Continuing with our Pfizer leadership campaign, Zach sits down with Lili Wondwossen, Global Health and Social Impact Manager at Pfizer, to discuss her work, her journey into healthcare, and her dream of an equitable and accessible world. Make sure to click the links in the show notes to learn more about Pfizer’s effort to make the COVID-19 vaccine accessible for everyone.
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Zach: Lili, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Lili: I’m good, Zach. Thank you so much for having me.
Zach: Thank you for being here. I am excited that we’re doing this campaign for Pfizer, talking to some of their Black leadership and talking to folks in the organization about just what they do, work and life at Pfizer, this crazy world that we’re living in, all that kind of stuff. Now, let’s talk a little bit about what led you to join Pfizer in the first place.
Lili: I feel that is a story of its own, but I’m happy to share that with you. I’ve been with the company for about almost two years now. It’ll be three years in November, but just to take a couple of steps back, I graduated undergrad in the health science degree, public health, and after graduation, I was so burnt out. I said I needed to just take some time off, so I went back to Ethiopia, which is where I’m originally from. And when I was there, it was a very pivotal time for my personal life, but also for my career because that’s when I really had a good understanding of what I really wanted to do and what my purpose was, and that’s because I had the chance to visit hospitals, understand our healthcare infrastructure, and really take a good view of what I needed to do in order to come back and fulfill my purpose of giving back to Ethiopia from a healthcare perspective.
Lili: So with that knowledge, with that discovery, I came back to the States, and I told myself I needed some finance background to understand allocation, to understand business. So I went into the business world for a little bit, but then I started understanding I wanted to be at the intersection of finance, business, but also healthcare and corporate responsibility, and during that time the buzzwords of social impact, corporate responsibility was just starting to take root, and I wanted to be at the helm of it. So I started just looking into physicians. I started to look into companies that were doing really great work in that space, which is how I ended up at Pfizer and now their global health and social impact team doing some really good and just humbling and impactful work for them.
Zach: So let’s talk about the work that you’re actually doing, because your title is fire. I read it. I was talking to the Pfizer team, shout out to… You know what? I’m going to say it. Shout out to Mia, shout out to Ella, shout out to Dane, shout out to everybody. So I’m having these conversations though, and they’re giving me the names and I’m like, “Okay, cool,” but I was like, “What is this?” Global health and social impact at Pfizer. What does that role actually mean? And then what does your role consist of? And then talk to me about the function of your role, particularly in the last 12 months or so.
Lili: Yes, thank you for that question. So global health and social impact is our team. So I don’t want to take all the credit for taking on the amazing name of that team, but we are pretty cool. I will say that. But our team, global health and social impact, essentially our main focus is addressing essentially very complex landscape, and we use our resources, our medicine, our vaccine, and our financial investments to really strengthen healthcare services, whether that’s in the US or abroad. And something that I really love about our team, global health and social impact, is how we consistently move with a sense of urgency and commitment and consistency. You can see that when we’re responding to the COVID crisis in India or when we were trying to eliminate a neglected tropical disease called trachoma. It’s our pursuit and relentless effort to really support patients in need around the world.
Lili: And to be part of a company, specifically this team, has been, as I mentioned, it’s been such a humbling experience, because we get to see directly the impact that we make, and I get to see the direct impact that we make in the country that I’m from, and it feels like a whole 360 moment for me, and it’s definitely been exciting to be part of that mission and that team. And to your question about what it’s been like in the past 12 months, I mean, it’s been unreal. I don’t even think I had the chance to really unpack what it really means yet from a personal perspective, but definitely working for a company like Pfizer that has now become a household name, it has its benefits, but it also comes with an extreme amount of pressure.
Lili: From the pandemic perspective, I’ve never seen a company so invigorated and just so motivated to really essentially save the world, and our direct impact is making sure that we give the vaccines to individuals who may not have the same wallet size as these other developed countries. But when you’re thinking about… It’s interesting, because I’m at the intersection of being a woman, a Black woman, but also working in the space of pharma that now has created this life-saving vaccine. And so when we bring that back to the whole social justice movement, it was a lot. It definitely was a lot, to be honest with you. Because you’re seeing these things day to day, you’re seeing them on TV, and you kind of have to go back to work and do your job.
Lili: But I’m blessed to have an amazing manager, a Black woman who leads with compassion and understanding and has always been like, “If you need the time, take it,” and I’m privileged in that sense, and I’m privileged that Pfizer has really taken the initiative to step up and make sure that what’s happening in the world is one, addressed, but also they’re taking the initiative to address it and make sure that the employees that work for them are supported and encouraged to have these really tough conversations, whether we’re talking about racism or discrimination. But yes. I feel like that was a lot, but yes.
