Longtime executive Tony Coles on biotech, racism, and opportunities for change

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has brutally underlined the systemic racism that informs policing, housing, education, and health care in the U.S. Biotech, like every other facet of society, is not immune to the effects of racism and inequality.

We talked to Tony Coles, a longtime biotech executive, about why Floyd’s killing sparked global action, how to parse public statements from major drug companies, and what business leaders can do to combat racism.

Coles is chairman and CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics. He’s also founder and chairman of Yumanity Therapeutics. Previously, he was CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals until it was purchased by Amgen. He is also the CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals and has served in executive positions at Vertex, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Merck. Coles is also a founding member and co-chair of the Black Economic Alliance, which is a coalition of business leaders who are committed to economic progress and prosperity in the Black community.

To begin, we’ll just simply ask how you’re doing.

I’m well — now. The weekend and the last several days with the unrest we’ve all witnessed, the protests, and most importantly, the loss of life of an individual have all taken their toll on me. I don’t think you’re human if you have not been moved by any of these events over the last several days. And they certainly deeply impacted me, not just because it was the loss of another human life, but because he was a Black man and I’m a Black man and that hits very close to home.

Can you share with us some of the conversations you’re having with co-workers, colleagues, friends, family right now?

Yeah, they’ve been very interesting and they certainly progressed over the last few days as I’ve as I’ve clarified some of my thinking and and as I’ve become more clear on what the real issues are. They start, in a way, with the construction of the source of this problem. And this problem dates back to 1619, when the first Africans were brought to this country as enslaved people. And automatically those who enslaved them had to, in a way, dehumanize them and set up a different way of thinking about another human being that would allow them to not only enslave them, but to treat them as miserably, as history records and [as] we all know very well now through all of our studies and readings and our common understanding.

But that’s really where the original insult occurred. And then over the years — the centuries — through slavery and then after slavery, we’ve examined ways in which we’ve tried to erase that stain in a way. But what we’ve not quite been able to erase is the indelible imprint and the wound that it has inflicted upon society. And the notion that despite even human perceptions or beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes, all of those things, there’s been systemic and systematic government segregation.

Think about the National Housing Act of 1934, which sponsored federally backed mortgages for Americans. And for the length of that program — the 30 years that program ran — 95% of the mortgages that were provided were to white Americans. Black Americans were excluded. … And that was legislated federal law. The reason that was important is that this is the original conception of redlining. But homeownership was also the fastest pathway to wealth creation in this country and the entree into the middle class. Think for a moment about Social Security. When that act was first passed as part of the New Deal, Black professions, or Black jobs — jobs where Blacks were disproportionately represented — were excluded from Social Security benefit contributions and then ultimately payouts.

Another really important means of sustaining middle-class status. And then union membership — not legislated, but unions often barred Blacks from participating. All of these things that we take for granted today as the easy paths into the middle class, Blacks were excluded from. And this was in many cases either socially supported or federally legislated. I start there because we oftentimes wonder where did this problem really start?

We’ve talked about 1619, the year the first slave people came to this country. but it was only propagated and it was expanded upon as a result of some of these things. Why is that important? Black households today have one-tenth the net worth of white households, Black households have a net worth, on average, of $17,000, compared to the average white household, at $171,000. And the statistics go on. But the income gap, the wealth gap, and the education gap are all part of the systemic problem.

And if you layer that onto the social justice issues, which we saw on full display in the killing of George Floyd, you begin to understand that we’ve all been living in a toxic stew. And so the conversations I’ve been having with my friends have really been along the lines of not just bringing clarity to the history we already know, because I wouldn’t insult intelligence and I understand that we all know that piece. But did we know any of the other things, the systemic things that actually created this structure and that propagated the dehumanization of individuals that carries on today and allows a police officer for the nearly nine minutes that he has his knee on George Floyd’s neck, for three of those minutes to transpire after he’s become unresponsive and lost a pulse.

And that’s not a question of fairness or stereotyping. It’s just a question of humanity at the end of the day. So those are the conversations I’m having with my friends when they ask, “What a shame. And what can I do?” And what I say very quickly — and this is happening in a lot of corners — [is] it’s not enough not to be racist. We have to be anti-racist. And that’s a really important distinction because the passive act of not being a racist isn’t enough. It is now no longer enough. We must actively be anti-racist.

Somewhat on that topic, we were talking about how the business community has responded to the killing of George Floyd and specifically drug companies. And they seem to go — at least in their public communications — much further than they’ve done in the past. Almost all of the statements we’ve seen mentioned George Floyd by name and a few included the words Black Lives Matter. Does it seem like the business community has come to take this issue more seriously? And then beyond that, how valuable is a given statement from, for example, a multinational company? 

Well, look, I give kudos and props to every CEO who’s issued a statement because that’s one of the first steps to being anti-racist, as I mentioned just a moment ago. So it’s a first step and it’s an important step, but it clearly isn’t enough. I think Ken Frazier [the chief executive officer of Merck] said it well when he said “it’s not enough.” So let’s recognize that it’s a beginning point. But let’s also recognize that in this journey that we are all now one. And the death of George Floyd has given us this moment and this opportunity, we all have to do so much more as leaders, business leaders.

We’ve got a clear obligation to step into the vacuum of moral leadership that we have in this country today, because it’s our birthright as leaders to fill that vacuum and to fill it productively with the things that we want to see happen in society. Because we cannot divorce the twin engines of social progress and economic opportunity. We just can’t. And the events of this past weekend make that point very, very, very clearly.

