Diversity & Inclusion

Quita Highsmith: Pioneering DEI Leadership at Genentech

Quita Highsmith’s journey to becoming the Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech reflects a career dedicated to meaningful change in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In her role at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, Highsmith has been instrumental in shaping and implementing strategies that have significant implications for DEI and corporate culture more broadly at Genentech.

Early Career and Path to Leadership

Highsmith’s ascent to a pivotal role in DEI at Genentech began with her early experiences in leadership and her innate drive to challenge the status quo. Highsmith’s career trajectory is marked by a series of roles where she consistently embraced the mantle of a changemaker.

Reflecting on her early career, Highsmith notes, “I have always been a leader, whether that be at my church when I was growing up, as the president of my sorority in undergraduate, or challenging organizations to disrupt the status quo. I’m a changemaker and known as ‘the fixer’ – I do not shy away from challenges.”

Highsmith’s entry into the pharmaceutical industry was as a sales representative, a role that she recalls with enthusiasm: “I got my start in this industry, in one of my first jobs out of college, as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company.” She says she was excited by the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in patients’ lives. This early role was more than a job; it was the beginning of a career-long commitment to making a positive impact, a theme that has stayed with her throughout her 20+ years in the industry.

Highsmith’s progression from this initial position to a leadership role in DEI was driven by her desire to effect change on a broader scale. Her journey is a testament to how leadership skills, honed in diverse roles, can be pivotal in shaping a career dedicated to advancing DEI in a corporate setting. Highsmith’s story underscores the importance of embracing leadership roles early on and using them as a platform for larger organizational impact.

The Genesis of the Chief Diversity Officer Role at Genentech

The establishment of the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role at Genentech marked a significant milestone in the company’s DEI journey, with Highsmith at the helm. Reflecting on the inception of her role, Highsmith shares, “In 2019, our then CEO Alexander Hardy created the role of Chief Diversity Officer, reporting directly to him, and I was selected as the first CDO in Genentech’s 47-year history to oversee our enterprise-wide D&I strategy across our three pillars: fostering belonging, advancing inclusive research and health equity, and transforming society.”

Highsmith’s appointment as the inaugural CDO was a strategic move by Genentech, signaling a deepened commitment to DEI. She elaborates on the significance of this change: “The creation of my role and the Chief Diversity Office has allowed us to build a holistic strategy and ensure that D&I is truly integrated into our organization’s culture and business practices,” she says. “We have also put into place accountability measures to track and measure progress. Every year we publish a D&I Report which includes stories elevating our DEI progress and the experiences of our employees.”

Promoting D&I Across the Organization

At Genentech, the commitment to DEI extends beyond mere rhetoric, forming a core component of the company’s operational ethos. “At Genentech, D&I isn’t an add-on; it is fundamental to our business,” Highsmith explains. “We have been able to expand our commitment to D&I beyond hiring and retention and into every aspect of our business and company culture.”

Genentech’s approach to DEI is structured around three core pillars, as Highsmith outlines.

  • “Fostering belonging for our people: We are creating an environment where every employee feels valued, included, and able to contribute their best for the patients we serve.”
  • “Advancing inclusive research and health equity: We are doing our part to build a world where all individuals have access to best quality healthcare and a future of science that is more diverse, inclusive and equitable.”
  • “Transforming society: We are investing in partnerships that provide healthcare and education in our communities as well as how we spend our money to contribute to positive change in our society.”

Furthermore, Highsmith highlights the role of employee resource groups (ERGs) in promoting D&I at Genentech. “Since the early 1990s, our employee resource groups (referred to internally as Diversity Network Associations or DNA Groups) have been an integral part of the Genentech culture,” she says. “Open to all employees, these groups offer connection and camaraderie for people with similar interests or experiences. They seek to cultivate inclusion, give back, advance diversity, provide opportunities for career advancement and drive grassroots change across the business on key issues.”

These initiatives, spearheaded by Highsmith, demonstrate Genentech’s comprehensive and proactive approach to embedding DEI into every facet of its operations.

Genentech’s Unique Approach to D&I

Highsmith distinguishes Genentech’s DEI efforts by emphasizing their integration into the business. “We’ve embedded diversity and inclusion into our business, setting measurable goals and tracking progress,” she says. She’s proud of the shared accountability within Genentech, noting, “DEI progress isn’t owned by one team; it’s a collective responsibility.” This approach is exemplified by Genentech’s Officers completing Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans, visible to all employees, fostering a culture of transparency and commitment.

Final Thoughts and Future Directions

Highsmith acknowledges that promoting DEI within a business is a complex and challenging process, for any organization. “Diversity and inclusion are multifaceted and challenging,” she says. “Effective strategies require transparency, boldness, and strategic action,” she remarks. Highsmith’s pride in Genentech’s focus on progress rather than perfection underscores a long-term commitment to DEI, “We’re focused on continual progress, embracing the journey with commitment and resolve.” This perspective highlights Genentech’s dedication to evolving and deepening its DEI initiatives.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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