The MM&M Podcast recently featured Tayla Mahmud, EVP business development, Razorfish Health, who spoke about the lack of diversity in healthcare, her roundtable at MM&M’s upcoming Plus One event, and strategies for recruiting and nurturing more diverse leaders. The following interview has been edited.

Marc Iskowitz: Very broadly, where do we see a lack of diversity impacting in healthcare?

Mahmud: When we look at healthcare and health equality or inequality, it’s above and beyond promotion and communications. We know that there’s a lack of diversity in clinical trial development, and that carries forward to underrepresentation in product development. It cascades to the communication industry. When we look at who is marketing, developing, and communicating against therapies, there is underrepresentation. So, it doesn’t start from the marketing end of the funnel; it’s all the way back to the beginning of the funnel. We need to address diversity farther upstream.

Iskowitz: How does this impact on marketing?

Mahmud: Oftentimes you can get a gap in the work in terms of people from the communities we serve seeing themselves represented in the promotion. There can also be a gap in those who are reviewing the work and making the decisions, and sometimes that can result in a lack of perspective—whether it be creative work or communications—and a tone-deaf nature to the work. Whom the products are developed for and marketed to may not necessarily be representative of the cultural context of the audience we should be serving.  

Iskowitz: You’ve worked with a lot of pharma and biotech clients. Do they get it?

Mahmud: I don’t want to make a general statement about who gets it and who doesn’t. For those who are lagging in getting it, the results speak for themselves in that people of all perspectives are getting more involved in their health management. [That said], I have seen more diversity when I walk into clients in terms of who I’ve seen sitting around the table, from medical representation to marketing leadership. There’s progress being made, and I don’t think that the progress is just having people around the table who look different, but including people in the decisions that are being made in the review processes. But I do think, obviously, that there’s more work to be done. And sometimes we’ll go into a client and they’re looking for the agency to reflect the business, as well, and to reflect the patient base.

“Oftentimes, I’ll have someone walk over to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m developing this. Can I just get your eyes and ears on it?’ or, ‘Can I ask you, is this—you know—appropriate, or would this offend?’ And I don’t mind that.”

Tayla Mahmud, Razorfish Health

And so on the agency side is where there can be a little bit of a gap—when clients say, “Hey, this is a diabetes product, and we want to make sure that there are people of color (who look like our patients) that are on the team working on the business.” Sometimes agencies have to dig really deep to find a creative director of color who has the healthcare credentials, and that shouldn’t be the case. It shouldn’t be that an agency has to dig for qualified people, because they absolutely exist. So there can be a representation gap on the agency side.  

Iskowitz: Does that usually surface at the RFP stage, or sometime down the line, that clients are requiring it?

Mahmud: It varies by client. [It’s] on many of the RFPs. I’ve even seen questions about diversity of suppliers. Thankfully, my organization does work with diverse suppliers, but those questions are being asked upfront and then when the team comes into the room the clients want to see a team that’s a little bit broader in representation than perhaps even five years ago.

Iskowitz: Those are very encouraging signs. Our own data have shown that good progress has been made with gender equality, including in the boardroom, amongst agencies, but that other types of equality—racial and sexual orientation—are the next frontier.

Mahmud: I hope so. When we look around the agency and we look around the leadership table, we’ve made lots of progress in terms of gender equality. The gender gap is still there—that’s another podcast—but yes, I do see a gap once you start to get to a certain level within organizations of other types of diversity and representation beyond gender equality.

So, to walk in the room and to be the only person of color is not a rarity at all once you get to a certain level. And I think that is something that many people across the agency world want to talk about. Because it’s not that people aren’t represented; they aren’t represented once you get to a certain level or a certain function.

I go places often and to have people still walk up to me and say, “Oh, I didn’t think an agency leader could look like you,” or, “Oh, I’m surprised they have your picture on the website.” I mean, that’s still a little bit surprising.

Iskowitz: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for making that point. We still have a lot of work to do. Let’s talk about the Plus One event a little bit, shall we?

Mahmud: Sure.

Iskowitz: You’re leading one of the roundtable discussions. The title of the talk, which I’ve heard you didn’t make up, is “Journey to a Diverse Boardroom.” So, unpack that topic a little bit and tell us what you plan to talk about.

Mahmud: Sure. So, to the point we were making, we understand—and the data shows—that diversity in the boardroom is beneficial and actually pays. And so there’s a direct correlation to businesses doing well and having diverse perspectives represented in the boardroom. However, at the same time there appears to be a ceiling to mobility when we talk about many diverse populations.

