Title: SVP Development Sciences
Sara Kenkare-Mitra is in one of the most enviable positions in biopharma R&D: serving as the senior vice president of development sciences at Genentech’s research and early development unit. Genentech, the biologics arm of Roche, has been synonymous with innovation for years, especially in cancer, which goes a long way to explain why Kenkare-Mitra has remained there for two decades.
When we first spoke, Kenkare-Mitra started off by emphasizing that Genentech’s mission—bringing medicines to people with serious diseases—“is one that requires the best and brightest scientists and minds in the world—with people of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and sexual orientations bringing forth their experiences and perspectives.”
Genentech will “always have a high bar for scientific talent, and the path to a leadership position inevitably takes a great deal of skill, intellect, passion and hard work,” she said.
“But it's incumbent on leaders like me—male or female—to unearth and tap into the broadest possible pool of scientific talent and help remove barriers so people can bring their best and most authentic selves to work in support of our mission.”
She looks back to 2007 when Genentech’s former CEO, Art Levinson—now Apple chair and Calico CEO—showed “sobering data highlighting the gender gap in our senior leadership ranks. We knew we were at risk of missing out on a pool of talent with potential insights and expertise that could help us deliver transformative medicines to patients.”
Since then, she explained, Genentech has made “a concerted effort” to tackle gender diversity challenges. “I feel fortunate to have played a role in these efforts, working to apply my experiences to help other talented women bring their intelligence, expertise and leadership to the table," she said.
These initiatives began with the company’s female leaders making a conscious effort to invite other women to share their experiences, Kenkare-Mitra said. “We wanted to really dig into and understand less obvious attitudes and potential barriers at play. These initial efforts ultimately evolved into a multipronged strategy to improve gender diversity at all levels.”
Over the past decade, Genentech has “been deliberate” in thinking about ways to develop women and to ensure that they have access to the kinds of opportunities, roles and responsibilities to contribute at the highest levels. “We’ve put structure and support—at all levels—behind recruiting, developing and advancing women,” she said.
This includes working with hiring managers to be aware of unconscious bias and ensure that hiring decisions are “based on true competencies,” and also working with male managers “to determine how they can be even more attuned to the challenges women face, particularly in terms of speaking up about family needs.”
When she first arrived at Genentech, her manager provided her "the flexibility I needed as the mother of a special needs child; … this support was critical in enabling me to thrive and ultimately reach a leadership position myself.”
So how has a decade of focus on gender diversity panned out?
“I believe we’ve made significant progress,” she said, pointing to the 53% of Genentech employees that are women. On top of that, 50% of the company's directors and three out of seven C-suite executives are women.
And there’s more: “Since 2007, we have more than doubled the number of female officers (VP-level and above) at Genentech, from 15% to 40%. In this time, we’ve also brought 13 innovative new medicines to patients. I believe that a continued focus on diversity of all types has been critical to these scientific advances.”
While it's critical to support women in the industry, it is equally important to support girls and young women in science.
"As a biotech leader, we are committed to investing in the next generation of female—and male—scientists and leaders. We believe that by investing time, expertise and resources in science education, we can help ensure a talented and diverse pipeline of STEM professionals for the future," she said.
In South San Francisco, where the company is headquartered, it partners with the school district through its "Futurelab" science education program, which impacts more than 9,000 students every year.
“We provide students with opportunities for hands-on engagement in STEM at key phases in their education, and we encourage their pursuit of STEM careers,” she says. This includes the so-called Gene Academy, an after-school mentoring program for third through fifth graders, and College Scholarships, worth up to $425,000 in annual scholarship grants for South San Francisco students pursuing STEM degrees.