

As Hispanics in corporate America, we are unfortunately a minority, so we have to be very present. It’s important that we take advantage of great opportunities to share our vision and experience like this interview, are intentional about reaching out to the Hispanic community, and become an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Vasquez: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career. My good fortune has come from supportive teachers, supervisors, and mentors, and that’s been a huge plus. Although, it’s not that I haven’t occasionally had some negative experiences.

One of the biggest obstacles that Hispanic people and often everyone in underrepresented minorities face is skepticism about whether you’re qualified or not. You encounter this sort of thinly veiled skepticism periodically. Are you really qualified? The key is not to be discouraged and not to give up. Every now and then you’re going to face some headwinds. When that happens, don’t give in. You just might need to shift gears and put yourself in a different situation that’s more supportive.

PE:What was your experience getting into pharma?

Vasquez: It was almost by accident. When I graduated from college, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to medical school or graduate school, so I worked for a couple years in a lab before deciding. Rather than working in an academic lab, I was working in a biotech lab. This was the mid- to late ’80s, and biotech was brand new. I worked for a couple years, knew I wanted to get my PhD, and when I finished my PhD, I was again at this crossroads where I could go into academia or enter into an industry postdoc program at Genentech. Ultimately, because I’d had that early experience as a research associate at a biotech, I decided that was the career path I wanted. I felt like I had more opportunity. So I kind of stumbled onto this path, but it’s been incredibly, incredibly rewarding.

Another advantage that I don’t take for granted is that when I started my PhD, I had the benefit of having an early fellowship that was specifically tailored to underrepresented minorities. Little advantages like that make a huge difference. I appreciated being recognized; there’s a lot of empowerment in just getting the message ‘We want you.’ I don’t think that can be underestimated. I love any kind of initiative that makes Hispanics and other underrepresented minorities see ‘We want you.’

Braceras: When I was doing my neurology fellowship at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, my mentor invited me to an advisory board. This was a new concept for me and the first time I was exposed to pharma in order to help develop clinical trials. In South America, at least 30-plus years ago, physicians did not have interactions with pharmaceutical companies beyond the visits from the sales representative. I was fascinated about the impact of being able to design and conduct clinical studies that would benefit patients worldwide, including studies focused on diseases that affect our Hispanic community, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Upon completion of my fellowship, I came to the US and began my journey in the pharmaceutical industry, holding positions of increased responsibility and leadership in US and global medical affairs and clinical development.

PE: Do you have any advice for Latinos looking to pursue a leadership position in pharma?

Braceras: I’ve participated in many Hispanic leadership forums. Sometimes I hear people feeling discouraged about pursuing a career in pharma because Hispanics are underrepresented in corporate America, which unfortunately is correct. However, I encourage all of us, in particular the younger Hispanic generations, to become trailblazers and change that reality. The only way to do this is to become involved, take action, be an agent of change. Do not let the past define your future. Also, be proud of your heritage and who you are, embrace the differences, and be confident.

Vasquez: I’d say don’t be discouraged. If you have your sights on a senior executive leadership role, be vocal about it, let your supervisor know. Find mentors to help you achieve that. People don’t necessarily think that a young Hispanic scientist is going to want to be an executive, so I really encourage people to seek out opportunity. Let your ambition be known.

I think the biggest setback people sometimes have is when opportunities pass them by for no other reason than the decision-makers just didn’t realize that that’s what this person was interested in. You’ve got to let people know that this is what you want and not be discouraged. There are places for all of us here. I know from experience there is a seat for all of us at the table. Just sometimes we have to push a little harder. 

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.