The intent of the roundtable is to have an open discussion on what are some of the challenges that people are seeing at work; what are some of the practical strategies that we can employ to break the ceiling, so to speak; and just to have an open dialogue about things that have worked for me, things that may have worked for others, and just share and trade.

Iskowitz: What are the tangible benefits to having more diversity in the boardroom?

Mahmud: Number one is diverse perspectives, to make sure that the perspectives of the leadership team represent the perspectives of the customers, the employees. I’ve found that where I sit on a leadership team, we may be solving a challenge together, and we’re approaching it from completely different perspectives based on origin, based on where we sit in the organization, literally and figuratively. And just having an ear to the ground on what’s important to the people that we work for and work with is important when it goes into making decisions for the organization and for our clients, who entrust us to develop campaigns and put out images and messages and speak on their behalf.

Oftentimes, I’ll have someone walk over to me and say, “Hey, I’m developing this. Can I just get your eyes and ears on it?” or, “Can I ask you, is this—you know—appropriate or would this offend?” And I don’t mind that because I do not represent all of any type of person. I represent myself, but you know we all have multiple layers to who we are. And my layers are going to be different than the next person’s layers, and that should go into review of work, key decision-making, as well as what we put out there and how we represent the brand.

Iskowitz: That’s a good tip in and of itself: Don’t be afraid to ask.

Mahmud: Asking is better than apologizing…

Iskowitz: …after the fact, right; we say that in journalism all the time! Why does the ceiling still exist when it comes to having more diversity in the C-suite, and do you see it changing over time?

Mahmud: It’s human nature to surround oneself with those who are like them, to be attracted to those who are like them. It’s embedded in our industry and in many industries, not just ours. Also, this is a relationship-based business, so if I’m going to call up a contact for a job or for this or that, it just spreads from there.

Starting a new job is like moving to a new neighborhood, where everyone else has lived there for 20 years. If you look at many leadership teams at many large companies or many large networks, many of those people have been there for 20 years, and you’re entering as a new person who’s a little bit different and looks different.

But I think there’s a willingness to hire someone who’s outside of the box, who may not fit the same exact criteria often thought of when hiring. And there’s a commitment to understanding the perspective that that person is entering an organization as an only or a first or an other into a well-oiled, tight network—and to understanding that you have to then bring that person in. That’s where inclusion comes in. There’s the diversity of making sure that various people are sitting around the table.

But all of that is for nothing if there’s not the inclusion of like, “Hey, what do you think?” or, “Hey, I have an idea for you,” or, “Hey, come join this conversation.” And then there’s nurturing and retaining the talent, and all those things have to work together for there to be advancements in any industry. It’s not enough to just recruit and not nurture and retain.

Iskowitz: So, all facets of the equation need to work together. There’s going to be other roundtable topics at the event, like mentoring, so I’m sure that will come up, too.

Mahmud: And they all start to overlap. Because oftentimes, to get to the boardroom, there’s someone that is your champion who says, “You belong in the boardroom.”

Iskowitz: Are there other critical issues, or signs of progress, that you’d like to share?

Mahmud: The critical issue of honest conversations is really important, vs. making assumptions. I read a quote recently, “If you’re in a room and everyone in the room is like you, you should be wondering, ‘Who’s not in the room?” I would encourage people when they walk in the room, particularly a boardroom or any room, if everyone is coming from the same perspective—not just racially but culturally, gender-based, whatever—if everyone in the room is just like you, you should be wondering who’s not in the room.

And I’ll relate that to this event. I personally want to make sure that when we talk about attendees for the event or mentors for the event that the event is not a person-of-color event. It’s not a women’s event. It’s an event and a topic that should involve and engage everyone. And so, I hope that that’s what the attendance looks like.

Iskowitz: Indeed. The theme of the event is “inspiring change and championing diversity in healthcare.” To your point, that means all types of diversity and not just one. Finally, what strategies do you think can speed up the slow pace of workplace progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

Mahmud: Well, the one that we talked about in terms of broadening hiring and looking in different places to hire unique talent is important. Then, an awareness and a recognition, once the person is in there, of how being any only in the room or first in the room, the weight that that carries. So, just nurturing that talent and making sure—be it a buddy system or resource group or something—that’s particularly helpful. And then the other piece is tangible acts of inclusion in any walk of life, just reaching out. Making an active quota to engage with someone that’s different than oneself is something that I try to do. It can only better all of us when we understand the world through someone else’s perspective. I mean, it’s a global world, so we’ve got to be thinking broader than someone who looks, feels, and acts just like ourselves.

MM&M Plus One, devoted to amplifying the discussion on diversity in healthcare and in our industry, is taking place in Philadelphia on March 14. Click here for information and to purchase tickets. To listen to the original episode of this podcast, click here.