Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
February 24, 2023
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.
Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. In February, we are highlighting Black History Month in a conversation with Quita Highsmith, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Genentech. Read more about Quita in her own words below.
Q: Tell me about Genentech and your role within the biotechnology company.
A: I’m the first Chief Diversity Officer in the history of the company. In my role I’m a changemaker, an advocate, an advisor, an educator, a truth-teller, a data story communicator, a disrupter, an influencer, and lastly a therapist. This is a tough job because you have to be so many things to the full organization.
I never thought I would be doing D&I work, but I knew that I wanted to make a greater difference in the industry and challenge all of us to think bolder. To do this effectively, you have to have a seat at the table with senior leadership, including the CEO.
I wanted to challenge all of us to think strategically and more holistically about D&I. So many times D&I efforts that are just centered on representation can become about us or them – if this person gets a seat, then my seat is taken. We have to bring all employees along the journey, even those who have no prior understanding of systemic inequities, by also connecting diversity, equity, and inclusion to the business.
Q: To highlight how African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression in all areas of life, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History made Black Resistance the theme for 2023 Black History Month. Advancing Inclusive Research® is a major step towards addressing systemic inequities in healthcare. Can you share more about the initiative, your role with it, and why it is important to diversify clinical research?
A: At Genentech, we believe in a world where all individuals have access to the best quality healthcare and in a future of science that is more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.
Today, fewer than 10% of U.S. patients participate in clinical trials, and of those, only 5 to 15 percent are non-Caucasian. This gap extends into every aspect of the clinical research journey — inclusion and exclusion criteria, the diseases we choose to study, who the investigators are, and where the research sites are located. As a result, the genetic data available to scientists doesn’t reflect the majority of our diverse global population.
I have seen the impacts of these inequities first-hand through my work and in my lived experience. In my prior role leading Genentech’s Alliance and Advocacy Relations team, I partnered with my team to plan a patient summit and wanted to include a diverse set of patients that previously participated in our clinical research. This population was so small that we couldn’t identify anyone for the summit - not one single patient of color that had actually participated in a study. So, I began asking why.
This experience led me and colleague (Nicole Richie, Ph.D) to co-found Advancing Inclusive Research® Genentech’s initiative to address barriers to clinical research participation for racial and ethnic underrepresented groups.
Our approach is three-fold – 1) Recruit more representative population by prioritizing clinical development interventions 2) Enhance diversity of data to optimize patient treatment and 3) Build external coalitions and partnerships with the communities most impacted by healthcare inequities. We have to go where the patients are - for the Black and Latinx communities, that could mean not overlooking what I call the 4B’s: the bodega, the barbershop, the bishop, and the beauty salon.
Q: In addition to the work you and Genentech are doing to embrace a diverse and inclusive workplace and address research and health disparities, Genentech is also investing in growing a diverse and inclusive talent pipeline. Can you talk about both the Futurelab K-12 STEM Education program and the Genentech Foundation’s post-secondary education grant program?
A: Building an inclusive medical and scientific workforce that reflects the diversity of the people it serves is critical to advancing a more just and equitable healthcare system.
Since 2017, Genentech and the Genentech Foundation have invested $60M, and 65,000+ employee volunteer hours, to dismantle systemic barriers to STEM education and careers for historically marginalized and underrepresented groups - from Kindergarten to Careers.
One specific initiative, Futurelab was initially launched as a local STEM education partnership with the South San Francisco Unified School District to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM. Last year, we expanded this initiative nation-wide to launch Futurelab+ a new, open-source biotechnology curriculum that incorporates leading educational standards, teacher resources and support, and links biotechnology professionals with high school classrooms to share their own career journeys in STEM. Just 35% of US high schools offer biotechnology as an elective, nearly all of which are in higher-income districts. We designed Futurelab+ to give all students – including those from low-income schools and historically underrepresented populations – the exposure, skills, and experiences that can eventually lead to well-paid careers in science in medicine.
The Genentech Foundation, our private charitable foundation, invests in a range of educational institutions and non-profits supporting the advancement of underrepresented students. For example, in 2019, the Foundation provided an historic $10.5M grant over five years to San Francisco State University to support 100 underrepresented and low-income undergraduate and Masters students per year in their transition into Masters and/or PhD programs.
Q: What opportunities in biotechnology, particularly when it comes to health equity, are you most excited about?
A: I’m excited that the future of biotech will be one that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive - leading to better outcomes for us all.
At Genentech, we are creating the future that we want to see. We launched the Advancing Inclusive Research® Site Alliance, a coalition of clinical research centers partnering with us to meet patients in their communities, advance the participation of patients of color in clinical research, and test recruitment and retention approaches. Since its launch, the Alliance has expanded to include more sites and disease areas and is establishing best practices that can be leveraged across the industry to help achieve health equity for all people.
Although I’m excited, I still acknowledge there is still more work to do. We’re not going to have centuries of oppression and then, overnight make a dramatic change. With that said, we are pushing the ball forward, we’re making progress, and we’re backing our words with concrete actions.
Q: What are some of the challenges specific to women, particularly Black women, in biotechnology or clinical research?
A: To address the underrepresentation of women and communities of color in STEM, it is important to understand the underlying forces that drive inequities in career development and advancement. We have to have real talk and acknowledge that everyone does not have the privilege of sponsorship/mentorship or access to STEM education opportunities or seeing leaders who look like them or can relate to their lived experiences.
We still have a long way to go, but we are working to build a diverse workforce at Genentech and foster belonging so that all employees can thrive as their authentic selves at work. Over the past decade, we’ve more than doubled the representation of women in leadership as a result of a long-term gender diversity strategy that includes senior leadership commitments, programs and initiatives to move the needle; thriving internal communities; and external partnerships. We have gone from women representing only 16% of our Office community in 2007 to women representing over 53% of Officers and Directors in 2021.
We’re continuing to apply these strategies and learning when expanding our focus to include representation of underrepresented groups such as Black, Hispanic/Latinx and Asian employees at Genentech.
Q: Is there a single piece of advice that resonated with you throughout your career?
A: I have what I call “Q’ism’s” that I often share with my audience. This is advice that has helped me throughout my career and one that will always resonate with me, is "the job won’t hug you at night." If you ever have to choose between going to a work event or missing something important in your family's life, always choose your family. I learned this the hard way, when I missed my daughter’s middle school graduation for a work trip to Paris. When I returned, she said, “Mom, I missed you and I needed you.” That conversation broke my heart, and I never missed an important family engagement again. But I did take her to Paris twice after that!
Q: Do you listen to podcasts? If so, is there one or two – work/leadership-related or not – you would recommend?
A: I am currently listening to "Color Code," a podcast hosted by science reporter Nicholas St. Fleur of STAT News about the ongoing impacts of racism on the American healthcare system. As a Black woman and a leader in the biotechnology industry, this podcast hits close to home – it is not only reflective of my lived experience, but it clearly highlights the urgent need to address inequities to save lives.
I would recommend this podcast, as we need to reckon with the uncomfortable truths of the past to have any chance at changing our future.
I also listen to Brain Chat with The Nerdy Neurologist. This podcast is hosted by Dr. Mitzi Joi Williams who is a Multiple Sclerosis Specialist. She brings awareness to the disease by educating and empowering her listeners.
About the authors
Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.