Meredith Harper, VP CISO, Eli Lilly and Company: It’s Time to Talk Honestly About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Racial injustice has come to the forefront of the national discussion in 2020, prompted, in part, by the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter demonstrations in other cities and communities.

One of the positive outgrowths from this is the heightened focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs within the workplace. While many enterprises have had DEI programs in place for some time, many CIOs, CISOs and technology executives in the HMG community have shared through multiple forums that greater progress needs to be made in delivering tangible results – not only in terms of making executive teams more diverse but also making DEI more prevalent across all layers of the organization.

One of the most underrepresented demographics in technology leadership are female executives. While women make up 47 percent of all employed adults across the U.S., they hold just 25 percent of all computing roles, according to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Asian women represent just 5 percent of that number, while Black and Hispanic women account for only 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

HMG Strategy recently spoke with Meredith Harper, Vice President and CISO at Eli Lilly and Company about what needs to change to move DEI programs forward. Harper, a frequent speaker at HMG Strategy CIO and CISO Summits, also shares the compelling challenges she has experienced as a Black female technology leader throughout her career and how she has used these as opportunities to educate and advance the discussion.

HMG Strategy: From your viewpoint, what needs to be done across organizations to improve the effectiveness of existing Diversity and Inclusion programs?

Meredith Harper: I am a huge fan of Dr. Phil. And Dr. Phil says, ‘You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.’ One thing we have not acknowledged as organizations is that there is a problem with how we address diverse employees in the workforce and how we engage with them and what their experiences are like. When was the last time someone asked a minority ‘What is your experience like working for this company? What have your experiences been engaging with other members of the company? How has race, diversity and inclusion come into play?’

First, there’s an acknowledgement that has to occur that’s different from what has occurred before. For some organizations, talking about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is more of a checkbox exercise and we’re at a moment in our society that we have to get away from checkbox exercises.

We have to start having the very tough conversations that are going to be very uncomfortable. If you look at the way that Corporate America is structured, we’ve never really tackled this. We’ve never talked honestly about it. And not only have we not talked honestly about it as a country, we’ve never talked honestly about it as companies. We’re just a microcosm of what’s going on across the country.

For organizations that care about its people, we have to begin engaging differently about this. If we put ourselves in a position to ask the questions that need to be asked – and not because I want you to agree with my lived experience, because unless you’ve lived it, it’s really hard for someone else to embrace it – but asking people to have the respect to acknowledge that the incident or that the perspective happened and that we need to do something about it. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it, but you do have to respect it.

Having different conversations as organizations is one thing. But the flip side of that is that once you have the conversations, our focus has to be on real solutioning. Not solutioning that addresses mentoring programs for women and minorities – we don’t need any more mentoring programs. What we need is access to roles, responsibilities, projects and activities that are going to give us space in the room and give us the ability to drive our careers forward. Until we do that, and until organizations provide minorities the access to these opportunities, we’re going to be in the same boat that we’ve been in for the past 27 years that I’ve been in this profession and that likely preceded me.

How are you being asked to lead differently at Eli Lilly?

MH: At Lilly, it’s about the total person we are leading, managing, coaching and developing. These people are not just here to deliver for us. Our goal is to make sure we’re developing them for their total selves. So, we are being asked to take a closer look at our people strategies and how are we going to close some of these gaps in a more meaningful way.

If you’re a leader at Lilly and you’re uncomfortable talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, you’re going to be challenged as we continue to move forward as an organization because our CEO is expecting us to break down those barriers, open up those tough conversations, and open up opportunities for those who are under-represented. In some cases, this means sitting through some uncomfortable situations to be able to advance the organization as a whole.

Sometimes as leaders, we’re simply looking at the delivery from the person – are they giving us what we’re paying them for, are they producing at the rate that we expect them to be? And that’s great, but that’s not all of it.

So, we’re being asked to look more broadly beyond the delivery. How are we taking into account the experiences of our team members outside of Lilly and how does that impact the way that they show up with us every day? Seeing that your colleagues are carrying the weight of some of the racial challenges and social inequalities that are present today and they are carrying that into work every day. How is that impacting them? We now have to look at that as leaders.

In addition to that, how do we as leaders show up in more tangible ways – even outside of Lilly? Lilly is a wonderful corporate citizen here in Indianapolis, but how are we now penetrating the community around us? How are we volunteering and supporting some of those efforts? How are we pitching in to the 25,000-hour pledge our CEO has made for us to contribute to efforts around racial and social injustice?

So, being out in front of “the movement” is what we’re being asked to do. And when it comes to our own individual teams, we’re being asked to dig deeper as leaders with our team members to really figure out what makes them tick, to figure out what their experiences have been and then eradicate those experiences that don’t express the core values of Lilly. That’s going to be our job moving forward.