Zach: No, it wasn’t a lot at all. It’s really good. I appreciate it, and I hear you. I can’t imagine if I’m… You know, we’re talking about inequity when it comes to health access and care, and we’re talking even about the vaccine and vaccine access and equitable access to the vaccine, as well as vaccine hesitancy and all these different things, right? You talk about even the historical narrative around and just the reality of Black and brown communities and medicine and why those hesitancies exist.
Zach: And then for you to work in a place that specifically responds to that is–I can imagine that being [?]. So talk to me about that, and shout out to all the Ethiopians and the Eritreans out there. I see you all.
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Zach: So let me ask you this. You talked about your beginnings, you talked about family and cultural context. What is it like in your family sitting where you sit, doing the work that you do? Does your family come back to you and ask you questions about the vaccine? Are they asking you questions about Pfizer, about healthcare? What role do you play in your immediate family?
Lili: That’s a very interesting topic and question, and one that I have sort of asked myself, not just when it comes to working in the space of pharma and now Pfizer, but also generally just working in the industry and having, I guess, like, a corporate job. I am my mother’s only child, and so that pressure always has been there, but you can imagine now that working in this space you’re kind of asked these tough questions all the time, and I welcome them. I think it’s such an important time because everyone is so invested in healthcare, everyone wants to know what’s happening, everyone is doing the due diligence, the research and asking these really tough questions, and I’ve never seen a conversation about healthcare so normalized among our community.
Lili: Like people asking you, “Have you been vaccinated? What is the side effect or the benefits?” And I love the fact that we’re having very open and honest conversation about our healthcare, especially in the Black and brown population, because historically this is where the health inequity comes. It’s making sure that you’re knowledgeable, you know your health charts and you’re asking your doctors, “Why are you giving me this diagnosis or this test?”
Lili: And that stems from having these conversations within my family. It’s making sure that I understand there might be some hesitancy as to why you might not be comfortable taking this vaccine, but let me educate you on what the importance might be. Let me educate you on the symptoms that you might feel after taking this vaccine, and then that information can be cascaded to their friends who are worried whether once they get a vaccine, you know, there’s going to be a chip implanted.
Lili: These are conversations that I have within my communities and it’s kind of like, “Are you serious? That’s just unreal,” but these are narratives that they believe, because as you know, historically, we’ve been disenfranchised among our community, but when you add the layer of coming from an immigrant family, there’s a lot of distrust. There’s a lot of miscommunication. There’s a lot of misdialogue, and I’m happy to have those really open conversations, and if my beliefs in medicine and stands in my company can be cascaded and supported to my family’s friends and my mom’s friends, then I’m happy to do that.
Zach: You bring up something really important. So people use this word, like, “intersectionality,” and they kind of just throw it on stuff, but it has real application. You’re 100% right. Like you talked about before, this intersection of Blackness while also being a woman, but also to your point, being an immigrant, being Ethiopian, being Eritrean, and those become very nuanced specific experiences and perspectives, and it’s important. While you can respect this broader diaspora, respecting that means also understanding, acknowledging the uniqueness of the subcultures therein, right?
Zach: I’m curious. When we talk about these past 12 months–and I know you said you’re still processing and unpacking, like, the personal–from the murder of George Floyd to all these different promises and commitments around diversity and inclusion, I want to talk to you and ask you about what your experience has been like at Pfizer the past 12 months. If you were to advocate or tell other Black folks, other brown folks, about working at Pfizer, what would you say?
Lili: So when the whole issue around social justice movement came, and it was being replicated around the globe, and we just saw everything come to light. To be honest, I was very hesitant as to where my company stood, and that hesitancy comes from just historical knowledge of how companies and corporations seem to have took a stance on social injustice when it comes to police brutality.
Lili: But to my extreme surprise, our CEO came forth and really took a stance on social inequity facing African-Americans and the Black and brown population, but also was very clear on the things that they will do to support the employees that work for them, and I really, really appreciated that. Some might say it’s performative. “Companies like to do that because they want to save face.” And of course, there’s sort of the hesitation knowing that these are things that have been done in the past, but working for the company and actually having individual connections with people that work at Pfizer, I really wanted to be part of that solution.
Lili: So when they came forth and asked individuals to participate in small intimate dialogues and have open and honest conversations about race and discrimination, I raised my hand. I said, “Listen, I’m willing to have these really tough conversations with white people and explain the things that we face as Black people that work in corporate America.” and because of that, they’ve been able to implement advisory councils that are now dealing with onboarding issues that comes with language bias, race bias. When you’re looking at job postings, how do we make sure that we’re not creating that barrier at the beginning of someone’s employment and not just when they get to their job?
