Back when I was a postdoctoral fellow, I navigated the challenges of being one of only a few women in the lab, juggling my unique responsibilities as a mom of three young children with the demands of churning out publishable data in a highly competitive academic environment. From this and similar experiences, I appreciate the importance of embracing individual identities and fostering an environment where diversity is celebrated.
As Chief Scientific Officer at Cullinan Oncology, I recently embarked on a mission that deeply resonates with both my lived experiences and leadership principles. This mission, to help integrate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) into our growing company, is more than just a corporate initiative; it is a fundamental commitment to creating a workplace where everyone can thrive and contribute their unique perspectives and where the medicines we ultimately develop can benefit and reach all patients who desperately need them.
In 2022, we made a deliberate choice to initiate this work early in the life cycle of our company as we were transitioning from a largely preclinical-stage to a clinical-stage company, recognizing the vital importance of having the right voices at the table and reaching the right patients from the very outset of our programs. Today, I offer insights to my fellow biotech leaders who are likewise embarking on their own commitment to this work.
First, empower people and embed principles from the start. DEI is not the work of a select few; it is the collective endeavor of an inclusive community. The DEI goals that we set at my company are simple but not easy to achieve: to ensure diverse and inclusive recruiting for our clinical trials; to build DEI into every step of our employee recruitment and retention life cycle; and to strengthen our inclusive culture. For a company to establish and accomplish their DE&I goals, leaders should empower employees from all corners of the organization to contribute to conversations aligning on goals, and then help work to move the goals forward. For example, our company assembled employee-led workstreams aligned to each goal, led by passionate individuals with expertise in their respective areas who have the authority to impact changes in our work practices and behaviors. These colleagues have taken the initiative to educate their peers through journal clubs and other forums, fostering a sense of ownership and shared commitment. By allowing representatives from all levels and job functions to embed this commitment into their own work, companies are better able to seamlessly embed these learnings and principles into everyday routines and decision-making.
Second, engage community representatives and leaders. We operate within a broader healthcare ecosystem we need to both contribute to and influence. By embedding diversity into our clinical trials, we shaped an actionable plan focused on acquiring learnings from existing best practices, adhering to regulatory guidance, building essential relationships and partnerships, and meeting patients where they are. One of our clinical programs has shown encouraging early potential in endometrial cancer—a disease that disproportionately affects non-Hispanic Black and Asian women. By mapping racial diversity across geographies, collaborating with select investigators, and establishing trials in accessible settings, biotechs can reach patients who could most benefit from research and who may not otherwise have access to important clinical trials.
The same principle is true in building our workforce. Amid our company’s rapid growth—doubling in size over the past 18 months—we have broadened our candidate pool by exploring new recruitment channels, scrutinizing our job descriptions for more inclusive language, and tapping external networks for training and development opportunities for our employees. By embedding DEI efforts into a corporate growth strategy, companies can ensure their workforce is richly diverse across multiple dimensions and that everyone has opportunities to develop and advance their careers.
Finally, humility is key. These internal efforts have led to our public announcement highlighting our commitment to DEI. Our goals are ambitious, but we will hold ourselves accountable. Most importantly: We recognize that the work is never done, and our biotech community needs to constantly iterate as both individual companies and the forces around us evolve. Internal and external partners can help us pressure test and gut check our progress.
While the work is far from over, I’m immensely proud of what we have done, and I am optimistic that we have set the right foundation to unlock greater scientific innovation by prioritizing diverse perspectives in our research and development, ultimately benefitting patients. There is still much more to learn from our industry partners and sharing these insights will help us all to continue learning, growing, and driving change together as a community.
About the Author
Jennifer Michaelson has more than two decades of industry experience in oncology, immunology, and immune-oncology drug development. She has been a part of Cullinan Oncology since 2018, serving as Chief Development Officer and now Chief Scientific Officer. Jen has played an integral role in building Cullinan’s diverse pipeline over the years and continues to identify the most promising science in cancer research. Her unique background spans academia and research to pipeline and drug development for biopharma and early biotech companies. Jen earned her B.A. in Biology from Princeton University and Ph.D. from the Department of Cell Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Philip Leder’s laboratory in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Learn more about Cullinan Oncology’s commitment to DE&I.