5 Minutes with Smita Pillai

 Regeneron’s DEI Maestro

by Tamara E. Holmes

Smita Pillai is a globally acclaimed and multiple award-winning leader in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, with an accomplished career spanning life sciences, technology, financial services, and media. She is the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for Regeneron, one of the world’s most innovative biotechnology companies. In her role, Pillai is responsible for the company’s comprehensive DEI strategy and implementation and its global culture efforts, ensuring that equity is at the heart of its mission “science to medicine,” a phrase that Regeneron uses as the title of its annual forum.

Prior to joining Regeneron, Pillai held global head and CDO roles for a variety of multinational Fortune 50 and fast-growing companies like Zendesk, Dow Jones (including the Wall Street Journal), Prudential Financial, and Johnson & Johnson.

Diversity Woman: What insights about leadership have you gained in your career?

Smita Pillai: I have learned through my experience that leadership is all about doing the work—it’s not about staying on a pedestal or stand; it’s about being alongside people. In the highly global, interconnected, and multigenerational world that we live in, no one can claim to be an expert. In particular, no leader must claim to be the best. We must have the humility to admit that number one criterion of good leadership. Add a good dose of empathy and cultural dexterity, and this is the modern definition of leadership.

DW: Tell us about your career journey and any barriers you had to overcome.

SP: Growing up in a small town within a conservative Hindu family in India, I never imagined that I would have a global career spanning five countries and multiple sectors representing some of the top Fortune 50 companies of the world. The barriers for me started early in life, with stereotypical views of what girls can do and cannot do, and carried into my professional career where, in male-dominated industries, women were merely looked at as support staff and not necessarily capable of shaping, leading, or driving strategy for organizations. It takes tenacity and grace to push through these barriers and, as a woman of color, to show up as a role model for the next generation.

DW: What role does culture play in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

SP: Culture and DEI are so interlinked that one cannot thrive without the other. Culture is not what’s inscribed on the walls—it is what you experience. Period.

Our workplace culture is the experience we consciously or subconsciously create, the values we hold, the behaviors we model, encourage, and elevate. A truly inclusive culture becomes the foundation for an effective global diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, intimately affecting people’s day-to-day experiences at our company and with their teammates and supervisors.

DW: What are some trends in DEI you see coming over the horizon, and how will you and Regeneron address them?

SP: I see DEI already evolving into a business-critical function, where the top business leaders have no choice but to pay attention to how their workforce is evolving. It can no longer be about presenting a business case, because at this point if you’re leading a business, you are expected to know the business case for diversity. It also cannot be just a moral case because diversity is not charity. I see DEI as a business and human imperative for all of us. Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice. Business leaders can either make a choice to be equitable and inclusive or set themselves up for failure in the long run.

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