celeste warren
Celeste Warren

Five years ago, when Celeste Warren was first approached by Merck’s HR chief about assuming leadership over the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, she was cool to the idea. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s so cliché — you know, the black woman who’s head of D&I,’” she says. But a subsequent sit-down with CEO Ken Frazier — and, specifically, a pointed exchange at the start of it — convinced her that tackling D&I at a 68,000-employee, 126-year-old company was the mission of a lifetime.

“I said, ‘I just want to know one thing: Are you serious about wanting to have a real impact and create change?’” says Warren. “His response was, ‘What if I told you I wasn’t?’” Warren recalls. “My immediate comeback was, ‘Well, I’d take the job anyway.’ He said, ‘Then let’s do it. Come back to me before the end of the year with a plan.’”

That is Warren’s superhero origin story. But knowingly or not, she’d been preparing for just such a challenge during her 30-odd-year career. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Warren worked as a sportswriter. She decided to return to school — at Carnegie Mellon — a few years later. “I got tired of eating ramen noodles and asking my parents for rent money,” she laughs. She set out to become a political campaign manager, but some advice took her in a different direction. “My guidance counselor said, ‘Good lord, you don’t want to do that!’ and talked me into HR,” she says.

It proved a fine fit. After eight years at Kraft Foods, Warren gave pharma a try. During her first 15 years at Merck, she worked in a range of HR roles across divisions and locations. That did more to prepare her for the D&I job than a more linear HR path might have.

After engaging with so many different internal constituencies, Warren understood their priorities — and their blind spots. “We’d been looking at D&I myopically,” she says. “It was all about percentages: How many women? How many people of color? We needed to go beyond the numbers and understand how to leverage diversity to create a more inclusive environment, but also to drive our business.”

That bottom-line-attuned philosophy, in effect, is what distinguishes Warren’s approach from the ones taken by her peers. “As much as we want to believe people embrace D&I because they’re passionate about it and it’s the right thing to do, businesses are in business. They have to drive profits,” she continues. “I try to make an impact with D&I not just from a moral, corporate-responsibility aspect, but also from the standpoint of how it adds value to our business.”

What are we doing to help and allow our employees to be themselves so that they can feel safe and be productive at work?

Warren notes that, at any pharma company, this shouldn’t be a terribly difficult case to make. “I unapologetically believe that, at the intersection of business and diversity and inclusion, you do create a competitive advantage,” she says, pointing to greater patient diversity in clinical trials and greater diversity in global suppliers.

The internal case for more diversity and inclusion is just as easily stated — though, as Warren notes, far from easy to effect. “People of Muslim faith, the person who’s gay in the Asia-Pacific region, the African-American person in the U.S., Latino/Hispanic people who live near the border — people are stressed about their communities,” she says. “We can’t shut that stress down, so what are we doing to help and allow our employees to be themselves so that they can feel safe and be productive at work? That’s a question we need to ask every day.”

Asked whether pharma has a D&I problem, Warren responds, “I believe so.” However, she’s quick to note that the industry’s unique traits makes any such assessments quite complicated.

“I came from consumer products, where you didn’t build a marketing strategy for anything unless you understood urban and rural communities. You never had to say to marketing leaders, ‘You need to make sure you’re integrating multicultural marketing into your strategies,’” Warren explains. “Pharma is highly regulated. It’s a complex ecosystem.”

While Warren believes Merck is at the forefront of pharma’s push toward more thoughtful and consistent D&I practices — and anecdotal evidence suggests she’s right and that she’s one of the most admired industry execs occupying a D&I role — she knows there’s work to be done.

“I don’t claim to be an expert. I learn from those around me who are different, whatever dimension of different that might be,” she says. “But we’ll keep plugging away. We’ll get it right.”