Diversity and inclusion efforts continue to be an important focus in all areas of education, but especially in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math), where women, people of color and other marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, are still woefully underrepresented. That’s why we sat down recently to speak with Joseph Gaspero, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI), about how his organization is working to address these ongoing inequities by providing mentoring, teaching, support and inspiration to up-and-coming STEM talent.
The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
DiversityInc: Hi, it’s so nice to have you here.
Gaspero: Thank you.
DiversityInc: So, can you tell us about CHI and how it came about?
Gaspero: We’re a nonprofit research and education institute focused on addressing health disparities for marginalized groups, including Black and Brown Americans, women and folks in the LGBTQ+ community.
We formed the organization 12 years ago. My co-founder Dr. James Gillespie and I formed it with the idea that we wanted to create a unique leadership institute focusing on making healthcare more equitable and ensuring more equitable outcomes.
When we originally got into this space, we had a broader mission focused on healthcare innovation, but very quickly — within the first year — we’d pivoted within the health equity space with some programs around trying to make the clinical trial ecosystem more inclusive and trying to reduce barriers to open trials for minority participants.
What went into the thought process was that we wanted to create something we could bring others together for very collaborative programs. We could be good-faith, objective, neutral brokers to really lead these conversations and to get all different subsets of healthcare — payers, providers, pharma, policymakers, patients — to come together collectively to find actionable solutions to really address health disparities.
We’ve been around for 12 years. We do events, we do research, we started a mentoring program for young women. We’re currently doing more work in the space of helping organizations be able to better recruit, track and promote minority and Black and Brown professionals as well. We’ve also done some patient education via our healthy work initiative.
“I lost my mother to a brain tumor. When we talk about improving healthcare, it has personal meaning for me. As I’ve navigated the system, I’ve seen how broken parts of it really are.”
DiversityInc: With all that different work going on, what’s a typical day for you — what kinds of things are you involved in on a daily basis?
Gaspero: I’m involved in a lot of our programming and research initiatives. In addition to just running the daily operations of the center as CEO, I’m heavily involved in the actual programming and that takes the shape of research. Right now, we’re in the midst of a four-part virtual education series looking at addressing that same competence in communities of color. I’m pretty hands-on in some of that actual research; I’m very involved in the programs. I work with various internal and external stakeholders to identify pressing health-disparity and health-inequity topics and concerns, and I’m working to operationalize those from concept to fully executed programs or projects.
But my role is unique because I’m pretty hands-on, and that’s part of being a much smaller, more flexible organization. And I really enjoy that work as well. It’s not just about running STEM; I actually enjoy uncovering solutions, researching best practices, et cetera.
DiversityInc: What’s your background? How did you get to where you are now?
Gaspero: I was raised by a single mother. From a very early age, I saw the marginalization of women, and it had a profound impact on my life. My mother has since passed away, and she left me so many gifts but just seeing that firsthand was invaluable.
I actually enlisted in the armed forces at a fairly young age — just out of high school at 17 — and worked with so many different people of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, not only from around the U.S. but even around the world, through some NATO exercises.
So, I think some of these experiences laid the roots for my passion for diversity, equity and inclusion work. I also lost my mother to a brain tumor. So, when we talk about improving healthcare, it has personal meaning for me; as I’ve navigated the system, I’ve seen how broken parts of it really are and I can’t even imagine what others go through.
Those are some of the more personal, profound experiences that I think drive me. And then, as someone interested in equity work, it’s just so alarming and disturbing to see the variance and outcomes based on demographics. It’s sad and shocking that the zip code a person lives in can tell you more about their health than their genetic code. And that’s something that I think we need to continue to change, working together with many organizations to make healthcare more equitable.
“I don’t think in my lifetime the gaps in health disparities are going to be closing. I don’t even know if in my son’s lifetime they will be. But I constantly remind myself that we’re trending in the right direction.”
DiversityInc: There are so many different inequities. And what you said about zip codes is fascinating. That alone is so alarming. Are you ever overwhelmed that there are so many things that need to change in that area? That’s obviously why you have so many areas you can work in — it’s such a big project to be undertaking.