Lili: So these are some really good and substantial movements that Pfizer has implemented. And I’m not just saying that because I want to toot Pfizer’s horn, but I really do believe in the work that they’re doing, and I’m happy to have been included in the progress, because our voices need to be heard. And not to say that we always need to do the work and educate others about being Black in America, but I do believe in being part of progress, being a solution.
Lili: So I really do think they’ve done the work now that I’m inside, but if I was on the outside and trying to recruit myself to come work for Pfizer, I would say the same thing. And I would say, when I first started, I was welcomed, I would say with opened up arms. That sounds cheesy, but it was true, and open arms from these employment groups, CRGs, a Black council. Individuals who’ve been with Pfizer for many, many years and have established their relationships, their connections, and have understood what it means to be Black in that space and are willing to carry me and support me to make sure I’m successful. And not just career wise, but, like, mentally and all that stuff.
Lili: So I would say absolutely do the research. Make sure that the culture is important. It’s valuable. We’ve become such a purpose-driven company, and the past year has shown that, and I know that the work is being done to be more inclusive, and now we’re planting the seeds to be that company in the future and for future generations.
Zach: That’s exciting. When we interviewed Myron Terry and we were talking about the fact that it didn’t just start with conversations, there was action that came beyond that. So that transitions from being performative to actually being impactful. So that’s really cool. Now, let’s talk a little bit more about your role. So, again, I know that you’re not the entire department. You’re a manager within the department. Let’s talk about what you’re most proud of that your team has accomplished over the last year, and then let’s pivot to what you’re most excited about as you look at the next 12 months.
Lili: Okay. Something that I am proud of… I mean, there’s so many things, but if I had to pick one, it would be this project that we piloted last year peak pandemic, and it was around addressing the social determinants of health within Black communities. As you know, these are historic under-investments in our communities when it comes to healthcare infrastructure, when it comes to vaccine education, when it comes to screenings.
Lili: And because COVID really showed the truth of where this under-investment was in our communities, we really wanted to make sure that we reallocated some funding into making sure that we supported organizations who are already doing the legwork, and so we were able to allocate money to organizations who are in their communities educating and making sure that they’re mobilizing and working with individuals in the area to make sure that they’re supported in their health care.
Lili: Because we saw how successful that was and how impactful, we were actually able to essentially do another one this year. And so we’re kind of, like, in the middle of it right now, where we’ve been able to grant it. Right now, we’re going to allocate $4.5 million to 15 organizations that meet the criteria that we’ve established within our request for proposal. “Are you addressing one or more health conditions within the African population?”
Lili: Now we’re talking about cancer. We’re talking about diabetes. We’re talking about cardiovascular disease. All these really heightened diseases that typically affect Black people at a disproportional rate. “Are you addressing any of those? And then two, what social determinants of health are you addressing in your community?” So because COVID has really shown the truth of where this under-investment comes in. We wanted to make sure we’re making targeted investments and using community-based evidence to kind of allocate that resource.
Lili: And I’m excited because I just think… I’m proud and I’m excited that we are making that investment because community investment is at the rootedness of what needs to be done so we can impact our community on a larger scale, and we’re doing it to local community organizations in the United States. So that’s been really exciting.
Lili: Now, in terms of what I look forward to, I would say… Now, it’s been exciting and just honestly unreal that we discovered a vaccine and we were able to support millions of people to access it. What I would love to see and what would be much more iconic is if everyone in the world had access to it equally, and I know that we’re doing really great work, we’re creating multilateral relationships and partnerships to make sure that people who don’t have access to it or can’t afford to do so aren’t given at a cost.
Lili: But there’s always some barriers. There’s always infrastructure barriers. There is always distribution barriers, innovation barriers, and knowing Pfizer and knowing the PGS community, I’m sure they’re doing really great work to accelerate that, but I just would love for everyone around the world in developing countries to have access to the vaccine so we can all just be okay, honestly, and live and succeed in our healthcare.
Zach: I want to go back to the first part of your answer–and thank you for taking it. You’re right. When it comes to investment, I agree. I think that it’s interesting because there are so many parallels between community investment for healthcare and then just investment in Black and brown people period for success. You talked about, even when you started and you joined at Pfizer, I mean, ultimately, those ERGs that were in place and those people came in and they invested in you, and then even some of these panels and things that you were a part of, and now there’s action committees and process and policy changes. Those are investments back into these stakeholder groups so that folks can have an equitable experience where they can belong.
