During the interview of John Fowler (cofounder and CEO of Kezar Life Sciences) for an upcoming feature in Life Science Leader, we were discussing the approach taken in building the company’s culture. Fowler was commenting on what a gift it is to be able to do such meaningful work, and how the company has been very intentional in highlighting what they are doing, specifically in indications that typically have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic communities. That’s when he stated, “I’m proud of how the team responded at the murder of George Floyd, as we had some pretty vivid internal company discussion about it.” The spark igniting the conversation was an email sent by the CEO to the entire company, sharing only with his wife and father before clicking “send.” I asked if Fowler would share it with me, which he did. Having read, I asked if he’d be open to allowing us to publish, as it seemed a best practice example of how leaders should authentically communicate with their teams during times of crisis beyond the walls of their own organization. We hope you learn something from this latest Beyond The Printed Page installment, and encourage you to subscribe so as to not miss out on learning more about Fowler and Kezar Life Sciences in an upcoming issue.
Subject: A Letter to Kezar Employees
Sent: Wednesday, June 3, 2020 8:59 PM
Dear Kezar Team,
I write to you today to talk about the pain and turmoil our country is experiencing right now. I’m sure many, if not all of us, are pretty shaken up. And angry. And reflective. I want to acknowledge and hear about your emotions, and also share how I personally have been shaken to the core over the past week as I’ve absorbed the killing of George Floyd and the spasms of grief and rage sweeping our cities.
If you’ll permit me, I’d like to share my feelings with you about these events, and offer my thoughts about how this endeavor that binds us together - Kezar Life Sciences - fits into the far-from-perfect world we live in.
In a nutshell, I am angry, and deeply sad, and worried about the future – particularly if we as Americans don’t change anything about how we think or act in the wake of this long-simmering national trauma that is just now boiling over. In our country, and in our companies, we need to be able to have honest conversations about race and justice, reflect upon what roles we are called upon to play, and turn intent into actions.
A former classmate recently shared a quote that resonated with me, and I wanted to share it with you all. It was written in 2014 by Scott Woods, a black American poet and writer from Ohio born in 1971. Apologies if some of you have seen this on social media already, if so, please indulge me and read it again. I agree with Scott’s message, and believe that while condemning overt racism is important it is not enough; we need to be mindful of how our own conceptions and society’s institutions are all part of the equation.
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So, while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
I acknowledge the myriad advantages I was born into, advantages that could be easy to take for granted. Like Scott Woods, I’m an American male born in 1971. But critically I’m also a white American male, fortunate to have been raised in prosperous Silicon Valley, with financial security, safe neighborhoods and amazing public schools. In the Silicon Valley of the 1970s and 80s, if race ever came up it was when we were taught about that inspiring but abstract (and tidily closed) chapter of history called the civil rights movement. The key takeaway was that the eventually the government did the right thing and we were now in a ‘post-racial’ America where black people, and citizens of all races, finally enjoyed equal opportunity and equal treatment. Typing this I am stunned and saddened by how hollow those sentiments sound, in the America of 2020.
Of course, being indignant alone does not effect change...action is required. If you share some of these feelings, I encourage you to take action and get involved with those organizations that you believe can make a difference. For my part, I am a huge believer that democracy is a participation sport. If we want local, state, or federal policies to change, it all starts at the ballot box. I intend to support candidates as well as voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in California and beyond, and would be happy to share these (or related) organizations’ contact information with anyone who feels inclined to volunteer time or donate money in similar ways.
We have the opportunity to take action within the context of Kezar as well. Chris [Kirk, cofounder, president, CSO ] and I are very proud of our culture and I believe that cultural foundation and team-oriented ethos will be the secret to our success over the long run. I also believe that racial and gender diversity is a key component of that cultural foundation and our long-term success. Having diversity in the workplace is good for the company, good for society, and no doubt will lead to better outcomes at Kezar. While I suspect you all agree with that sentiment, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and encourage you to reach out to me or anyone on the management team to share your feelings and/or ideas on how we could do better than we are now. I’d also encourage you to share ideas of ways we can work as team to help people and communities during this national crisis. The challenge with these things can be simply choosing where to start, but let’s not get paralyzed by the scale and complexity of this crisis – let’s pick a few ways we can help and make it happen. At our team meetings over the next few weeks, I propose we collect feedback and ideas and talk about how we as company can take action.
I can’t express how much I wish we could be together this week in the Grateful Dead room talking through all of this in person and supporting each other. This time is asking a lot of all of us – not only is our country suffering, but we’re forced to navigate the anxiety and inconveniences of the pandemic. Against this backdrop of trauma and dislocation, please accept my deepest gratitude and admiration for your hard work and dedication to our mission.
This week I’ve reflected on Kezar’s mission and how our work fits into the broader context. As many of you know, black women suffer disproportionately from autoimmune diseases like Lupus and Lupus Nephritis, and inequities in our healthcare system mean that black people are less likely to have access to quality care. Based on what we know so far, I believe KZR-616 has the potential to make a massive positive impact in America’s black community, and I feel a deep sense of mission to get this drug approved. I believe in my bones that our molecule and our team can make that impact. We are fortunate to be engaged in such a noble and meaningful endeavor.
As I stated earlier, there is a lot on all our plates, and this is a scary and emotional time. Please reach out to me anytime as I’d love to hear from you and how you’re feeling. Even more importantly, please reach out and support each other – not only on work issues but on a personal level as well. There’s no question that the one-two punch of COVID-19 and our country’s injustice and anguish weighs on all of us; please know that if you need to take some time off to decompress, reflect, recharge, or whatever – please do so. It can be too easy when working from home just to keep on working – especially as we’re doing such worthy work. Just take the time, and make sure to take care of yourselves – secure in the knowledge that your Kezar teammates will have your back.
I consider myself immeasurably lucky to work with such compassionate and talented colleagues, pursuing this important goal of helping patients in dire need. I have every faith that we’ll succeed in our mission and that our drugs and most importantly our people will be tangible forces for good in this troubled world.
With gratitude and resolve,