For over 10 years, Karen Boykin-Towns has been dedicated to solving the systemic issues plaguing African Americans healthcare. “Healthcare disparities exist for African Americans, and there are several systemic contributors, including racism, class-ism, the prevalence of chronic disease, poor health outcomes, and limited access to healthcare,” said Boykins-Towns. As one of the few C-suite executives of color in the healthcare field, Boykin-Town was also Pfizer’s first chief diversity officer. Now, as Pfizer’s VP of corporate affairs, Boykin-Towns is working on a new initiative called “Three Virtues” to improve health disparities among the African American community.

“Through my work as a national board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as chairman of its National Health Committee, we work to eliminate racial and ethnic inequities that exist within our health care system and help people understand how unconscious bias creates barriers. Our goal is to use advocacy and policy efforts to combat those social determinants of health that hinder communities of color to reach the goal of optimal health.”

Beyond Boykin-Towns’ work in health care, she’s also focused on hiring and developing high-performance teams. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to mentor others through connections made by volunteering in the community, civic work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), my sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. and at the office,” said Boykins-Towns. “I believe there are three things you need to do consistently: inspire, drive, and stretch to make performance transformative and cultivate a team energy that is impactful and engaging.”

Boykin-Towns spoke with Black Enterprise about Pfizer’s initiative and how African Americans can take matters into their own hands.

Black Enterprise: Based on your experiences, what are the systemic issues plaguing African American healthcare? 

Two illustrative examples of poor health outcomes in the African American community are that African American men are twice as likely to die of prostate cancer and African American women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer. When it comes to access, one interesting finding is that African Americans are less likely to trust their healthcare providers. Considering the historical experiences of African Americans, this mistrust is rooted in discriminatory practices and unethical treatment. Why? Research shows that a healthcare provider’s decision-making is sometimes influenced by race and ethnicity, a finding that reinforces the need to raise awareness about unconscious bias.

How can African Americans take matters into their own hands to help contribute to the change?

Business is highly competitive, and organizations are always looking for game-changing ways to take performance to the next level. As African Americans, we have unique perspectives, which gives us an incredible opportunity to contribute to and shape business thinking. Study after study has demonstrated the business value of diversity. Earlier this year, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reinforced the link between diversity and a company’s bottom line in their latest study: Delivering through diversity. In fact, they found that companies that were more ethnically diverse were 33% more likely to have above-average profitability. What’s most interesting was that the diversity of different types also mattered (e.g. LGBTQ, age, nationality, etc.) as McKinsey found a statistically significant correlation between a more diverse leadership team and financial outperformance. If corporations want high-performing teams, it is clear that it takes more than talent; it takes game-changing diversity.

When it comes to looking for employment, my advice for African Americans is to seek companies that are articulating the vital importance of a talent management system that includes diversity and inclusion. If you’re already at a company that does this, be sure to engage with colleagues and join extracurricular interest groups. At Pfizer, I’ve been part of the Global Blacks Council and Pfizer African American Leadership Network (PAALN), and I’ve found that these types of organizations can help you adjust to company culture, advance your career, connect with mentors and senior leaders and most importantly, keep diversity and inclusion at your company’s center.

Tell us about Pfizer’s latest initiative. 

Helping people live their healthiest life is what inspires us at Pfizer, and the reality is not everyone has the same level of access to healthcare. As we work to advance wellness, prevention, treatments, and potential cures, we have a responsibility to address areas that need more attention, such as health disparities in the African American community. For this particular challenge, we developed a three-pronged initiative called “Three Virtues” and our mission includes:

  • Create a measurable reduction in health disparities, increased clinical trial participation and improved health outcomes for African Americans
  • Ensure we leverage the expertise and insights of African American colleagues here at Pfizer to help solve this persistent problem and continue the robust pipeline of African American talent at all levels to drive our business results.
  • Develop a strong reputation in the African American community based on our consistent efforts to address health and wellness needs.

This initiative has already achieved some important milestones including: co-publishing the African American Health Engagement Study with the National Medical Association and the National Black Nurses Association and partnering with influential social and civic organizations like the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) through Pfizer’s Multicultural Center of Excellence to jointly pursue relevant public policy initiatives.

We are leveraging our medicines to close gaps in diabetic peripheral neuropathy with Lyrica, in smoking cessation with Chantix, in atopic dermatitis with Eucrisa and applying African American patient perspectives to the clinical development of a product for sickle cell disease. We are committed to increasing African American participation in clinical trials—both as patients and investigators. To do so, we established a partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine and Grady Hospital in Atlanta to determine if this collaboration between academia, an urban-based hospital and industry can generate compelling results.