At Novartis, ‘Diverse Culture=Company Success’

Vijay Bhargava, Ph.D., is Corporate EVP and Global Head of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics and NIBR (Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research) East Hanover Site Head

Q:  Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (NPC) has had a remarkable diversity journey in the past few years. How do you feel that’s changed the culture of the company?

A:   I think it’s had a fantastic and a very positive impact in terms of what we’ve been able to achieve. The biggest change is that our associates now realize that diversity is not just about culture or race. It’s really about the fact that people think differently. They’re trained differently. And, in a research and development organization, it’s extremely important to include people who have had diverse training and diverse educational backgrounds.

I think associates on project teams and development teams now appreciate the value – and wisdom –that diversity of thought brings to the table. And, we’ve made tremendous progress in terms of our pipeline, the products we’ve launched in the marketplace and the value we’ve provided to improve patients’ lives.

As an example, I was a senior member of a group that advised an Employee Resource Group in Switzerland. One of the things that this Employee Resource Group did was to provide needed cultural support as people came from Asia to work in Europe. The group also provided some scientific mentorship. These things were important because individuals from Asia had slightly different training and a slightly different way of thinking. As a result of the ERG’s efforts, they were able to work with the employees in Switzerland and across Europe and really merge their training and their way of thinking into standard way of doing things. In my mind, I can say that this group’s efforts have had a tremendously positive impact on the culture of diversity at Novartis.

Q:  Do you have any examples of how the improved inclusive culture has led to specific innovation in scientific breakthroughs or products?

An inclusive culture certainly contributes to the company’s scientific success. Diversity is a noble concept, but inclusion is active and behavioral. Without inclusion there can be no meaningful scientific breakthroughs – because collaboration is critical to fostering innovation and employee engagement is necessary for driving performance.

There have been a number of occasions where diversity of thinking – and inclusion – has led to innovative ways of thinking. For example, from a drug availability perspective for patients, we have been approached by regulatory agencies around the world to provide a drug that is approved in a different market to their market place. This has occurred where a drug it is not available yet – but where there is a population in need.

To accomplish this, we have taping into our global talent pool and found ways to leverage existing data – available from a diverse population that we have already studied – and applied it in a way that could lead to faster patient access. So, by leveraging the global talent and diverse thinking we have – and the patients that we study across the world – we are able to provide medicines to patients much more quickly.

Q:  And this is especially true in emerging markets?

A:   This is true both in emerging market as well as in developed countries. There are times when there is a therapy that’s available in a developed market that we may not see the need for in a developed country; however, a need may emerge. So, it can actually go both ways. A good example of this is the re-emergence of tuberculosis in certain parts of the United States – and the need for treatments.

Q:  What do you see as the forefront of this innovative thinking leading to in terms of scientific breakthroughs?

A:   I think what it tends to lead to is a better therapy that is customized and that is the right medicine for the right patient at the right time. We have now become a global drug development organization and the diversity of experience that we get in testing our medicine in different parts of the world really leads us to finding the most appropriate therapy for people in different regions of the world. And, as we have heard a lot about these customized therapies, we are moving toward that by really having diverse knowledge about our medicine.

Q:  Novartis has an increasing reputation as a diversity leader and is number one on the Diversity in Top 50 Companies for diversity. How does that reputation and that branding both in the United States and on a global basis help you reach more scientific talent and reach more patients who need your products?

A:   It’s been incredible that we have been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion – and that really has helped us attract the best talent across the globe. Becoming a leader in diversity and inclusion doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long journey. You have to do it because you believe in it.

I think Novartis strongly believes that diversity of training, thinking and experience really brings the best minds together – to enable us to develop products that help enhance patients’ lives. We have a number of programs and outreach programs – including post-doctoral, internships and gap-year programs. And, these programs are available throughout the world. So, for example, we might bring in the best talent from Asia and then have individuals spend a few weeks with Novartis to inculcate in them in terms of what it takes to be a good drug developer.

We have post-doctoral programs where we reach out to many universities across the world, and bring individuals to our laboratories. We have outreach programs for minority students where we have done summer internships. So, I think that our reputation as a diversity leader has allowed these people to reach us, and it has allowed them to come and approach us for the best training they can get for the best available talent. My view is that Novartis, through these programs, has trained scientists and individuals in various fields who may one day contribute to Novartis’s success – and to the success of society at large.

Q:  How does this increasingly multicultural talent pool that you have help you reach patients?

A:   I believe the diverse and multi-ethnic background of our talent is one reason we are able to reach patients within specific countries and globally. We know that there are physiological reasons why people react or respond to drugs differently. We have a very detailed and a very deep scientific program that allows us to study these genetic differences in people, which we can explain why they may or may not respond to a drug. I think our diverse talent really allows us to bring all different kinds of thinking to the table and, ultimately, to provide the best therapies to patients.

Q:  Is there anything you’d like to add and include in here?

A:   The only thing I would like to add is that diversity is of course an idea, but inclusion is something that is actionable and need to be embraced. At Novartis we believe in diversity – but we also believe that by encouraging our scientists, business leaders and teams to include everyone, and everyone’s thinking we will position our company to put forward the very best products for our patients.


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