Bluebird Bio chief Nick Leschly is a self-professed novice when it comes to matters of diversity and inclusion, but his down-to-earth style is helping him make the right multicultural moves.

Leschly spent years as a partner at VC firm Third Rock Ventures before becoming Bluebird’s president and chief executive — or “chief bluebird,” as they call it — in 2010. Having launched several biotech companies and products, he’s earned a reputation for entrepreneurialism as well as informality. Under his leadership, Bluebird has a casual dress code and no-nonsense internal dialogue, and the company puts a premium on tolerance and individual expression. 

One of a group of biotechs and big pharmas concentrating on one-time treatments for severe genetic maladies, Bluebird’s gene therapy Zyntelgo is approved in the EU for the rare blood disorder beta thalassaemia. It has a pipeline of other cell and gene therapies on the horizon.

A hyper-focus on developing transformational medicine isn’t naturally associated with diversity. Biopharma firms, by and large, lag behind in achieving gender and racial balance within their own ranks and in working toward health equity. 

That’s exactly what Leschly is out to change. While admittedly not his forté, he’s making D&I a priority, surrounding himself with executives knowledgeable in cultivating multiculturalism and publically engaging in the dialogue. Leschly, who serves on the board of the trade group Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), also stands out for the way he’s planting a seed for the entire industry.

MM&M spoke with him about the importance of driving toward these objectives for the benefit of the company and the sector as a whole.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Nick Leschly
Nick Leschly, CEO of Bluebird Bio in Cambridge. Source: Getty

MM&M: Bluebird Bio was one of the sponsors of a July 30 roundtable, whose specific objectives involved creating “accelerated sustainable change” for racial and gender equality and health equity within the pharma/life sciences industry. How would you assess Bluebird’s progress in this regard? How does it compare to its peers?

Leschly: I love the word “accelerated” and I love the word “sustainable.” That’s been part of the issue. Wherein a lot of people have been trying, nothing has been sticking. And the circle of the people that not just care – most human beings care, right? – has been too small. The question is, do you move to action? And then how willing are you to challenge and get uncomfortable in the dialogue? 

To the extent there is a silver lining in the [circumstances surrounding the COVID pandemic and Black Lives Matter], it’s galvanized a much broader circle to not just care, but to actually engage. I’ll admit: I’m personally disappointed with myself at the level of action, awareness and consciousness that is really important. I’d characterize Bluebird in that same category. Bluebird is a pretty emotionally charged, very purpose-driven company, which I think sets us up well for this. At the same time, we also perhaps would freely acknowledge we have not done as well as we should have.

That doesn’t mean we’re bad people or that we haven’t tried. It just means we can definitely do better. And the silver lining here has gotten us to the point where we’re saying, “Okay, what more can we do? What things can we reassess and challenge and then create and be part of and ally with a movement that’s incredibly important?”

MM&M: Bluebird, having been founded in 2010, surely had a D&I plan in place before this. Talk about how it’s evolved.

Leschly: Absolutely, we have. As a biotech company, starting early on you’re two people, and then you’re 10 and then you’re 50. You’re really focused on surviving. You’re trying to figure out. “How do I live to next month or to the next six months?” So it is difficult, the smaller you are, to balance priorities when you’re basically experiencing a near-death experience as a company every day of every month. But as you get a little bigger, you can start to anchor a culture. 

Since the beginning, Bluebird has been dealing largely with people dying from terrible diseases. The focus has not been on us or the people. It’s about that mission. The third leg of that stool, which has become more visible recently, is that I think we’ve not done a great job on the diverse nature of that employee base, which will greatly enhance our ability to serve who we’re here to serve: the patient. And that third leg is a complicated one because it requires sophisticated appreciation and self-awareness to get it right and make it sustainable and embedded in the fabric of the company. 

MM&M: Speaking of the diversity of the company’s employee base, would you be willing to share how Bluebird’s executive ranks or clinical trials currently stack up? 

Leschly: Our clinical studies range from 10 to 50 people in some disease states. We also work in sickle cell disease, which largely affects African-Americans, so it’s 100% African-American, with few exceptions. The disease and disease severity governs that: We look at who’s the most severe and who qualifies. We’ve probably done a pretty good job as it relates to what we need to do from a diversity of clinical studies, but I need to look more into that, candidly.

