Building Diversity: Doing What’s Right, Not What’s Easy

Embriette Hyde

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” - Epitectus

2020 was a tumultuous year. A global pandemic stretched us to the seams, both socially and financially — hitting immigrants and communities of color the hardest of all. The biggest wildfires in history left many on the West coast without homes. And racial injustice in America was brought to the forefront in the biggest way since the 1960s.

Riffyn is headquartered in Oakland, California, a city that is 29% white. For us, diversity is the fabric of our community. But the tragedies of the social injustice of 2020 kicked us into a higher gear to do much much more than just a statement about commitment.

“It started with the introspection that followed George Floyd’s death,” says Riffyn CEO Tim Gardner. “The typical response is to react with horror and then very quickly get back to business as usual. But we’d seen the Floyd story play out over and over with Trevon Martin, with Philando Castillo, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and on and on and on. We didn’t want to repeat the pattern. We set a different goal for Riffyn. We didn’t care what we did, but our goal was to be still talking about this and doing something about this in a year, in June 2021.”

That goal is something that Gardner has taken personally. Working closely with Associate Director of People & Facilities Midnight Wilkinson and Director of Marketing Stephanie Yeung, the trio meets weekly to advance five initiatives that will ensure Riffyn supports and celebrates diversity not only a year from now, but for many years to come. We highlight some of them here.

Promoting diversity in science

Diversity brews innovation. Studies have shown that underrepresented groups produce higher rates of scientific novelty. Yet, their contributions are often overlooked. Gardner wanted to tie Riffyn’s efforts to support diversity and racial justice directly into the company’s mission to make science better. Thus was born the Distinguished Scientist Lecture Series.

“The Distinguished Lecture Series highlights scientists from all over the world who have diverse backgrounds, social roots, and cultural perspectives and who are truly the greatest in their field,” says Gardner. Riffyn has partnered with Merck to host this series, which for now will take place in a virtual format. It is free and open to anyone who wants to attend.

The first lecture, “What can the history of antimicrobial resistance tell us about future pandemics?” is on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at 7:30 pm Eastern, featuring Dr. Muhammad Zaman. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering and International Health at Boston University, and author of Biography of Resistance, an exceptional book about the history of antibiotics and bacterial infection.

Zaman headshot

HHMI Professor Dr. Muhammad Zaman in his laboratory. Dr. Zaman will present on “What can the history of Antimicrobial Resistance tell us about future pandemics?” at Riffyn’s first Distinguished Scientists Lecture.

Partnering with Community and Historically Black Colleges

Riffyn is also inviting the students and staff of Laney College as special guests to the lecture series, says Wilkinson. Laney is a two-year community college in Oakland, with which Riffyn has partnered to support and mentor students in the biomanufacturing program. Students who attend the lectures will have the opportunity to pair-up with volunteer mentors from both Riffyn and Merck.

“We provide not just our scientific software to Laney for free, we also support them via training and mentorship led by Riffyn’s deeply experienced scientists who volunteer their time.”

Wilkinson says that once their partnership with Laney is rolled out, they plan to expand to other community colleges in the initiative. The ultimate goal is to move from the national community college level and into Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), which Wilkinson says have traditionally not had clout as far as science and technology goes.

Building allyship skills

Change begins with leaders taking responsibility and ownership for their attitudes and behaviors.

“To avoid the status quo, it is essential that leaders become aware of how their own behaviors have perpetuated discrimination and use their own power to effect change,” says Yeung.

Gardner, Wilkinson, and Yeung are developing an internal training series for all Riffyn employees from top down.

“Instead of the traditional anti-harassment training style, we will focus on understanding the roots and foundations of injustice in our country, so that we can be aware of susceptibility to it and the role it plays in our society,” says Gardner. “We also want to help our employees learn how to talk about race in a constructive way that frees people both from insult and also from the awkward guilt that prevents them from engaging.”

Wilkinson sees these efforts as small steps that can scale as the company grows.

“It is a hard thing to grasp, if you're trying to solve it, globally, but I think our focus on working in our local community is the way to go because it shows that every little small thing you can do is worthwhile,” she says. “You don't need to worry about solving racism across the board, because we're never going to do that — but we can do small steps, especially locally, to move ourselves in the right direction.”

A holiday is more than just another day to shop

It quickly became clear that an immediate course of action would be to officially recognize Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. Day and Juneteenth as company holidays, something that was — to be honest — long overdue.

Gardner, Wilkinson, and Yeung wanted to make sure that Riffyn employees didn’t treat these holidays as “just another shopping day” or “another excuse to eat a hotdog.” Congress designated the birthday of Dr. King as a national day of service in 1994. MLK Day and Juneteenth are now on Riffyn’s calendar of recognized holidays — but they will be observed in ways that give back to the community.

“We decided that, each year, we would mark one as an official holiday, and encourage people to do service in their local community,” says Wilkinson. “For the other one, we will organize a group effort and physically participate in community services together.”

Because of the pandemic, we aim to make Juneteenth our official company community service day in 2021 with in-person activities such as volunteering at a Community Food Bank or visiting Oakland schools to explore STEM topics and careers with students. We are always amazed by how much you can influence a person’s perspective of their future by simply having a conversation about your own path, and we hope to equip students with the tools they need to enter the workforce and support Oakland’s economy.

“You can't be in Oakland and not realize how much diversity matters,” remarks Wilkinson. “We want to be a part of the community and give back, not just enjoy what Oakland has to offer.”

If our action has inspired you to make these holidays a day of service, you can search for an event to serve in your community here.