What was your inspiration to get involved with Women of Color in life sciences?
Annie Harris: When I started with Covance in 1993, there were very few black women in the industry, so it was easy to get to know one another. We would go over to each other's homes, after work, on the weekends, baby showers – that kind of thing. We’d talk a lot about work since we were all in pharma. On one of these occasions we started calling ourselves the Pharma Divas. We would meet to discuss what was going on with each other. If someone was wanting to try for a position, for example, we would strategize with her, help coach her, think about networking and other people. It was a lot of fun and we’d often say, “Wouldn't it be great if we could have a group in which we could do this all the time and be there for each other?”
That was in the mid-90s. We all moved forward in our careers but kept in touch. In 2015, I received a call from Patricia (Pat) Cornet, one of the original Pharma Divas. She said to me, “Annie, remember Pharma Divas? Well, we're going to do it…are you in?!” meaning we were going to establish a formal non-profit, like we’d dreamed about. She had met a woman named Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, who became a co-founder and President of Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP).
I was asked to be a founding member and Charlotte, Pat and I and the other founding members started gathering together at Charlotte’s home to put together our mission statement, vision and values. More women got involved and after several meetings and a couple retreats, we established the organization, which now has over 500 members.
Can you talk about your career and how you got into the work you’re doing currently?
AH: It was all by chance. I started on the help desk, working with a walkie-talkie, putting in monitoring display boards and things like that. I was more on hardware side of IT, but I then transitioned to become a Lotus Notes programmer. I was a programmer of the clinical trial management system called Trial Tracker the legacy (CTMS) that was being used by the company at the time.
I then moved on to be the Associate Director in that area and was exposed to understanding the needs of the clinical business to track on all the clinical trials. So, combining the understanding of what needs to be tracked and how the clinical trial management system worked, I then became a liaison between the business and IT sides and became something of the translator between the two. Sometimes some of the project managers would inquire about a trial and I could discuss with them why they probably need to track a particular file or a particular field, then turn and speak with the I.T. IT programming department to help with the implementation, because I understood the programming aspect.
Now I oversee all the backend process of the Covance's CTMS and Study Startup which supports clinical operations, project management, and the reporting and analysis of clinical trial activities. I lead the teams that perform user access provisioning, study setup, imports from electronic data capture, and interactive voice response data mapping, reporting, and global process workflows and User Acceptance Testing for various clinical applications across Covance.
How has Women of Color in Pharma helped you in your career?
AH: The thing is that every black woman understands the need for an organization like WOCIP, especially – and I can only speak for corporate America – when you are in an environment when you know that you have to be better than a person who isn’t a person of color. When you walk into the building, you are always on. It's extremely draining. You're not necessarily adequately valued and you’re going to be observed on how you present yourself, how you speak, how you interact with people. It is tiresome.
When you come into WOCIP, it’s the opposite. You’re able to take a deep breath and know that you're not being judged and that you don't have to be “on.” There's a sense of relief when you're in our environment. You know that you're being nourished and you're given the benefit of the doubt, but at the same time there's an expectation that you do need to take care of yourself, because you can't take care of your family if you don't take care of yourself. As a woman you're typically always giving, someone is always needing or expecting something from you. When you're in our environment, there's a relaxation and we are all sisters together, taking that deep breath in unison.
Another benefit of WOCIP is that it’s agnostic. No one cares that you’re a VP. The thing that we all know is that you're a woman – whether you’re a V.P., a lawyer, or whatever – and every woman has her own things that hold her back. There are things that hold back the VPs. There are things that hold back the lawyers. There are things that hold back the administrators or people who are brand new to Pharma. We all have things that we feel that we could do better – and WOCIP is there to help you navigate those feelings and beliefs. We’re there to cheer you on for professional and personal development and as a result, you feel inspired.
As an example, I’m getting my MBA right now because of WOCIP. I'd been wanting to get it for a while and I'm like, “you know what, I'm going to do it! So, I did, because of that sense of empowerment that is surrounding me in WOCIP. It's like electricity when we're all together, pure electricity.”
You seem to have a great level of self-confidence. Where did you develop that?
AH: I think it comes from my upbringing. I was raised in Georgia. I wouldn’t say it's the most racist state in the United States, but it's pretty close. The sheriff of my hometown was the KKK Grand Wizard for the three surrounding counties, and my attitude and that of my parents was, “What are you going to do?”
Frankly, I felt that if you let yourself feel victimized, it would stifle you. If you allow it to wash all over you, it pretty much makes you stand in your tracks and do nothing – and that was not tolerated by my parents. It's better to just move on. To be honest, I found it kind of funny actually, because the racism was just pure stupidity. My dad was a supervisor for this small town of 4,000 people, so some of his direct reports who, again, were in the KKK, had to call him Sir. It was all just dumb.
Of course, there are deep, deep, deep layers of hurt there. My dad would drive us to school every day because he didn’t want us to get beat up. There are tons and tons and tons of stories like that. At that time things were segregated. I can remember going into the doctor's office and the if you turned right when you went in, that was the white waiting room. If you turned left, that was the black waiting room. There are all kinds of stories – but the thing is that you cannot let all that take over your entire world, your entire psyche, and be bitter and angry.
Now, that does not mean that anger and sense of injustice is not there, because it is. I know you have seen all the things that are going on right now with the George Floyd protests. But what do you do with all that hurt? What do you do with all the anger that you've had to stifle for being treated like dirt -for all your life? Unfortunately, some people get angry and burn down stuff. I sometimes felt like doing that, but of course I wouldn’t - do it. I was not raised to show my anger that way. Instead, we need` safe place where you are going to get true and honest nourishment. A place that is pure and sincere, with people wanting to see you succeed, giving you encouragement to do so and empowering you to do so. To me, WOCIP is that place.
What are you most excited about in your career today?
AH: I think for me, one thing I’m excited about is that people are having the light bulb go `on and realizing that there’s an organization here to assist them, for nothing in return. The return that we get at WOCIP is helping women realize they can be anything they want to be in this industry – and personally. As an example, something we are adamant about and we make sure that we do, is offer coaching, individual coaching. It's that self-care and self-nourishment that is so valuable.
We're all different and everyone needs different things. When you become a member, you get a free session with a coach and it is personalized. You get this coaching session with a coach to discuss your professional development and to discuss any personal things that need to be shored up, so to speak, or worked on. You have that opportunity to speak to a professional coach, which is really mind blowing. We are agnostic when it comes to your current position professionally, so we offer it to everyone. Of course, VPs and other high-level people often get professional development in their jobs, but for those of us who aren’t used to having that kind of access, it’s really an amazing thing.