On the company level, we’ve always been very focused on tolerance and on individuality of expression. We have no dress code. We have very informal dialogue and engagement on the inside and encourage people to be themselves. I have a tendency to curse a lot – not at people, but as part of my dialogue. We like to say, “We take what we do very seriously, but not each other or ourselves very seriously.” That leads to a pretty lighthearted, tolerant culture. 

We’ve been quite good on gender diversity – over 50% women in the company. That gets a little less impressive as you get to the upper upper ranks – we’re in the 30%-40% category there. As it relates to sexual orientation, we have a very healthy LGBTQ community that has its own impressive numbers. 

Where we’ve not done well – and I was aware of the number but not how bad it is – is in the number of Black employees. We’re at 4% out of 1,200 employees. That’s not impressive. It might not be too far off from some of our peers in our industry, but you don’t take solace in that; I’m not going to compare myself to a low bar. So we’ve been looking very hard at the Latino and Black communities and saying, “What’s going on there? Why are our results not good enough there? Is there something that we’re doing?” There are a lot of unconscious things that we are doing that we need to look at, to see how they’re skewing our results and how we grow.

MM&M: A company’s longstanding practices can serve to maintain the status quo, which can be counterproductive. What processes in the biopharma industry – or in your company – are perpetuating existing racial and gender imbalances?

Leschly: People have a tendency to look at people. They look at your board, your leadership team. That I agree is important, but you don’t get sustainability. Because I have John Agwunobi, an African-American gentleman, on my board and because I just recently added Denice Torres, that doesn’t make us such a diverse company. That is an important piece, but it’s just a ticket to the party. It does not absolve you of true diversity in the fabric of the company. 

I have several women as members of my leadership team but no one of color. I do have a number of genders and sexual orientations on my leadership team. On our extended leadership team, we have all aspects of diversity. So therein lies an absolute challenge, which is: Are we not equally or consciously making sure that we promote and retain people of color or other forms of diversity? That’s where I’m really hunting for opportunity. 

Here’s an example – and I’m not sure these are necessarily areas where we’re wrong, but they’re ones we need to really look at to make sure that it’s not perpetuating this. I used to be very proud that we hire a big percentage of our employees through our network. We even incent people financially to say, “Hey, if you give us names that we hire, then you’re rewarded for it.” 

And that’s great, except if you have a lot of employees who are from, like myself, a non- oppressed, white, middle-aged demographic, who are most of my immediate network, it’s probably not diverse enough. We need to look at that to make sure we don’t just hire constantly out of our networks and that we’re more conscious about making sure that every single search is not just the quickest. I’m sure the people we’ve hired are super-qualified, but are they as diverse as they could be? Is that a process inhibiting diversity? I’d venture to say “almost certainly.”

We have another one – we call it the “bar-raiser program” – where we appoint an individual who is not the hiring manager but who has the right to veto the hire if that person deems that this person is not a good fit. It’s purely based on taking our culture, how we show up and the reason people are here, really seriously, and beyond just skill set.

But it might also very well be that if our bar-raisers are all non-diverse individuals, or people that have a success profile in their mind about what “fit” means at Bluebird, we’re now toast again because it is self-perpetuating. So we’re taking a look at what does “fit” mean? What does “qualified” mean? 

I can slip into “these institutions” or “that degree” or “this background,” because you get immediate comfort in those areas. That doesn’t make me bad, it just makes you say, “Shoot, wake up, dude! That doesn’t work. You need to get conscious, curious, much more thoughtful and outside your own natural inclinations.” 

I would be the first to say, “Boy, I have a lot to learn in order to make my behavior one that truly creates a diverse workplace.” That’s something we’re working on, too: How do we make sure that someone’s academic history or pedigree is not all that we look at? This is easy to say but hard to do, because you’re also trying to hire people to do the really important job of saving the people we’re trying to save.

This is a grand excuse that I think our industry is a little too quick to use, which is, “I’m looking for this kind of degree with this type of background, with this kind of experience. So the pool of diverse candidates is just small. You can’t hold me to the standard.” And I call bullshit on that.

