In the days following George Floyd’s death, the leadership of biotech company Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT) sought to give its 340-strong staff – more than half of whom are people of color – a venue to voice their feelings.
With most, if not all, of them working remotely due to the pandemic, the company decided to convene an online forum. And despite the virtual nature of the meeting, employees did not hold back.
In a short post on LinkedIn the following day, CEO Dr. Ted Love described it as “an emotional, powerful discussion” that “underscored for me how important it is to connect with each other and share our raw emotions and experiences.” (Love was also one of several executives to participate in an open dialogue on the need for inclusion in medicine during the virtual conference held by the Biotech Innovation Organization last week.)
Here, Love delves into some of his own experiences with racial prejudice, adds historical context to recent events and explains why he thinks human rights should be a signature issue for biopharma.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I’m speaking with you after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Their deaths, and the protests that ensued, were a painful reminder of the broad divisions ailing our country. In a personal note on LinkedIn, you described a long-simmering “fire” and of “wounds” that run deep. Can you talk about why you described things that way?
Al Sharpton spoke at the funeral of George Floyd. And what he said is that, as African Americans, we had the knee on our neck for over 400 years. And he’s exactly right. Of course, Sharpton’s talking about government-imposed slavery, and I don’t think anybody can deny that slavery was brutal and abusive.
That was followed, after the Emancipation Proclamation, by Jim Crow laws, inappropriate arresting of young black men, putting in [white people’s] vision to create free labor through these chain gangs. That started the police domination of black people. It was followed by segregation and ultimately integration, but with continued strategies to make sure that those communities were disenfranchised systematically.
And it continues today with our justice system that treats people of color unfairly, [and] with our police system, which to many white people is security [but] to most black people really feels like a police state. It feels like that’s where we want it to be. It’s a very fundamental problem.
And not only that, we shoot the messengers. I think Colin Kaepernick and the NFL players were trying to bring light to this. They were trying to do this in a completely peaceful way – completely peaceful. And we let the NFL emasculate Colin Kaepernick and other individuals like him – completely emasculate the man and take his career.
It reminds me of what we did to Muhammad Ali. So now, people are looking back and saying, “Maybe Colin Kaepernick had a point, maybe he was right.” And there’s no doubt he was right. But as my young daughter told me, she said the problem is that black people cannot control the narrative. So Colin Kaepernick takes the position, and it gets repositioned as being about the flag. We have the president of the United States calling NFL players [a “son of a bitch”]. And America didn’t do anything about it; we tolerated it. It’s completely intolerable.
We have a tremendous problem, and most of American has not wanted to acknowledge it. And amazingly, the cell phone cameras have forced people to realize we have a tremendous problem. We’ve known we have a problem in the black community for 400 years.
Why is it that we haven’t fully reckoned with this issue before?
Remember, [another] one of the things that ended up being a very important moment in the United States was the peaceful protest [in April 1963] in Birmingham, Ala., and [the city’s commissioner of public safety Eugene] “Bull” Connor siccing dogs and ordering police to spray these black people with fire hydrants. That enraged our nation and that did bring many people to the point of saying, “We’ve got to make some progress.”
So these dramatic moments have stimulated people to do the right thing, but we fall back into our patterns. And then Connor never went to jail or even lost his job. So what we’re really telling people is that Connor isn’t criminal – he was criminal. So you had people trying to peacefully protest.
People in this country need to read [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] Letter from Birmingham Jail. Most people in this country have never read that, black or white. It should be required reading so people understand what [the Birmingham campaign] was all about. And not only would that make us more sensitive to these issues, I think it would make us a more educated, more thoughtful nation.
We do not comprehend that racism in America is not a black problem; black people are recipients. It’s really a white problem. And white America has got a problem. Black America can’t [solve this.] I’m very happy to engage, to give advice, but quite frankly people in black communities have been trying to tell people how to solve these problems.
But you – like Colin Kaepernick and like Muhammad Ali – get [anesthetized]. And once you give an opinion that people don’t want to act on, they don’t act on it. And that’s why white America never really faced this and seemingly doesn’t want to solve it.
Perhaps because owning up to that racism would just be too painful?
