Blog | October 25, 2016

How The Biopharmaceutical Industry Provides A Sparkle Of Hope

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

How The Biopharmaceutical Industry Provides A Sparkle Of Hope

Author Steven Covey’s famous phrase, “To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy” is what popped into my head while attending the Community of Hope’s Annual Dinner Auction as the invited guest of pharmaceutical industry icon, Fred Hassan. Twenty years ago Hassan founded this annual charity event that brings together two communities (i.e., social services and the biopharmaceutical industry) to do good in their own backyard (i.e., New Jersey and Pennsylvania). In his evening remarks to this year’s nearly 1,000 attendees, he explained that he created the event as a way of “supercharging” the Community of Hope’s fundraising efforts to help area homeless (including veterans). Still, I couldn’t help but see a connection to Covey’s words. For in 1997 (when he started this event), as the CEO of Pharmacia & Upjohn (his first CEO position), Hassan would have been 51 years old, a time when many people start pondering their legacy. No matter what his motives were for establishing this event, though, one fact remains — the Sparkle of Hope gala has helped raise more than $11 million for charity. Of course, even with such a positive outcome, Hassan knows that leaders can’t always please all of the people all of the time.

Leaders Often Push You Outside Your Comfort Zone

Over the years, Hassan had to make many tough decisions, some that caused people to lose their jobs — including me.  When Merck and Schering-Plough merged in 2010, Hassan was CEO of Schering, and my career became a casualty of the deal’s conclusion. Though I admit, having never been laid off before, I was initially devastated, but it ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened, because it pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone, and for that I am not bitter, but grateful.

Today’s pharma industry critics are more than happy to highlight drug-price increases surrounding products like Mylan’s EpiPen. What they don’t mention is the number of lives the industry’s products have saved or the charity work being done by these companies. For example, most people probably don’t know that Merck, through its 59-year-old foundation, has contributed more than $844 million to support initiatives that address important societal needs. I bring this up because during the Sparkle of Hope gala, Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, was recognized as the event’s charitable honoree for the company’s support of military veterans through its Veterans Justice Initiative (established in 2011) which provides legal aid to the homeless veterans Community of Hope serves. In his acceptance, Frazier was clear to point out how he was accepting the recognition on behalf of all Merck employees. It’s not likely that this, or many other charitable initiatives spearheaded by biopharmaceutical executives, will be the subject of newspaper front pages. But Hassan, Frazier, and others don’t take on such charitable initiatives for the publicity of leaving a legacy. They do it because it is the right thing to do.

Pharma’s Efforts To Help Veterans Leaves A Lasting Impact

One of the primary beneficiaries of the Community of Hope’s efforts is New Jersey and Pennsylvania military veterans. Unfortunately, some return from service with unseen scars (e.g., mental health issues, combat-induced trauma) that can result in addiction, homelessness, and poverty. One such individual shared his story during the evening’s festivities, describing how alcoholism had robbed him of everything. But thanks to the Community of Hope, he has begun to rebuild his life and today remains clean and sober for over three years. The audience (most hailing from the biopharmaceutical industry, some having also served in the military), rose to their feet in supportive applause. His story was a powerful example of how we can all make a difference in the lives of others. But one of the most poignant moments from my experience of attending this year’s gala occurred while returning home.

Walking through the terminal of the Buffalo airport (my attendance of the gala required a plane flight) on my way to baggage claim, I observed a bunch of flashing lights out on the tarmac and noted fire fighters standing at attention. As I and others stopped to gaze out the window, we soon realized that a member of the military, having paid the ultimate sacrifice, was returning home. So, I took a few pictures. As military personnel prepared to lift the flag-covered casket from the conveyor belt descending from the belly of a Southwest Airlines jet, men removed their hats as silence came over the impromptu airport gathering, and I wept for the one who had been lost. When RSVP’ing to Hassan’s invite, I couldn’t have anticipated having such a moving experience as part of my travels. Upon reaching my car, I took a moment to share the image on LinkedIn, which has since received thousands of views and positive comments —something else I hadn’t anticipated.

As I drove home my thoughts turned back to Covey’s phrase.  I’m guessing when Hassan first launched the Sparkle of Hope Gala he never could have anticipated the effect it had on soldiers like the one who spoke at the event.

But if you do the right things while you live, love and learn, you will most likely leave a legacy that makes a difference in the lives of others.