How is this leading you to think differently?

MH: I think I’m being more open in my discussions with people. In my 27 years in the industry, we haven’t had these types of discussions about race and social inequality. Now, I have to condition myself to open the discussion up, to make myself and others comfortable with having the discussion and that takes work because it’s not something that we’ve chosen to embrace in the past as leaders.

And it’s not just about people of color such as Blacks or Latinos. It’s about all people. So, if my white colleagues want to have a discussion about understanding this aspect of my culture or this aspect of a particular demographic and they want to  talk about it, I have to make the space for that to happen and to give them an open platform.

We have to push the message that this is a safe environment. And, because this is new for us, people are going to be uncomfortable and they may not use all the right words, but I have to make this a safe space for them when they engage with me. So, that’s caused me to lead a little bit differently.

What are the lessons that you’ve learned as a Black woman who has come up through the ranks in technology?

MH: It’s been a journey, to say the least. When I started in the technology industry 27 years ago, I was the second African American my first employer had ever hired – it blew me away! I never saw any women who looked like me. There were probably 4 or 5 women who worked in IT at the time. The entire organization was primarily white males, and my initial experience was ‘Oh My God! How am I going to traverse this environment with 500 people who don’t look like me, whose experiences haven’t been my experiences?’

What I can say is that it has been a consistent struggle since then, to have the right level of mentoring, to have the right doors open up. Fortunately, I have had great sponsors who have decided to take an interest in me over the years. But there have been instances where I have walked into the room and some people assumed that I was going to be the note-taker, not the one leading the discussion. So, there has been a presumption that I don’t belong in these spaces.

You get those experiences over and over when you’re a woman and when you’re a minority in this space. And it doesn’t go away. I’m a vice president at a global company, leading a global cybersecurity team, and I still experience that indifference.

One of the stories that I’ve always shared is my ‘coffee’ story’. Ten years ago, I was the keynote speaker for a privacy and security conference in the Chicago area. There were about 40 people who attended in a roundtable setting. All of the PR that was distributed around the event didn’t show a picture of me, just my name, title and company. My name isn’t very indicative that I’m African American at all.

So, I walk into the room and there’s one other woman in the room – she was Caucasian. And as I walk in, a gentleman turns around and says to me, ‘Oh, you’re here. Could you get me some coffee?’ And I said, ‘Excuse me? You’d like what?’ And he goes on to tell me what he would like in his coffee.

So, I went and got him some coffee since I was going to get myself a cup of tea. I handed it to him and then proceeded to put my stuff down. One of the conference organizers went to the stage to introduce me and said, ‘I’d like to introduce our guest speaker, Meredith Phillips – my last name at the time – who will share with us her experiences as the Chief Privacy Officer at Henry Ford Health System.’ As I proceeded to stand up, I looked at the gentleman I brought the coffee to and the look on his face was priceless.

I made it through the presentation and afterwards he came up to me very apologetically and he said, ‘I don’t understand – why did you get me the coffee?’ And I said, ’My parents taught me well. You’d asked me to get you some coffee and I was going to get some tea, so I brought it back for you. But I do have a question for you – why is it that you asked me to get you the coffee?’

And that sparked an entire dialogue that he and I continue to have to this day about the perceptions of Black people in these spaces and the perceptions of women in these spaces and I couldn’t possibly be there for a conference because we typically don’t see Black people at these events. We typically don’t see women in this space. So, she must be here to service the meeting, not to participate in the meeting.

It never occurred to him to look at how I was dressed. It never occurred to him that I wasn’t dressed like a hotel concierge or a member of the staff. He never thought about my business attire and it never clicked with him that I might be one of his business colleagues. It never dawned on him.

I’ve had those experiences in different flavors over and over again throughout my career. It’s not common for people to see folks who look like me. And even to this day, you may see more women at security conferences. But it’s few and far between where you see someone who looks like me and meets both of those demographics. We’re still searching for those folks, even in 2020, which is very interesting.

While some of these experiences were hurtful at times, challenging at times and made me frustrated, I had to continue to push myself to be on the front stage. And I’ve had to continuously prove that I belong here. But if I don’t do it, it’s going to be 2040 and someone is still going to be saying, ‘I’m the third African-American that’s been hired by this company’ and that’s just totally unacceptable for me.

I need to continue to break down barriers for those who are coming behind me – for that young girl in a STEM program who wants to become a CISO. I have to defend my right to be a leader in this industry. I can’t blow up when these things happen, but I have to treat each experience as an educational opportunity. I have to remain on the stage…I have to continue pushing toward the edge to ensure that we deliver an industry to the next generation that is steeped in diversity, equity and inclusion.