But beyond stepping into that vacuum — which I believe is every business leader’s not just right, but it’s our obligation, because we’ve all benefited from society in one way or another as business leaders — I think we have to ask ourselves a different set of questions. And those questions go along the lines of if I’m truly working to be not simply not racist or be actively anti-racist, what can I do? How do I think about the hiring in my business? How do I think about the challenge or the pushback when an executive says to me, “Well, I looked, but there were no candidates of color for this role.”

And I can tell you as the leader of one of the most diverse teams, executive teams in the industry — and that’s true today, that was true at Onyx, and it’s been true throughout my leadership career — that we have to do better and we have to look harder. Because until we bring people with diverse points of view into every conversation, we will be deprived collectively as a society and as a business community from that rich contribution. And the world is just too brown today to miss out on that contribution.

When we think about the drug industry in particular, do you think that that industry is doing enough now to create kind of the work career opportunities for Black people and other people of color? 

No, because I think if we were doing enough, we’d have a different representation in the corporate boardroom of life science companies. We’d have a different representation among the executive teams. So clearly, we’re not doing enough. And that’s just a simple representation. But look, I applaud the start of this conversation. And, you know, our industry, which I love so much, is really at an important moment. It’s an important moment of pivot and inflection. The world is looking to us to solve the coronavirus problem that is affecting all of us. And we have a really have a golden moment to step into that challenge.

But what if we applied even half the effort that we have behind solving the Covid crisis to this topic of diversity and to social justice and economic opportunity and to changing the makeup of our employee populations or our executive suites and board rooms? … What if we spent half the money that is flowing so freely from investors and from the government at making sure that we stood in that business leadership stance and fixed this issue? Boy, that that’s real leadership. And that’s the moment and the opportunity we have in front of us now.

Zooming out from the business community’s response, what do you think this moment feels different from other previous moments where we’ve confronted these issues? The list of Black people killed by police officers is tragically and horrifyingly long. And yet we didn’t see this kind of response. for example, to the death of Tamir Rice or Sean Bell. What is it about George Floyd’s killing in this moment that led so many people to action?

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And it’s true even for me, because at the end of last week, when the protests were just garnering national headlines, I woke up Friday morning, read the headlines, and I started crying. And I started crying for a couple of reasons. One, because this had happened and and an innocent person or a person who should certainly have had a trial if he had done something, was killed. And he was snuffed out. And I said earlier that he he’s Black and I’m Black and I can’t help but make the connection that that really could have been me or, more importantly, it could have been my sons.

Because I’ve been in those situations where people have made a judgment about me, not because I’m the CEO of a biotech company, but because I’m a Black man in America. And it happens every day. And it happens every day that I get up, that I actually wake up with that as part of my psyche. There is never a vacation from that notion. Never. And so when you wake up every day of your life as a Black person and you wonder, will I have a random encounter not of my own making with anyone? Or will one of my sons — I’m the father of three adult sons — will one of my sons have a random encounter, that’s not of their own making, that could result in their loss of life?

My son was stopped on the highway in February driving a new car we purchased. A nice car, a Range Rover, and he was stopped because the police officer couldn’t read the temporary tags on the car. Now, fortunately, my wife was in the car. The officer comes up to the car and my wife says, I’m Mrs. Coles. This is our car. We’re transporting this car from one home to another. And this is my son Taylor. And the officer leans into the car and says, “You have more than one home? Well, what do you do?” So he takes Taylor’s license. He goes back to his vehicle to run a check. And my son Taylor turns to my wife, furious, and he says, “Stop talking. You are going to get me killed.” Now, I don’t know how many listeners have ever had their adult son, or adult child, say you’re going to get me killed. But do you know what that does? As a father. And there is no escaping that.

So this is different because it’s relatable for every human being on this planet. And I talked about the nearly three minutes that the officer had his knee on the neck of George Floyd after he lost a pulse. And while officer-involved shootings happen all the time because the gun is the tool of the trade for police officers, this was different because this was one human being who snuffed out the life of another with his bare hands. There was no gun involved. This was pure, casual, callous murder. And if that doesn’t move you to your core as a human being. I don’t know what will. And that’s why this moment is different.

Part of your role [is] as you push for public policy and political change through the work of the Black Economic Alliance. How have the events of the past week affected the work that’s going on over there?

Well, in a couple of ways. Donations are up. Which is good because it is a an organization that relies on individual contributions. And we’ve had wonderful support from people who just want to do something and who want to advance the work of this organization, which is a policy organization and is responsible for working with officials in Washington on the coronavirus stimulus packaging. We’re deep in those conversations with elected members in Washington and with others who are trying to make sure that that there is a fair and even distribution of those dollars to minority small businesses.

It’s a political organization, because we concern ourselves with electing officials who will advance an economic opportunity for for Black Americans. And so our work has never been busier, never been more important. And it’s really brought into sharp relief the intersection of social justice, medical or health justice as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Black community, and then economic justice. So that trifecta of social justice, health justice, and economic justice is the moment. It’s this clarion call for organizations like the Black Economic Alliance and makes our work even more critical that we advance a smart, intelligent agenda for Black Americans and their economic advancement.

Tony, thanks so much. We really appreciate you joining us today. 

Well, thank you, guys. And thank you for hosting the conversation. Thank you for giving me this space to share from my heart, from my mind, from my soul. This is such an important conversation, and it’s such an important time, not just in society, but for individuals to turn the mirror on ourselves and just start asking a different set of questions and asking what we’re actively doing. Each person to be anti-racist. So I appreciate the time.

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