Every candidate you hire is not meant to be a diverse candidate. The point is, in aggregate you should hold yourself accountable. If there is a very specific degree, a very specific ask, you make a run at it. It doesn’t mean you’re successful every time. You need to hold yourself accountable versus going to this generic excuse of, “Well, our industry just doesn’t have a lot of diverse candidates, so we should be held to a different standard.”

MM&M: According to the latest McKinsey figures, the healthcare and pharma industry is in the middle of the pack among other sectors when it comes to ethnic diversity in leadership teams. But when you look at just healthcare and you stack pharma and medical products companies up against health systems and payers, they do have the lowest share of women of color in line roles. So the industry definitely has a long way to go. Who among your peers is making good progress. What do you see as encouraging signs?

Leschly: Biotech is much tighter in the range of types of jobs, specs, et cetera, and that becomes the natural excuse for being on the low end. A bright spot is what we, along with many of our sister and brother companies, are doing in changing the objectives. 

When we look back, not six months from now but one, two or three years from now, our goal in the context of diversity is to lead the pack. We think it is disproportionately going to benefit the company and our ability to achieve our mission. So we want to make sure that this is not just something that is a fad or a flash in the pan, but is a fundamental tenet of the company. 

We’re working on a plan, including goals and a mindset that gets it to that level. That is hard. But I think that’s the bright spot, that some version of it is pretty much happening now across every aspect of the industry, and I think genuinely so. I’m sure there are exceptions. There are some people who are just checking a box. We’re trying to take the approach that diversity is actually a fundamental, sustainable element as a company. I want all of us to have this mindset – and I think that’s doable, but not in six months. We have to take the long view here. 

MM&M: Let’s go with that theme for a moment. D&I advocates argue that ownership of this transformation doesn’t fall on the shoulders of people of color – rather, it’s the responsibility of white people. Do you agree, and how would you say you’re taking responsibility for building a more inclusive culture?

Leschly: Yes and no. And the reason is, it’s not any one of them, it’s all of us. We are one community. If you have that mindset, it is on the burden of continued positive energy out of the Black community, out of the Latino community, out of any diverse community. What is different and must happen in much greater numbers and with much greater intent is the non-oppressed, non-diverse have to participate and engage, not just in an, “Oh, I care, too,” way or an, “Oh yeah, that’s important.” No. What are you doing about it? What’s your action? That’s where I would very much agree with the statement you just made. 

And I think that’s what’s happening right now. We’re trying to set goals, for example, to say, “Okay, in three years, what is the percentage of Black employees? What is the percentage of diverse employees across all the dimensions? What’s the goal? And then you share that with the company and with the world, and then hold yourself accountable about where you are today against those numbers.

And then who’s accountable for it? Is someone going to get promoted if they have not shown an ability to understand and/or navigate or succeed by building a diverse group or team? Did we promote a vice president if they haven’t fulfilled that goal? Those are important questions, because otherwise you get what you measure.

MM&M: And the part of the statement that you don’t agree with?

Leschly: [Bluebird’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion] Jordyne Blaise, who thank God we had prior to all this and really is responsible for our D&I, educated me and most of the company in this notion of, “It’s okay if you’re not in an oppressed or non-diverse category to engage and have a misstep.” What’s not okay is to not speak up, to not engage for fear of saying something wrong or a misstep – or worse yet, if you don’t actually care. You have to care or there’s no place for you at Bluebird. 

But what’s really important is don’t feel bad. “You haven’t done anything wrong, Nick.” I’m a Northern European, middle-aged, bald, white guy. I can’t control any of those things. What I can control is my behavior. I look at myself and say, “I have not done this well enough. I need to change my behavior.” That I can say, with 100% certainty, I need to do, and I need to take ownership of it. But that’s not a guilt thing: “Don’t feel bad, Nick, do something about it.” Guilt is not a productive emotion. 

And that’s where I think it is the responsibility of all people to make sure the emotion and action here is positive, and not one of, “You’ve done something wrong.” I’m not a big fan of that, because that leads to, “I’m doing this because I have to, not because I think it’s the right thing.” That is not sustainable. The best way to develop medicines is to inspire people to do so, and you can’t do that by diminishing diversity, input, thoughts or ideas.