We just have not wanted to deal with it, I think, because some people perceive themselves as [being deserving] of privilege. As we disenfranchise black Americans, we disproportionately enfranchise others, and people are happy with that status quo.
When I was in college, I was involved in a discussion with my classmates. I went to Haverford College. My class was all male. Half of our class was interested in going to medical school and I was, too. We were talking about the Bakke case [Regents of the University of California v. Bakke], which was an affirmative action case that was percolating itself to the Supreme Court back in 1977, when I was a freshman.
And I was arguing that we need things like Bakke, that we need to try some kind of efforts to rectify the 400 years of abuse we’ve afflicted on people. And I of course – and Haverford only had 5% black kids, so I was the only back person in my dormitory – I was making this argument. And one evening, it became particularly emotional. And one of the kids – a Jewish guy in my class – literally stood up and walked across the room and sat beside me and said, “You know, I’ve been listening to these arguments for months, for weeks. And I agree with you.”
And as soon as he said that, someone in my class stood up and said [to that classmate], “It’s easy for you to stand with him today, but are you going to stand with him in four years when he takes your position in medical school?” And that was a very common thing. So I immediately recognized what was going on. I said, “Look, this discussion is over. I’m never going to engage in this discussion, because you have so completely described the problem.
“And the problem is, you think these positions in medical school belong to you because you’re white. And you think because I’m black, the only way I can get a position in medical school is to take your white position. And I’ve got news for you. I’m going to take a position in the medical school, because I’m deserving and I want to become a physician.”
So I remember this stuff a whole lot. I can give you example after example. And I’ve done fine as an individual, but so many people can’t get beyond this. And that’s why we’ve got the problem we’ve got. And we’ve got to commit to fixing it. And we can’t shoot the messenger, the Colin Kaepernicks.
We can’t allow police to do what they’re doing. We can’t allow the justice system in this country to disproportionately imprison black people on weak evidence or lack of evidence – or even for something wrong that a white person would get a warning for, that black people are getting time for. We’ve got to stop treating black people like they’re the enemy, because I think that’s what we’ve been doing for 400 years.
Your company operates on behalf of a unique patient community – those with sickle cell disease, a rare disease affecting about 100,000 people in the U.S., most of whom are of African descent. Talk about the reaction from the patient community, and specifically in the San Francisco area, where GBT is located.
In general, the patient community loves GBT, and the reason is because we’re authentic. And we love them. They know that we care about that. We’ve been engaging, supporting, we go to walks… On weekends, I will do the Sickle Cell Community Forum. We’re not just a company focused on making money. We are right there with our patients; it’s very unusual. But you know, it shouldn’t be unusual. It should be the way we operate.
The community is not surprised when Covid comes along, and GBT starts to make general donations, starts to try to help in those communities. And the answer is simple: We care about the community that we are focused on helping. It’s very simple. It’s more than making a drug available. If we really care about the patients, we care about the lack of access to opportunity in that community, as well.
As I mentioned, you posted a personal note on LinkedIn. Your company also hosted an open forum with employees, which as I understand it got pretty emotional, and also devoted your social channels to pledge your determination to fight for social justice. Talk about why you felt that was appropriate and about the kinds of initiatives you’re planning moving forward.
We really try to run our company in many ways like you run your family. We try to confront the issues that are important to us. Obviously, our mission is to make drugs, and we’re very good at that and we spend a lot of effort on that. But we also feel like we are citizens of this country. We love this country. We want this country to be better.
And like everyone, we were outraged at the way George Floyd died. We were in pain. So we felt it was appropriate, like we’ve done in my home, to come together and talk about it. Because this is on everybody’s mind. And I think it was useful. I think it was diffusing for people to get some things off their mind, and I think it puts us in a position to try to move forward and take positive action.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be part of the solution, because our position certainly is that if we’re not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
We saw many pharma company CEOs, after Merck’s Ken Frazier appeared on CNBC on Monday, June 3, join in the chorus condemning racism and calling for unity. Not to get into any other company’s specific actions, but has the response from biopharma CEOs been appropriate in your view?
Our industry is very unique in that it’s fundamentally people trying to improve human existence. And so we are compassionate in our makeup as a company. So it is not surprising that we were able to come together to this issue out of compassion. Because we approach what we do in our jobs with compassion and concern with the human affliction of disease.
