Building an Equitable Healthcare System Requires Action

by Savoy Staff

Quita Highsmith, VP and Chief Diversity Officer, Genentech

It’s time to be bold and move beyond words

Biotech industry pioneer, Genentech, is proud of its many scientific discoveries and innovations. The company has also invested in a bold diversity & inclusion strategy focused on fostering belonging for their people, advancing inclusive research and health equity and transforming society. This enterprise-wide strategy goes well beyond diversifying the workforce to acknowledging and facing head-on the root causes of health inequities. Leading the effort is Genentech’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Quita Highsmith.

“Many people know that Genentech founded the biotech industry, so we see it as a responsibility to advance inclusion and equity within our company and the healthcare industry,” says Highsmith. “That means not just whispering about it within the company walls, but making a public declaration so that we can lead by example and be held accountable. It also means acknowledging the root cause of health inequities, and calling it by its name: systemic racism.”

In 2021, Genentech unveiled its inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Report which included commitments to drive meaningful D&I progress within the company, the industry and society by 2025. These bold company commitments, which include increasing representation of employees of color in top leadership ranks, are a reflection of Quita’s bold leadership and an example of Genentech’s commitment to transparency, accountability and delivering results.

“You can’t just be talking about these issues, you have to be doing things to solve them,” says Highsmith. “You have to be transparent and bold to create change.”

The heart of Genentech’s business is developing new medicines. In 2021 alone, under Highsmith, Genentech launched its Advancing Inclusive Research® Site Alliance, invested $75M in health equity research and grants, published its 2nd Annual Health Equity Study, and launched an inaugural Health Equity Symposium series with community leaders.

“People of color are vastly under-represented in clinical studies,” says Highsmith. Currently just 5% to 15% of participants are nonwhite. “That means that the results are not always generalizable to all patient populations – often the ones most in need – and we miss out on the enormous variety of human genetic variation in our studies,” she says. Black women, for instance, have an approximately 40% greater mortality rate for breast cancer compared to White women, but represent only 6% percent of participants in clinical studies.

Including more people of color in clinical studies means, as Highsmith puts it, “meeting people where they are.” Many people can’t access clinical research and potentially life-saving medicines because they can’t get time off work, don’t have transportation to the site, or there are no sites available where they live. To address these barriers, Genentech is aiming to conduct studies in communities where people of color live, and staffing them with culturally competent and diverse healthcare workers who can engage more effectively with people who have historically had good reason to feel, as one Genentech-sponsored survey found, that “the system is rigged.”

Highsmith acknowledges that all these changes are challenging. “This is hard work,” she says. “There are no easy solutions when it comes to how to be more inclusive — and not every company is ready for that journey.”

Highsmith’s fearlessness is undeniable, and a key driving force behind Genentech’s progress towards advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. “I often tell my team, bring the ideas that might get me fired, because I know we are on the right side of history.” Over time, she says, the organization has seen the value and the business impact of these initiatives.

Her advice to others who want to push bold D&I goals? “You can raise your hand from any seat.” she says. “I would just encourage everyone to be more intentional about creating change. We don’t need more allies, we need changemakers – people who are willing to stand up, and actively fight for what they believe is right.”

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