Seeding Diversity: How Feeder Programs Pave the Way for Inclusivity in the Pharma Industry

In a groundbreaking initiative, Eli Lilly and Purdue University have rolled out a scholarship program that welcomes its first cohort of 98 students. Their mission? To pave the way for a more diverse and inclusive future, both in pharmaceutical education and the industry itself.

The pharmaceutical landscape has long been criticized for its focus on treatments and cures primarily tailored to white men, sidelining the healthcare needs of women and people of color. Lindsay Androski, President and CEO of Roivant Social Ventures and an independent director at Eloxx Pharmaceuticals, believes this isn’t due to malice but rather a natural inclination to tackle issues that hit close to home.

Androski stated, “One area where I can make an impact today is to expose more talented future leaders to the industry and get them in the front door at the beginning of their careers.” This sentiment underscores the urgency to nurture fresh talent from diverse backgrounds and usher them into the pharmaceutical realm.

Roivant Sciences, a healthcare company at the forefront of change, launched Roivant Social Ventures in 2020, a public charity with a lofty mission: to enhance healthcare access and delivery. In May, these visionary organizations unveiled the ‘Diversity in Pharma’ internship program for PharmD students at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. This innovative program offers these students the invaluable opportunity to gain real-world drug development experience and be part of a transformative movement in the industry.

But Eli Lilly and Roivant are not alone in recognizing the importance of diversity. Several major pharma players have initiated their own “feeder” programs, all designed to champion underrepresented demographics and pave the way for a brighter, more inclusive future in the pharmaceutical arena.

Purdue-Lilly Program a Win-Win for Partners, Students

The collaboration between Eli Lilly and Purdue University is a tale of mutual benefit. Nathaniel Utz, Vice President at the Office of Industry Partnerships at Purdue University, shared insights into the strategic alliance.

Eli Lilly is on the cusp of expansion, with two cutting-edge manufacturing sites nestled within LEAP Innovation Park in Boone County, Indiana, in close proximity to Purdue. This expansion comes with a surging demand for highly skilled professionals—more than 700, to be precise.

Nathaniel Utz explained, “They have big talent pipeline needs. They need to fill over 700 highly skilled positions within those facilities. And, of course, they look to Purdue as a good partner for current and future talent. That was where this partnership stemmed from.”

But this partnership isn’t a one-way street. It serves as a powerful recruitment tool for Purdue, offering students a full scholarship and a paid internship at Eli Lilly—a commitment valued at a whopping $42.5 million over the span of a decade. The program’s allure was so irresistible that some students reneged on commitments to Ivy League schools in favor of this golden opportunity.

“It’s a pretty amazing thing when you’ve got full tuition covered, a degree from the university, a guaranteed internship, and presumably you’re then first in line for a potential job with one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world,” Utz marveled.

To expedite the program’s launch, Purdue selected this year’s recipients from regular applicants to the university. However, for the second cohort, the university adopted a more inclusive approach, specifically targeting gifted high school seniors from underserved urban and rural backgrounds. These students had overcome socioeconomic or educational disadvantages or were first-generation college attendees.

Within the program, each student undergoes a transformative journey, honing their resumes, mastering interview skills, and cultivating career readiness. They also gain valuable insights through a mentorship program, interacting with Eli Lilly’s current employees. While no employment commitment is enforced upon scholarship recipients, both partners harbor the hope that the experiences, opportunities, and connections forged during the program will open doors not only at Lilly but also within the expansive pharmaceutical industry.

Nathaniel Utz summed it up eloquently: “You’ve got this unique opportunity to have industry start interacting with students at a much earlier stage than their sophomore, junior, or senior year [in college]. You’re literally getting industry to interact with our talent before they even set foot on campus for the first time.”

Increasing Diversity in a Post-Affirmative Action World

While the Purdue-Lilly program targets high school seniors—a rare initiative—other pharmaceutical giants have also ventured into the realm of diversity, albeit with graduate students. Pfizer’s Breakthrough Fellowship Program, which commenced in 2021, offers juniors in college a tantalizing package: a free master’s degree, an internship, and an entry-level job within the company. AstraZeneca, in the same year, joined forces with the University of Maryland for a fellowship program aimed at pharmacy students.

Meanwhile, Bristol Myers Squibb is blazing a trail by funding programs for both undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with Drexel University’s College of Medicine, with a strong focus on cell and gene therapy. These initiatives complement the scholarships already offered to high school students attending a one-week STEM Summer Academy program at the university.

Wendy Clemens, Vice President of Early Development Program Lead, Oncology at Bristol Myers Squibb, eloquently captured the essence of these efforts: “Greater diversity leads to better ideas and better results. By empowering these bright minds, we’re solidifying a pipeline of students who can help drive innovations across the fields of cell and gene therapy.”

These programs arrive at a crucial juncture, with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action in July. This ruling has removed the option of considering race in college admissions and scholarship awards, prompting institutions to seek alternative ways to ensure diverse representation.

Nathaniel Utz, Vice President at the Office of Industry Partnerships at Purdue University, noted, “Most universities knew this was coming along, and so we’ve been out in front of it. We’ve never really used race at all.”

However, these programs represent only the tip of the iceberg, according to Lindsay Androski, President and CEO of Roivant Social Ventures. She emphasizes that significant barriers still hinder talented, diverse candidates from ascending to positions where they influence the allocation of R&D resources—a key metric of success in achieving true diversity and inclusion.

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