By: Quita Highsmith, Vice-President and Chief Diversity Officer, Genentech
Quita Highsmith is Vice-President and Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group. She is a leader with almost three decades of experience and a named author in several publications regarding oncology disparities including the Journal of Oncology Practice, American Association of Cancer Research and Contemporary Clinical Trials.
She is responsible for leading Genentech’s D&I strategy, including recruiting, retaining and developing diverse talent, investing in initiatives to support science education, and addressing barriers in clinical trial participation via Advancing Inclusive ResearchTM .
Quita is well-known in the biotech industry for being an award-winning visionary and promoting patient inclusion. In 2020, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in business in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times, Top 50 Chief Diversity Officers by The National Diversity Council and to PharmaVOICE’s Women of Influence list. Community service is important to her and she serves on several boards including, The Delta San Francisco-Peninsula Foundation Board which provides College scholarships for black students.
Quita received her Master of Business Administration from the Johnson School at Cornell University and her undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky. Her family — husband Quincy and children Quintin and Quinlyn — is known as the “Q-Crew.”
What are you doing inside your company to advance diversity, inclusion, equity and respect?
Genentech is leading the industry in delivering scientific innovations that drive better outcomes for our people, patients, business and communities by advancing and boldly championing diversity, equity and inclusion. We take a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I) at Genentech, centered around three core pillars — through which we evaluate all our work and programs. These are: fostering belonging within our own walls first, advancing inclusive research and health equity, and transforming society through partnerships across healthcare, education and within underrepresented communities.
At Genentech, diversity, equity, inclusion and respect are a top priority, which is why my role as Chief Diversity Officer reports directly to the CEO, where together, we are focused on recruiting diverse talent, advancing inclusive research, cultivating a diverse supplier pool and investing in science education. I believe this is an important distinction to begin with, because D&I has to go beyond hiring talent and retention and be truly integrated in an organization’s culture. Reporting to the CEO allows us to be more integrated into the overall strategy of the business, and ensures D&I is prioritized.
The CDO strategy comes to life in several ways. We created a toolkit for managers to learn about D&I and take action within their teams. A few months ago, we began hosting optional dialogue circles with employees so they could share their feelings about the social injustices happening across our country and other issues, such as coping during the global pandemic. Average participation was 250 people, and attending every circle I could see how valuable creating this inclusive space was for our employees. So many people wanted to participate that we’ve now created a playbook for our senior leadership team to facilitate optional and as needed conversations among their teams on a variety of topics, including the impact of current events.
This summer, we also launched “Of Many Cultures” — a monthly virtual internal speaker series to foster belonging and help employees expand their knowledge-base by hearing about workplace culture, inclusion, and health equity topics. We have a company-wide (14,000+ people!) commitment that empowers every officer to design their own “D&I Action Plan,” and set goals and tactics within their own D&I journeys to help bring to life Genentech’s three strategic pillars. Our aspiration is to truly integrate D&I into everything that we do; this is a journey and one we can’t do alone.
The work we do greatly impacts society. By fostering belonging inside our organization, we can ensure that employees feel respected, valued, heard and part of the solution. In turn, they can bring their whole selves to work, including their diverse perspectives and thinking, to solve complex scientific problems and transform society.
What observations/suggestions do you have to advance these principles across the much broader chemical/pharma enterprise?
At Genentech, we strive to put patients at the center of everything we do. As part of our commitment to D&I, Genentech is dedicated to advancing inclusive research and health equity. In September, we launched a landmark Health Equity Study that elevates the patient voice by asking patients how they experience healthcare and any inequities in their daily lives, and how that inequity impacts their relationship with the healthcare system.
Our online survey probed broadly and deeply into the healthcare engagement and experiences of approximately 1,200 medically disenfranchised patients (including Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and Low Socioeconomic Status (SES) patients) as well as approximately 1,000 patients that represent the US general population for comparison.
Our findings revealed a crisis of trust in our healthcare system, among those most in need of it. Medically disenfranchised patients believe, quite simply, that the healthcare system treats patients unequally and unfairly — that it is even rigged against them. Their lived experience of being unheard and devalued sets off a vicious cycle, in which distrust causes people to delay or discontinue treatment that in turn further deepens the healthcare divide. This distrust also deters people from participating in important clinical trials to develop new medicines and preventative measures, such as vaccinations and testing, that lie at the very foundation of the biopharma industry’s vision for, and relentless work toward, a healthier society.
Our Health Equity Study made it clear: Health inequity is an extension of larger systemic issues the healthcare industry needs to rebuild trust with patients. We must build bridges to medically disenfranchised patients to make them feel valued, respected, and understood, and give them reasons to trust the healthcare system. Until then, health equity cannot be achieved.
We are also deeply committed to addressing barriers and reducing disparities in clinical research participation for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Today, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. patients participate in clinical trials, and of those, only five to 15 percent are non-Caucasian. Yet, approximately half of the U.S. population is projected to be non-Caucasian by 2045.
Since 2017, we’ve worked to increase diverse representation in clinical trials, with a focus on patients who reflect the epidemiology of a particular disease. This will enable us to evolve the promise of personalized healthcare to achieve more accurate diagnoses and optimize treatment outcomes for all patients.
Recently, we’ve made progress on diversifying clinical trials for diseases including multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). We initiated CHIMES, an open-label, multi-center Phase IV study evaluating disease activity and neurological biomarkers in Black, and Hispanic and Latinx people with relapsing MS, and enrolled our first patient in July. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that the prevalence of AD and other dementias in Blacks above the age of 65 years is about twice the rate among elderly whites, while the prevalence in Hispanics is approximately one and a half times greater than in whites. So, we piloted a community engagement program at three trial sites for the Phase III study of one of our investigational AD medicines to increase minority outreach and recruitment for the trial.
Collaboration is everything. This work cannot be done alone. We must come together as an industry and country to ensure that D&I is achieved within our organizations so we can ensure health equity is achieved throughout the rest of society. Our commitment is to put our brilliant scientific minds together to dismantle systems that lead to barriers in healthcare. I believe members of the industry have the same goal: to use science to make the world a better, healthier place. We can only do that together.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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