MM&M: We’ve seen a couple of companies establish goals for boosting representation of African American and Latino employees in the US and for achieving gender parity at the executive level, as well as for building supplier diversity and making their clinical trials more inclusive. Are you willing, at this time, to make a similar commitment to how your company’s racial and gender diversity will shift over time and to strengthening health equity across the business?

Leschly: Yes, is the answer. Have we done it yet? No. Are we in the process of developing it? We’ve done it in bits, but we’ve not done it in a public way yet, nor even in a sophisticated enough way. To hurry up and push something out there just because the time is energized right now, that’s not helpful. I want to do something that is, for lack of a better word, really thoughtful and also something that we can deliver on and that’s going to deliver the type of outcomes that we all want. 

The dialogue is very active and we’re getting a lot closer to be able to do what you just described. But also this is not just about Black or Latino people. This is about saying, “How do we get something here that gets us all energized in the right way?”

It’s also about other forms of diversity, whether that’s on the sexual side, the international side, the gender side. There are all forms of diversity-with-a-capital-D here that we need to make sure don’t suffer from this. There needs to be a consistency in how we approach it. And so that’s what we’re trying to work on, and that does require sharing the data externally and holding ourselves accountable by putting some important objectives out there. 

MM&M: Can you share a timeline for that? 

Leschly: The goal is that, by the end of the year, we’re very explicit. I want to make sure our board is comfortable. I want it to be an objective that says, “What does our board look like three years from now? What does our leadership team look like? What does our company look like? And have we succeeded in building this into our performance-based metrics?” This didn’t come up overnight. It’s not going to get solved overnight. So let’s make sure we galvanize and energize.

I’m willing to be public about our dialogue, such as the WOCIP [Women of Color in Pharma] engagement. I’m also looking to learn from Denice Torres and other members of our board on how we can participate. We’re talking a lot to our investors, who care an awful lot about this, and we’re talking a boatload to our internal community to say, “Listen, one of the tendencies is for CEOs to think they know what’s going on.” 

I’ll be the first to admit that on this dimension, I’m a novice. I can’t pretend to be an expert and I don’t like to pretend, so I’m making sure that we engage people in the company to truly make this our objective, not some CEO objective so Nick can go out to some investor conferences saying, “We’re diverse and we’re doing X.” If it’s not ingrained, if it’s not rooted, then it’s a seasonal plant. I’m not looking for a seasonal plant; I’m looking for redwoods here that can grow for a hundred years. And that’s a slightly different mindset. We tend not to come to quick things that you pop up on your website. We make our position very clear.

MM&M: You mentioned WOCIP. They are looking to the industry’s two main trade associations, PhRMA and BIO, to standardize and lead these efforts. Do you think these organizations can inspire the industry to come out of their siloes and be more transparent about these goals? 

Leschly: They have to engage. If they don’t, that will be totally unacceptable and a huge missed opportunity. What those organizations do for just about any topic is they don’t tell you what to do, but they make it pretty clear about what’s an acceptable behavior within a range. And then you go figure it out. They can’t tell us the how, but they certainly can say, “Look, we as an industry believe this is important. So we want people to be public about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.” 

Each of us are going to be different. The heartbeat of Bluebird is a little different than the heartbeat of Merck. The things that I can do at Bluebird are probably, in some cases, more adventurous and progressive than what maybe a giant cruise liner can do. We’re a little bit more like a speedboat. That has its pros and cons. 

At the same time, it’s all about being human and doing the right thing and then calling out people who don’t. To me, people overcomplicate this sometimes. Inside the company, we’re saying, “Look, it’s actually pretty simple. It’s not okay to not care.” And at the company level, all the way down to the individual level, you need to have an action plan. If you don’t, that’s going to become a problem for you at Bluebird, period. 

That’s not a threat. It’s just who we are. As a community, we have decided that. So I think BIO can help and encourage that kind of a mindset, but it has to be over a durable period of time. These companies are also developing medicines that save the sickle cell community from a terrible childhood disease. You can’t drop all that in the face of this, but you have to be able to work toward it. Because everybody wins if you get this more right than wrong.