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Invest in Diversity to Drive Innovation

June 21, 2017
“We’re just looking for someone with the right ‘fit.’”  How many times have you heard that sentence in a hiring conversation?  Probably plenty, but the term is rarely defined – so it ends up functioning as a justification for hiring someone who makes the existing team comfortable.  So who is really surprised when the majority of your employees, especially at the senior level, are cisgender, straight, white men who all went to the same colleges and come from the same professional networks?

At today’s “Invest in Diversity to Drive Innovation” panel at the BIO International Convention, Wende Hutton from Canaan Partners highlighted how often she hears the “fit” conversation in start-ups that her firm works with, and the other panelists shared similar experiences.  Moderator Jennifer Shieh from the Small Business Administration shared some data on the impact of this approach to recruitment and hiring – less than 10% of public biotechs have a woman as CEO, and just over 1% have a woman as Chair of the Board.  And, she pointed out, that’s just looking at gender!  For identities that make up less than 50% of the population, the situation is even worse.

Today’s panel focused on strategies that companies of all sizes can pursue to enhance diversity and inclusion at their organizations.  Enhancing diversity, the panelists argued, is not only the right thing to do – it is also key to the success of your business.  Diverse points of view help companies avoid groupthink, find different approaches to problem solving, and ensure that they are able to reach the diverse patient populations that depend on their products.  Key strategies for companies looking to drive innovation by investing in diversity highlighted today include:

Don’t rely solely on your existing professional network.  As highlighted by the “fit” conversation, the panelists stressed the importance of casting a wide net when looking to hire, promote, or add people to the Board. Danielle Olander of CytomX urged companies to “invest in whatever your organization lacks,” whether that’s visible diversity metrics, divergent viewpoints, differences in training, or a propensity for new and innovative ideas.

Re-analyze your selection criteria.  Amri Johnson of Novartis told a story about a woman who got onto a corporate Board and was then approached by a flood of other companies trying to recruit her to their Board as well. Why?  Because previous Board service is often a directorship criteria.  But, the panelists pointed out, if future professional opportunities depend on past participation in a system that has historically disadvantaged women and minorities, it will take forever to achieve equal representation.

Focus on mentorship and role models.  Dawn Hocevar of Women in Bio reiterated her organization’s focus on women supporting women. Without role models in senior positions, women and minorities do not feel that they have advancement opportunities at a company.  Women in Bio has established a Boardroom Ready training program to get women ready for Board service, and the panelists further described efforts designed to ensure that resources exist to teach and train the best and brightest of all backgrounds at their organizations.

Make the diversity conversation explicit.  Wende Hutton of Canaan Partners described the importance of making diversity an explicit part of your business’s values conversation. If companies are clear that they are seeking to build an inclusive organization, it is much easier to get management, employees, shareholders, and the Board all on the same page and working toward a common goal.

Today’s panel was the first in a series on diversity at this year’s BIO International Convention.  Additionally, BIO announced earlier this week that it has adopted new Principles on Workforce Development, Diversity, and Inclusion (WDDI) for the biotech industry and that BIO’s new WDDI Committee will be charged with leading the industry’s efforts to create and maintain a diverse global workforce.  To learn more about BIO’s diversity work, you can visit