Zach: So it’s interesting. I hope that folks can start connecting the dots and see that these poor or disenfranchised communities–again, disenfranchised, the nature of the word means that they didn’t choose to be disenfranchised, (that) they are victims of an inequitable system–that folks will connect the dots that it’s not that they’re doing bad because they’re choosing to do bad, it’s because they don’t have access. They don’t have investment. And so I’m excited when I hear you say the fact that you all have created this program where you’ve identified these funds to create that. That’s super dope to me. You got me excited, and I don’t do your work, but I’m trying to figure out how I can get an internship at Pfizer. Let me see what’s going on.
Lili: Listen, let me know. I will take you on. No, you’re right. It’s exciting, and the good thing is there’s a lot of investments happening, and I really do hope it’s not overlooked that a lot of these great organizations, including Pfizer, are doing the work, and we don’t want to be a one and done situation. We want to create multilateral investments in these communities, because that’s when you start seeing evidence that it is working and you’re creating impact in these communities.
Lili: So I do hope that we continue to create these investments for the years to come and we don’t have to talk about social determinants of health 10, 20 years from now. Like, it’s just people are just accessing equity and health and finance and education, and that we can eliminate food deserts. I don’t know if it’s, like, a utopia moment, but I really do hope to get to the moment that we don’t have to create these funds to eliminate these things.
Zach: Well, it goes back to the second thing you were saying about equity and access to everyone, and I agree. There are some structural challenges there, but I think we’ve also seen this past year that there are a lot of things that we can do if we choose to do them. We just need to choose to do them, whatever those things may be. So they’re not impossible challenges. There are challenges, but they’re not insurmountable. They’re not Herculean. We can do them.
Zach: So I join you in your hopefulness and in your desire that folks have access to this vaccine. It’s so scary, Lili. I’m going to be honest with you. My wife and I, we’ve gone outside, like, maybe a couple of times, because I’m genuinely cautious about… Now, I’ve been vaccinated. Shout-out Pfizer fam, what’s up? I got my two doses.
Lili: You’re a Pfizer prince. That’s what we say.
Zach: Pfizer prince?
Lili: That’s what the internet says. Yes. If you’re a girl, you’re a Pfizer princess and if you’re a guy, you’re a Pfizer prince.
Zach: Got it. Okay. See, I was only on Pfizer Pfam, but I’m caught up now. Thank you for helping me through the lingo. So I’m a Pfizer prince all day. Gang gang. But I’m still not outside like that, because I’m just trying to be thoughtful about… And so it’s just interesting community to community, or even in America, a first world country, we take it for granted this idea of… There are people out there who would very much so like the vaccine. Anyway, this is just a moment for me where I’m getting a little bit in my feels.
Zach: Because I think about all the people who’ve passed away, all the people who are still dying and just the criticality of the fact that we’re still in a pandemic. It’s not over. We need to be careful of the fact that there’s still a lot of work to do. But I am thankful for you and your work and the team. Listen, before I let you go, what advice would you give to leaders who want to attract more Black and brown talent, who want to attract more immigrants to their organizations? What are some of the things that they could be doing?
Lili: Yeah. First of all, thank you for those kind words. I really appreciate it. I just want to say it’s a collective effort. Our team, the global health & social impact team, I just want to give a shout out to my amazing manager, Niesha Foster, but also our incredible leader, Caroline Roan. They do great, great work, and their effort is unparalleled. I just want to put that out there.
Lili: In terms of advice, I would say increasing pipeline is incredibly important. Increasing and opening up that access is important. So I just would encourage corporations, including Pfizer, to really go where the talent is. Like, don’t always expect us to come to these places, to these job fairs, or to these weekend symposiums that companies like (to) do, because truth be told, some community members may just not have access to get to these places.
Lili: So I would encourage companies to go to organizations that are already doing the legwork, that are already amplifying and uplifting and championing the works of Black and brown individuals who are excelling in their respective fields. So, personally, I’ve been part of organizations like Balfour Academy, Bottom Line, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, all of these organizations that are already uplifting individuals like myself who want to be in these spaces.
Lili: So go and recruit and go and partner with them. Go and increase and create these multilateral engagements where you’re directly bringing in students and individuals who are interested in coming in and interning at your organization. So that is one of my advice. My second one is, when you’re creating these open opportunities, create multiple of them. Create spaces to have that peer-to-peer engagement among Black people, because no one wants to be the token Black employee. That’s the truth. And you’re coming into the space and you’re like, “Oh, great. I’m hired. But where are other people that look just like me?” Mentally it’s just not a safe space to be in. So those are my top two advice.
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Zach: I love it, I appreciate it. Look, Lili, thank you so much for coming on Living Corporate, and I will talk to you soon.
Lili: Thank you. Thank you so much. Have a great day.