National African American/Black History Month recognizes the accomplishments of African Americans who have made a difference in our society. Many notable African American physicians, engineers, scientists, and nurses have contributed to medical and scientific breakthroughs and continue to serve as role models for students of color interested in pursuing careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
As we celebrate past accomplishments, we also look inward at one of our colleagues from the LabCorp enterprise to learn about the achievements of today. We recently interviewed Annie Harris, Director of Technology Enablement at Covance, LabCorp’s drug development business, to learn about her career journey and her plans for empowering women of color in the pharmaceutical industry as well as women across the LabCorp enterprise.
Growing up in Georgia, Annie Harris describes herself as someone who is “not a wallflower.”
“I’ve got that Southern quirkiness where people say, ‘You’d talk to a tree if it would talk back to you!’” she laughs.
Not being a wallflower has paid off for Annie, who has found that her self-motivation and outgoing personality has helped her build community and form new connections as she has worked to achieve both her personal and professional goals while helping other people enhance their careers along the way.
Finding a comfortable place for career conversations
Starting at Covance in 1993 – before the organization was even officially called Covance or part of the LabCorp enterprise – Annie saw that she was one of a few dozen people of color in the company – and often one of the only women when she attended meetings in her information technology (IT) group.
“That was just the reality of corporate America in 1993,” she explained. “We just had a small number of black people, and we kind of stuck out like a sore thumb, so we ended up bonding.”
Annie’s early career community building started with informal get-togethers where women met in each other’s homes, dubbing their group of professionals the “Pharma Divas.”
“If someone wanted to go for a promotion or was having an issue with their team, we’d have discussions and help plan together while enjoying some wine and cheese,” said Annie. “We’d share ideas on how to handle different situations. It was great to be with people you felt comfortable with.”
Forming Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP)
Fast forward to 2015 when Annie, who was then Director, Clinical Trial Management Systems for our drug development business, received a call from Patricia Cornet, who was then the Associate Director, Diversity & Patient Engagement, at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) and is now the Group Director and Lead Community Partnerships.
“Patricia called me and said, ‘remember Pharma Divas?’ Let’s form an organization where we can be comfortable and really help promote each other with our personal goals and career aspirations. Are you in?” she said.
Patricia was partnering on the initiative with Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, who was at BMS as the Medical Director, Cardiovascular Medical Research Lead in Medical Affairs, and is currently Vice President of Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies. Together, the women strategized their next steps, transforming the ideas that started as “Pharma Divas” to create Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP) in 2015.
Growing a network to become an organization
“As WOCIP, we started doing Cupcake & Champagne events,” Annie explained. These informal get-togethers are a place to brainstorm and discuss career movement and personal development. Whether you are a director or an admin, we don’t care – we are role-agnostic.”
As word-of-mouth networking grew the organization, the organizers spent more time putting their mission and vision together. In November 2017, the group became a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization and formally launched their first conference, themed “Get Inspired! Be Empowered!”
The group had approximately 100 women in attendance at the first conference in a space that was donated by Novo Nordisk and then over 200 at the next year’s conference, where they had to move to the Westin in order to accommodate everyone.
In 2019, WOCIP convened at the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City with over 300 women representing 65 companies. WOCIP was even featured in Forbes magazine.
“We are pinching ourselves at how successful it’s been,” Annie said.
Bringing the inspiration back to our enterprise
Being surrounding by other inspirational women gave Annie a passion to mentor and help other people. She learned that many of the participants in WOCIP also had women’s empowerment groups in their own pharma companies. Covance had been a sponsor of WOCIP from the very first year, but at the time did not have an employee resource group (ERG) dedicated to empowering women across all levels.
“Covance had a Women in Leadership group but I wanted something for any woman, like a CRA [clinical research associate] or an admin,” she said. “I met with four other women and we decided to go out on a limb and start a new ERG.”
They put together the mission and vision and submitted it to Human Resources.
“I have to say in my own humble way – HR was blown away,” she laughed.
With the flagship ERG for the Women’s Empowerment Network (WEN) established in 2019, the demand was resounding and, since then, 13 additional chapters have formed across the LabCorp enterprise.
Looking ahead and owning her career
WOCIP’s next theme is “The Power of You,” which resonates strongly with Annie, who is finishing the last half of an MBA program in addition to taking international trips to women’s empowerment retreats and performing community service work with a business women’s sorority.
“Being a part of these groups energized me to be more of my natural self and pushed me to go for more – and it is contagious,” admitted Annie. “I also like helping people come out of their shell and focus on their own development, but you can’t expect things just to happen. Sometimes I’m so lucky with who I meet through WOCIP and WEN and it’s just kismet, but you also have to control your destiny, your career and your own development.”
She added: “Remember that we are natural project planners as women and we need to continue to self-promote and value ourselves. Even though everyone has their own ‘bag of rocks’ of self-doubt, I think you can be proud of who you are and powerful at the same time.”