145 See It to Be It : Global Diversity & Inclusion Consultant (w/ La’Wana Harris)

In our first See It to Be It podcast interview, Amy C. Waninger chats with La’Wana Harris, a global diversity and inclusion consultant, author and coach who has dedicated her career to aligning performance with business strategy. These discussions highlight professional role models in a variety of industries, and our goal is to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support black and brown professionals. Check out some of the SI2BI blogs we’ve posted while you wait for the next episode!

Find out more about La’Wana’s book, Diversity Beyond Lip Service, on Amazon!

Learn more about the organizations she mentioned, WOCIP and HBA!

Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter!


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and I’m really excited to talk to y’all about something really important today. You know we try to mix it from time to time. We have our full episodes and we have B-Sides. You know, we’ll have guest hosts. We do different things. We do listener letters, you know what I’m saying? We have something else special for y’all today, and what it’s called is the See It To Be It series, okay? This is an interview series highlighting professional role models in a variety of industries. The goal of this series is to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support black and brown professionals. Many of y’all should remember Amy C. Waninger. She is the author of Networking Beyond Bias, and she was a guest on the Living Corporate podcast in Season 1 to talk about effective allyship. Well, Amy has continued on with Living Corporate as a writer, and she’s also blessed us with a partnership in getting a special series out. So what you’re gonna hear is Amy talking to a variety of black and brown professionals, as I said at the top, from a variety of industries, and it’s gonna be really cool because it’s really gonna zoom in from a technical perspective on what they do while at the same time hopefully inspiring folks who may not see themselves in an industry to actually see themselves, hence the title “See It To Be It,” you know what I’m saying? All right, so with that being said, I’m gonna go ahead and dip. The next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview with Amy C. Waninger and an amazing minority professional. Catch y’all next time. Peace.

Amy: Hi, La’Wana. Thank you for joining me.

La’Wana: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Amy: Sure thing. I’m really excited to talk to you today about your experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do and how you got started there?

La’Wana: Sure. I actually just finished my career in the pharmaceutical industry, and I’m taking some time to explore launching a book as well as doing some consulting. So after about two decades, I’m looking forward to a new chapter. While in the industry, I started in sales and then had a chance to work through some training, leadership development, government affairs, market access, a number of different areas, trying to get a 360 degree view of the business. And I was very fortunate to have all of those different experiences with just two companies, Johnson and Johnson and Sanofi, a French-owned pharmaceutical company.

Amy: Oh, that’s fantastic. And so what attracted you to the pharmaceutical industry in the first place?

La’Wana: A number of things. Well, my degree’s in biology, and so I’ve always just been fascinated by science and in particular life sciences, and I also had an opportunity to not only use my passion for science but then also integrate that with my interest in business. So I had an opportunity to both live out my passion but then also pursue my professional interest around business, and the two integrated well within the pharmaceutical industry.

Amy: That’s great, and I love that you said that you took all of these different roles and got, you know, a 360 degree view of your industry. I think that’s–it’s exciting to me when somebody does that, whatever industry they’re in, to see it from all different angles and really understand it inside and out. What was something you learned about the pharmaceutical industry that surprised you?

La’Wana: Well, a number of things. I would say around–if I looked at specifically around things that were surprising, it was around the impact that we’re able to have on a person’s life and the far-reaching impact around the world, because, in particular with the last company that I worked with, there was a number of therapies for rare diseases, and looking at how you literally change a person’s life with the therapies that you have, and it was surprising to me, not that the therapies could help, but just that the amount and just the gravity of the impact that we’re having on a day-to-day basis. And then personally, for me, I went through a tragic event where my daughter suffered a stroke at the age of 17.

Amy: Oh, no.

La’Wana: Yes. And at the time, the therapy that she was given–and she’s fine now, but the therapy that she was given was a product from my company, and so, you know, it’s not just we hear about patient stories and testimonials and all of the wonderful things that happen. I lived it, and, you know, I don’t think you can have any greater impact than that.

Amy: Yeah. Being a part of the process of saving your own child’s life or quality of life is a pretty amazing experience that not many of us get. That’s phenomenal, and, you know, it’s a good reminder that everybody is somebody’s baby, right?

La’Wana: Absolutely.

Amy: That’s great. So if somebody’s not in the pharmaceutical industry and they’re looking for more information on maybe where they could start or what skills might transfer, where do you recommend they start their research?

La’Wana: Yes. Well, there’s a number of places if someone is looking to–and it depends on where they want to enter the industry. So if they’re looking in sales, there are a number of certifications now that are available where they can get some formal training as well as obviously using what I call Uncle Google, which will give you tons of tips and those kinds of things, and if they’re looking to enter at different professional levels such as medical and those other pieces, then obviously they would work through some of the associations and societies respective to their field or discipline.

Amy: Okay. And for–since the audience for the article series is primarily young people of color, are there resources or organizations or affinity groups within those associations to help people of color feel a little less alone in what I would imagine is a pretty white male-dominated industry.

