Quita Highsmith on changing the face of HR in the pharmaceutical industry

The HR Digest talked to Quita Highsmith to discuss the essential role of HR in building a culture of agility, innovation, and engagement. Highsmith throws light on how companies can effectively attract and hire STEM talent while also providing opportunities for star performers.

Quita Highsmith CDO

The HR Digest: What are the non-negotiable parts of Genentech’s company culture?

Quita Highsmith: At Genentech, we embrace diversity and inclusion and strive to foster belonging among all employees so that they feel valued, included, and able to contribute their best for the patients we serve. 

Many employees at Genentech are changemakers and risk takers. They understand that making medicines is just one way we can make a difference, and they are committed to also serving and transforming society. The Genentech company culture is vibrant and composed of the greatest minds in our industry working together to improve the lives of all patients.

Lastly, at Genentech we welcome and embrace all people regardless of their race, gender identity, sexuality, and beliefs, and we expect all employees to contribute to building an inclusive environment.

The HR Digest: In building the company culture of tomorrow, how does diversity help deliver on your objectives?

We believe that diversity is more than good for business – it’s good for scientific innovation. This is particularly critical for Genentech, as we work to discover and develop medicines for some of the world’s most serious diseases.

Earlier this year we unveiled our inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Report which included commitments to drive meaningful D&I progress by 2025. The commitments are holistic and aspire to increase diversity across the board – in all clinical trials, within our company, in the STEM pathway, and in the communities where we work and live.

Within Genentech, our focus on creating an inclusive work environment starts with attracting and hiring a diverse mix of the best and brightest people. After hiring an employee, we invest in them to ensure that their skills are being developed so they can have a long, successful career here at Genentech. We also work with hiring managers to eliminate unconscious bias and ensure that hiring decisions are based on competencies, not just the experiences listed on a resume. In fact, all prospective hiring managers at Genentech are now required to take Unconscious Bias training, and be certified for Inclusive Hiring before adding to their team.

Earlier this year, we also launched our Future of Working initiative — a new approach to flexible working arrangements driven by where, when, and how work gets done. We believe that offering more flexible work options will help us attract a more diverse pool of candidates and, ultimately, build a more diverse workforce. 

The HR Digest: How has the identity of Genentech changed over the past ten years?

D&I has always been an important part of our business – it drives innovation, improves scientific and clinical outcomes, and helps contribute to equitable healthcare access. With that being said, over the last decade that I have been at Genentech, I have seen our commitment to D&I deepen and become increasingly ingrained into the culture of our organization.

I strongly believe that an organization must both budget what they value and inspect what they expect; meaning that it is important to invest resources, time, training, measurable goals, data analytics, and transparent practices if any organization hopes to convert values and words into actions and results.

As a results of this increased focus and investment from Genentech on D&I, over the last decade, we have made meaningful strides towards advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, including but not limited to:

  • More than doubling the number of women officers at Genentech. Since our former CEO Art Levinson drew attention to this issue in 2007, we have gone from 16% women at the officer level to 43%. Currently 54% of Genentech’s workforce are women, including 53% of directors who are women. 
  • Building an industry-leading initiative focused on advancing inclusive clinical research, supported by an External Council of thought leaders in this space.
  • Investing more than $32M in our Futurelab program, which supports 9,000 K-12 students annually to reach their potential as the next generation of innovators and engage them in a lifelong exploration of science
  • Building Gennetech’s Chief Diversity Office – In 2019, our CEO, Alexander Hardy created the role of Chief Diversity Officer, reporting directly to him. In this role, I oversee our enterprise-wide D&I strategy centered across our three pillars: fostering belonging, advancing inclusive research and health equity, and transforming our society.
  • Enhancing data insights and accountability measures across the organization by providing senior leaders with regular snapshots of metrics. Insights gained from this data allow our leaders to track and address areas of opportunity as it relates to equity and representation within their team.
  • Creating and launching robust training offerings and learning tracks around practicing allyship, eliminating bias, advancing racial equity, and putting D&I in action through advancing inclusive research and supplier diversity.

As Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech, I have also championed and advocated for increased investment in Genentech’s Kindergarten to Careers efforts, which aim to create more early-in-career opportunities and sustainable career pathways for historically underrepresented and excluded Communities of Color in science and medicine.

The HR Digest: What would you say is your specific contribution to closing the leadership gap that exists in STEM fields? How do you measure the value STEM programs bring to Genentech?

I try to be both a mentor and a sponsor to underrepresented talent across our organization. I frequently speak at fireside chats and in 1:1 conversations with employees about my career journey and the lessons that I have learned along the way. I am also an executive sponsor of the Genentech Women Professionals employee resource group which provides professional development and growth opportunities for women at Genentech.

My very presence, as a Black woman and leader at Genentech, creates possibilities for others who have traditionally not seen people who look like them in positions of power, and I do not take that lightly. I am an authentic leader and I bring my full self to work everyday in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. I believe that diverse perspectives and backgrounds create a beautiful tapestry that allows us to be more inclusive of others and drive innovation. 

As Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech, I have also championed and advocated for increased investment in Genentech’s Kindergarten to Careers efforts, which aim to create more early-in-career opportunities and sustainable career pathways for historically underrepresented and excluded Communities of Color in science and medicine. In 2020 alone, Genentech gave $6.3M in grants for efforts to advance diversity across the education continuum. We know that today’s students are the researchers, physicians and innovators of tomorrow, so we are investing in removing barriers they may face to careers in science and medicine in an effort to advance health equity today and for future generations.

The HR Digest: How much does government policy matter in company affairs?

Genentech is committed to engaging in the political process in a constructive, proactive, transparent and responsible manner. Through our policy and advocacy efforts, we engage with policymakers and other stakeholders to advance policies that support a more equitable, accessible and affordable healthcare system for patients.

Genentech advocates for state and federal policies that encourage scientific innovation and ensure patient access to medicines. Engagement in the political process enables us to inform policymakers and other stakeholders about the impact of key issues on our business and most importantly, the patients we serve.

Anna Verasai
Anna Versai is a Team Writer at The HR Digest; she covers topics related to Recruitment, Workplace Culture, Interview Tips, Employee Benefits, HR News and HR Leadership. She also writes for Technowize, providing her views on the Upcoming Technology, Product Reviews, and the latest apps and softwares.

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