Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, cofounder of Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP)
It didn’t take protests or rallies during a pandemic for Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, vice president at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies (U.S.), to fight for equality both on the gender and racial justice fronts. As a veteran with 20-plus years in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, including being on a team that developed a medicine that treated 10 million people, she witnessed firsthand how stifling advancement could be for Black women climbing the corporate ladder.
Five years ago, she and a trusted colleague, Patricia Cornet, invited Black and Latina women who worked at various pharmaceutical companies to join them for a reception. They discussed the challenges they faced in the industry and how they could support one another. Many meetings later, Dr. Jones-Burton and Cornet founded Women of Color in Pharma (Wocip), a non-profit that empowers women of color to excel in the pharma industry.
In light of the recent events that sparked nation-wide protests, Dr. Jones-Burton and the Wocip team have created a Think Tank that will serve as a resource for the industry to help guide efforts in racial equality. Nine pharma and biotech companies, including Otsuka and Genentech, have signed on to sponsor the Think Tank. Additionally, Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall is one of 15 speakers who have committed to participate in the day long event.
“Wocip has pivoted to broaden its focus to advocate that pharmaceutical and life sciences corporations take meaningful action in full pursuit of racial and gender equality at the Board Member, CEO and C-Suite Executive levels,” she comments. “Our goal is to advance equity in the discovery, drug development and commercialization process, the workforce, marketplace, suppliers and patient communities.”
Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton and Patricia Cornet welcoming the audience to the 2019 Women of Color in … [+]
Initially, Dr. Jones-Burton thought that after medical school, she would open her own clinical practice. However, she received a research grant from the National Institutes of Health, which enabled her to focus on clinical research at the University of Maryland Medical Systems. She had to decide to either practice medicine or pursue a career in clinical research. She chose to pursue clinical research initially at an academic institution and subsequently with the pharmaceutical industry.
“When I was trying to make that decision, it was, do I change course in my career or do I stay taking care of patients and do the research? Dr. Jones-Burton explains. “I made the decision about 13 years ago to come into the pharmaceutical industry. I did that because harkening back to what my mother told me, ‘think big, dream big.’ I wanted to impact a large number of people.”
The pharmaceutical industry is divided into two sections: research and development (R&D) and commercial, which includes sales and marketing. She entered the industry on the development side in an entry level position, which for a physician was an associate director role. She focused on writing the protocols, monitoring patient safety and training investigators on the protocols for research in the phase two, three and four of clinical trials. Now, she’s the one that makes the decisions about not just what trials her company will conduct but what disease states they explore. Her decisions are based on what she and her team have identified as an opportunity to help patients with chronic diseases.
One of the biggest challenges she faced pivoting from being a full-time physician to working directly at a pharmaceutical company was the business aspect; leaving the practice to work for corporate America. “There was always this conflict in my mind,” she explains. “As physicians, we’re not wired to think about how much money does X cost or how do we get reimbursed for that? All of these complex, challenging business questions, just was not something that I was trained to think about. I was trained to save lives and ask questions later. Transitioning into the pharmaceutical industry was difficult for me…There was a bit of isolation that I encountered because there aren’t a lot of people who look like me in the [pharmaceutical] industry; look like me as a Black person, look like me as a woman, look like me as a physician. It took me a while to understand how to get the resources that I need and to be able to thrive in this setting.”
Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton Amy M. Miller, Ph.D., and Jean Beebe, Ph.D. speaking on a panel hosted by … [+]
Through her own experience, the experiences of the Wocip members and individuals across the industry, the Think Tank is recommending the following necessary steps as a way to begin changing the perceptions and practices throughout the industry:
“Not having a sponsor or learning how office politics worked could have been very career-limiting for me,” Dr. Jones-Burton concludes. “It’s out of that experience that I formed Wocip so that I could not only climb the corporate ladder, but so that I could lift others simultaneously and make sure that others didn’t have the isolation that I felt.”