La’Wana: Yes, and your imagination is pretty spot-on. [laughs] So it’s a lot less imagination than reality, you know? But there are a number of really genuine, like-minded people that are working to change that, and that is a part of what I will spend my time doing until I decide to retire completely is working with people of color and helping them navigate their careers and path to success. In particular to pharma, one I would highly recommend for women is Women of Color in Pharma, and Women of Color in Pharma is a new association, relatively new association, that is specifically working with women of color and helping them bridge the gap and providing them and supporting them throughout their career. So that would be one, and then also we have the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. Again, both of those are for women, however men are of course encouraged to support as allies and stand and support with the women because, you know, we can’t do it alone. We all have to work together. And then if they’re looking specifically for, say, career or some skill-based training, there are a number of associations there. Individual consultants as well. If you look at some of the pharmaceutical companies themselves, they have a number of resources on their company websites that they can go in and first-hand learn more about what the organizations are doing. And then the last one would be the ERGs. Some of the progressive ERGs are actually reaching out and putting out very good messaging to help give some clues for people of color and those who may not be or may be underrepresented within their respective companies.

Amy: Okay. And ERGs, by that you mean employee resource groups, and those are typically affinity groups or affinity or ally groups within companies.

La’Wana: Absolutely. The affinity groups, not only employee resource groups but also business resource groups as well.

Amy: Okay. And so I want to take a step back for just a moment and think about–there’s so much in the news lately about the lack of medical research and the lack of case studies and really in-depth understanding of how certain diseases may manifest differently in different populations, how the symptoms might look different. One of the ones that I saw most recently was how anxiety disorders manifest among women of color and black women in particular and that those symptoms don’t always look like the symptoms that doctors are told to look for in people who are suffering from anxiety. You know, women with heart disease is another one where women have different symptoms of heart disease than men, and so it stands to reason to me to me that it’s not only a benefit to people of color to get involved in this industry for their own careers and their own growth because there’s a lot of opportunity there, but there’s also a tremendous amount of opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to get more perspectives on what they should be researching, how they should be researching, and who should be included in those conversations. Can you speak a little bit about that from your own experience?

La’Wana: Sure. I will tell you though I have to take a step back before we even get to the point of treatment, because pharmaceutical organizations as well as the health care industry in general first needs to build trust, because, as you know, without going into detail, there are a number of real situations where there’s reason to distrust the health care industry, whether it be pharmaceutical or otherwise, and without going into all of that history, the first piece is once we are–the industry is able to build trust with populations of color and people of color, then they’ll have those folks willing to participate in clinical trials, because it starts there. These therapies are based on trials, and so there are a number of organizations and people who are working towards increasing the representation of people of color in clinical trials, but then also making sure that those therapies, as we move more and more towards therapies that are customized to individuals, then we’ll have the representation to see those advanced therapies really have the impact across all of the different people demographics. And to your point about understanding, absolutely. If you have people around the table from all different people groups, then when therapies are introduced or when you find that there opportunities for business development, even looking at which therapies you may pursue, what your pipeline looks like, all of those various pieces, when you have well-represented diversity around the table, then you’re better able to meet those needs, and what we’re finding now–even though of course we’re talking about the actual treatment of patients, when you look at the development of business, you’re seeing more and more large pharmaceutical companies going into emerging markets. Now, how do you go into an emerging market if no one around the table has been there? So yes, not only is it needed for the actual therapies themselves, it’s needed for business and sustainability.

Amy: Absolutely. And I would imagine the ERGs and BRGs play a large role in that, in helping companies identify those companies and tailor maybe their messaging or their approach to those opportunities as well.

La’Wana: Well, yes and. [both laugh] I say yes and because they CAN. Now, whether or not they’re actually being utilized that way, that depends on the organization because every organization is in a different place on their respective diversity and inclusion journey. So you’ll have some organizations that are more savvy, more sophisticated, they actually have the business working hand-in-hand with the ERGs or BRGs, and they’re utilizing them in that manner. Then you have others where the ERGs and even some BRGs are more about social activity and awareness. Now, both are needed, it’s just that one is on the early end of the spectrum when you look at diversity and inclusion maturity and the other is further along and more sophisticated. So yes is the answer that it should be that way, and that is one of the ideal ways of really leveraging that population, but it’s not happening in all cases.

Amy: No, that’s understandable, and I think that’s true across all industries where, you know, companies are maybe, you know, not as far along on the path as they ought to be or would like to be. I hate to use ought to be or should language, but I certainly think that they should be there, right? [laughs] We should have been working on this from the beginning. This shouldn’t be something that “Oh, well, you know, it’s–we’re almost in 2020, and now we’re gonna start including people from our communities in our decision-making.” It’s crazy that it’s taken this long, but–[laughs]

La’Wana: It’s mind-boggling.

Amy: It is.