And this is obviously a good analogy, because racism really is a disease. We need to treat it like it’s Alzheimer’s, like it’s a chronic disease, like something we need to make better progress with.
I’m going to reserve judgment on all of us until I see change, and that includes GBT. Until I see change – until I see continued, concerted attention and action – I’m going to reserve judgment. But yes, I’m very proud of the biotechnology industry. Our industry knows that we’re largely privileged people. We, fortunately, are very educated people, and we have fundamentally the compassion to be empathetic because of our careers.
GBT made a $150,000 donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to help end racial injustice. What else can businesses do to “go beyond the press release” and ease the barriers that lead to inequity for African American men and women?
We have to think about getting involved and to commit to trying to either be directly or indirectly committed in solving the problems. Disproportionate access to quality education in this country needs to be fixed. We have a rigged criminal justice system. We have disproportionate hiring and firing of people, disproportionate promotion of people. We have leaders that aren’t fit to lead. We need to be voting. We need to hold ourselves accountable.
When I was growing up, people would almost try to make abortion a litmus test. They’d want to find out if you’re pro or against. I would argue that human rights ought to be a litmus test. If you’re not committed as a politician to doing the right thing – I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat – you shouldn’t get your office, you shouldn’t be elected. If you are elected, we should try to get rid of you by voting you out of office. And we ought to be doing the same for police, we ought to be doing the same for leaders in businesses.
In the business world, this works pretty well. If I’m caught doing something highly egregious, the board will fire me, and I think that’s wonderful. People who are not living up to societal contracts should not continue to get the benefit of being leaders.
So it’s about voting, being charitable, donating your time, supporting, speaking up. And if you don’t know enough to understand what Colin Kaepernick is talking about, rather than jumping on the rhetoric you ought to talk to somebody to understand. Why would a man compromise his career, millions and millions of dollars – to disrespect the flag? It doesn’t make any sense, but yet that narrative was widely accepted.
Why did Muhammad Ali give up the best years of his life, the best years of his career, to not go to war? All he had to do was go to the Army, box and win a gold medal for the Army, and he’d have been done. But the man was saying the cause of human rights was more important. Now, we ultimately recognized this as a nation. But along the way, we emasculated him. We put him in prison.
We’ve got a lot to do. I tried to make a list. But vote and directly engage with your money, with your time. Walk the walk. When you’re hiring, make sure you’re not just hiring people that look like you or who went to your college. Make sure you’re not just promoting people who look like you or who went to your college.
GBT is very committed to making sure that we are systematically examining how we hire, how we fire, how we promote, how we pay. We’re a company of about 350 people. We’re not a huge company, but we have fair, equitable practices. And it’s not that complicated to achieve pay equity and promotional equity. If we did just the things I mentioned, this country would dramatically improve.
This is a tough time in our nation’s history, with two major crises hitting at once. Do you think that, like COVID-19 served as a rallying point for the life-sciences industry in terms of innovating on behalf of the world to come up with treatments, vaccines and tests, that the issue of racial inequality is one with which our industry can identify and one to which it can lead a constructive response?
I agree. It’s a great opportunity for our industry. Like some others, our industry has been disparaged – and you can say it’s largely political, honestly. But right now, we are realizing that if society wants to solve diseases, if we want to be able to protect ourselves and recover from pandemics, our industry is critically important.
So it is a great opportunity for our industry to not only continue to do what we do in healthcare, but to model what this nation ought to be doing as business leaders, as organizations and as groups of individuals.
Our company – we are really a family. And our family is committed to making change. And I fully expect we are not going to be Johnny-come-lately to this discussion. And I hope that we institute things as a nation that protect us against a pandemic, and I also hope that we pay heed to these tremendously disproportionate impacts that Covid has had, particularly on communities of color and lower-income communities.
It’s a shame, because it’s a bright light on how, if somebody in a rich community gets a little bit of a runny nose, people in these communities have a full-on flu. And now we’re seeing that play out.
And GBT has said we’re going to do more than talk about this. We’re going to try to see if we can do things to actually immediately help these communities because they’ve been hurt the most. Subsequently, we’re going to see if we can do things to position these communities to move forward so that the next pandemic does not affect them so egregiously.