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Tough—But Rewarding: The Evolution of the Chief Diversity Officer

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: April 2023
Volume 43
Issue 4

What Smita Pillai, global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) officer, Regeneron, learned from two decades in DE&I roles.

When I got my first diversity leadership role in 2003, my goal was to shift the largely compliance-based view of DE&I to a more business-focused imperative. At the time, most leaders overseeing equity issues (and there weren’t many) were focused on making sure their companies didn’t run afoul of civil or human rights laws.

Over the past decade, many more companies have realized that adopting a diverse societal lens can do more than protect against class action lawsuits—it can also drive innovation, better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse customer base, and help retain talent. Thanks to this increased appreciation, the chief diversity officer (CDO) role has evolved to encompass a broad array of responsibilities.

To get an idea of what the role entails today, take a sample week for me in November 2022. For Transgender Day of Remembrance, which fell on a Monday, we had planned a celebration of progress for the transgender community. But the Saturday before, the Colorado LGBTQ+ club shooting happened.1 We had to decide 1) whether to call off the commemoration because it would be tone-deaf to have a celebration in the aftermath of a hate crime, or 2) if calling off the commemoration would be giving short shrift to transgender remembrance. In the end, we kept the event but began with an acknowledgment of the mass shooting and gave colleagues an opportunity to share their feelings about the horrific event.

That same afternoon, I had to make the (new) case for why diversity advances scientific innovation and present my strategy and resource requests for the coming year. Later that week, I worked with my team to design a diversity recruiting and onboarding strategy and coached a senior leader on inclusive messaging for an upcoming town hall.

When you’re wearing multiple hats—and sometimes ones that don’t even seem like they belong in the same closet—mistakes and regrets are part of the job. The good news is that every failure is also a lesson.

Here’s a short list of some of my lessons learned over the decade.

  • Bring allies along. After an executive board presentation where I spelled out how badly we were lagging on key diversity metrics across recruitment, retention, and development of talent, the head of HR pulled me aside. He congratulated me on the presentation, but he asked me what would I be doing to help him fix the problem I’d called out. At the time, I didn’t have an answer.
    • Lesson learned:I needed to co-create solutions and not just highlight the challenges.
  • Maintain humility about the limits of your perspective. Another time I presented to a global executive team on why we needed to make gender diversity a priority. The head of the Asian-Pacific business called out my US-centric perspective, noting that diversity means very different things in different parts of the globe. His focus was on increasing socioeconomic diversity; so his immediate goal was to recruit from a broader range of universities.
    • Lesson learned: I needed to open my eyes to what “diversity” means in different cultures and contexts.
  • Take time before you act. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, many companies held space for open dialogue. We did, too. While it was broadly well received, I quickly realized that we needed to go into those meetings with a reasonably clear idea of what we can and can’t do. Making space for colleagues to discuss difficult topics is a great thing, but it requires planning beforehand and coordination in the moment to ensure you’re setting up reasonable expectations.
    • Lesson learned: Sometimes you need to go slow to go far.

My philosophy is that the CDO job ultimately requires a unique combination of head (to navigate executive-level responsibilities), heart (to empathize with colleagues and model what it means to bring one’s whole self to work), and guts (to push the company and your colleagues to take bold steps toward equity).

None of us come with all of these skills fully developed; so we have to be humble and eager to learn at the same time that we’re educating and driving change. It’s a tough job—but a rewarding one.


  1. Kaufman, A. Colorado Springs Shooting Joins Growing List of LGBTQ Hate Crimes in America. USA Today. November 21, 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2022/11/21/lgbtq-violence-hate-crimes/10749639002
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