La’Wana: You know? And I mentioned the book earlier, and I’ll go ahead and just note that here, is that that’s why I wrote the book. The book is Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias, and that, what you just said, is one of the pieces that’s at the heart of the book. It’s time to move beyond lip service. We’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for decades, and the reality is, and the data bears out, the fact that the things that we saw the barriers, they’re not true barriers. There’s more than enough women to have positions in leadership and be on boards. There’s more than enough people of color who are qualified applicants and able to do a stellar job and performance. That’s not the real issue. So to your point, yes, we’ve been talking about it, and we’ve actually had some action towards moving the needle, it’s just that we’re not seeing the results that we should at this point, and it’s time to put the accountability measures in place the same as we would for any other business metric that’s underperforming.

Amy: Absolutely. Thank you for that. Now, when does your book come out?

La’Wana: May. It’ll be out May 28th officially, but there will be some copies, you know, available in April. So we’re right there.

Amy: Oh, that’s wonderful. Congratulations on that. That’s a huge accomplishment.

La’Wana: Well, thank you. I hope it helps. [laughs]

Amy: [laughs] I hope so too. I cannot wait to get my hands on the book. There are actions at the company level that need to happen and then there are actions at the individual level that need to happen, you know, in every conversation, in every room, in every meeting, and, you know, we need all hands on deck. I say at the end of my own book that, you know, look, we’ve got big organizations with lots of problems to solve. We can’t have anybody sitting on the sidelines, and we certainly can’t afford to put anyone there.

La’Wana: Absolutely, and that includes white men.

Amy: That absolutely does, and we need them to jump right in and, you know, grab hands with the rest of us. You know, I always liken it to a Red Rover game. Did you play Red Rover when you were a kid?

La’Wana: Oh, absolutely.

Amy: Yeah, and everybody joins hands–

La’Wana: [?] Red Rover right over, yeah. [laughs]

Amy: Yeah. You try to keep, like, the one person from breaking through, and my thing is no, everybody joins hands and runs for it, you know? We’ll all get there together, and that’s how it should be.

La’Wana: Absolutely.

Amy: Fantastic. So tell me a little bit about the consulting work that you’re doing or that you plan to be doing and what’s that look like. Who are your clients and how will you help them?

La’Wana: Sure, absolutely. The good news is I have a clean slate. My last official day in the pharmaceutical industry was 12/31 of 2018, so I am only two months out. So I’m still answering some of those questions, but I’ll tell you what my model is. What I’ve done thus far is to of course write the book, and I’ve built some companion or collateral pieces to support the book, because my vision is not just to have a book that’s a good read. We have some more rich dialogue, and it’s another day in the world of diversity and inclusion. My plan is to work on the how, so I have developed what I call inclusion coaching, and it focuses on diversity and inclusion from the inside out, because I feel thus far we’ve only focused–the majority of D&I work has focused on the outside in. We tell people what to think, what to say, how to behave, all of those things where we’re giving it to them from the outside in. My approach is that we start with where a person is and for them to go deep internally to realize what are your biases, what are your preferences, how are you wired, and quite honestly, just where are you with D&I? And let’s start from that place of truth and, honestly, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not just “Oh, I believe in D&I.” Okay, but then we look at some of the actions around resource allocation, hiring practices, firing practices, development and promotion, we don’t see the actions line up with the words, and I believe that’s because there’s incongruence internally. So that’s where I’m focusing. So my plan is to have the book, have the collateral pieces, and then teach people how to do this–because I’m also a professional coach–and put it in the hands of leaders, whether they be community champions, social activists or business leaders, put it in their hands and say, “Here’s the method. Keep it very simple. Now, go use it. Go for it,” and to put some simple language around how to do it. So my plan is to focus on everyday inclusion where folks know how to be inclusive, not just be told to be inclusive and that they have bias, because we’ve talked about the business case, we have developed ERGs, we have unconscious bias training. You hear about it every other day, and when something happens, the first thing we hear is “Oh, we need to have some unconscious bias training.” No, we need to have some conscious bias training. Let’s talk about what’s really happening and the conscious choices that we make every day. So anyway, that is the plan, and I want to hand that off to all that are, you know, feel that it can help and then see that hopefully translate into some patterns of everyday behavior that’s simple enough to de-mystify what we mean when we say we should all live inclusively.

Amy: Oh, La’Wana, I wish you every success. I hope that your programs and your message take hold and take root and really transform people from the inside out, because we need this so badly, and it’s–I hope you work us all right out of jobs, because–

La’Wana: That is my goal. [both laugh]

Amy: That would be wonderful, and then we could focus on doing other work. But oh, my gosh, yes, absolutely. I agree 100%, and I wish you every success. Could I get you to finish two sentences for me?

La’Wana: Sure.

Amy: The first is “I feel included when ______.”

La’Wana: I feel included when I’m able to be myself.

Amy: And the second is “When I feel included, I ______.”

La’Wana: When I feel included, I–I’m at peace.

Amy: Oh, thank you for sharing that.

La’Wana: Yeah.

Amy: It is so important that we all find ways to help other people be at peace in their own skin with us in the room. I think that’s so important. Thank you, La’Wana. I appreciate this very much, and I look forward to so much more from you.

La’Wana: Absolutely. Thank you.

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