Gaspero: No, I’m not overwhelmed, though it’s obviously a big, incredibly complex issue. And it’s not even limited to healthcare; I think many of the inequities and disparities in healthcare are the result of broader societal inequities. It’s really about having a basic understanding of American history — slavery, the signing of the Constitution… It’s not limited to healthcare. So, you’re right in that the challenges are incredibly complex. Looking at it with some sobriety, I don’t think in my lifetime the gaps in health disparities are going to be closing. I don’t even know if in my son’s lifetime they will be.
That can be discouraging, but I constantly remind myself that we’re trending in the right direction. We have to question the pace at which we’re trending, but there’s no doubt healthcare is more equitable now than it was 15, 20 years ago. So, I don’t get overwhelmed, because I think it’s important to understand that you can’t boil the ocean. I, we, are among tens of thousands — if not more — individuals and organizations all working toward a common goal.
“Looking at the lack of opportunities for women in STEM, and the pay gap, the equity issues impacting women become obvious within a few seconds.”
DiversityInc: We’re at least chipping away at it and making a difference as we can, which is great. One of the initiatives I definitely want to highlight a little bit is The Science Runway. Can you tell us more about that program and the work you’re doing with that?
Gaspero: The Science Runway is a STEM mentoring program for young women. Right now, “young women” for us is defined as high-school age, though we ultimately hope to expand it down into grade-school level. And obviously, we’ll shape the content differently for each group.
But the idea behind The Science Runway is to create a resource to support, inspire, connect and provide mentorship to women. We do that through five distinct buckets. One is group mentoring sessions, for which we’ve recruited a fabulous cohort of about 50 or 60 female healthcare professionals from various parts of the healthcare ecosystem. Many non-clinicians, too — we have health attorneys and all different types of healthcare professionals. They do mentor sessions, to answer questions for the girls, tell them what they do in their role and provide support and inspiration.
We also do one-on-one mentoring sessions, where we match individual girls with mentors. Everything’s virtual right now, of course; we also have The Science Runway website itself as a resource. There we have different mentors’ profiles, and girls can go on and pick a fun little matching quiz where they answer a couple of questions about their interests and things they enjoy, and they’re matched with a mentor.
And I think we’ll be going back to in-person soon, sometime later this year, depending on COVID-19 developments. It’ll be a full day of science, welcoming back and working with about 200 girls, and we’ll have fun. We have 35 mentors for a full-day event featuring panel discussions, keynotes and speed networking. One of the things we try to do through the program is expose these young women to all the different types of careers within healthcare and STEM fields.
So, the misconception we see quite often with these girls is, they think that if you’re interested in actually pursuing a healthcare career, they have to be a physician or a nurse. With Science Runway, we try to expose them to the tens of thousands of different career options available within healthcare.
Another component of our work is that, with one of our colleagues, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center Unit Supervisor Linda Gilmore, we’ve created the first-of-its-kind high-school-level curriculum sex and gender in medicine.
This was originally piloted at Texas Tech, and through our relationship with the school and with Linda, we’ve adapted the models and vignettes to the high-school level. This is the second year we’ll be teaching a course for high school students around sex and gender differences in medicine, and through our partnerships with various high schools around the country, we’ve gotten into actually delivering the curriculum.
“Addressing disparities and broader systemic inequities has to start with organizations’ top leadership. It’s incredibly difficult to develop a strategic, effective plan to reduce health disparities when senior leadership is comprised of all white males.”
DiversityInc: And girls from around the country are participating too?
Gaspero: Yes. Right now, we’re somewhat focused on the Midwest, but we’re also looking to expand to the coast soon. The other important thing is our focus on trying to find more schools. And we’re growing the program with a specific focus on young women from Black and Brown communities as well. The initiative isn’t specifically focused on Black and Brown girls per se but given the very painful reckoning we’ve been doing as a nation in the past 18 months, since COVID-19 and George Floyd, we’ve strategically decided that’s where the focus should be for the time being. Again, the program doesn’t exclude white or Asian girls, they’re just not the focus right now.
DiversityInc: How did this program come about? Did it take a long time to develop?
Gaspero: The Science Runaway was actually founded by a colleague of mine, CHI Chair Akhila Satish — it was her idea. She founded it as an initiative of the Center for Healthcare Innovation, and her motivation and goal were similar to mine. We’re looking at data around women in healthcare, from the lack of opportunities to the pay-gap gender issues that affect mental healthcare. The data is quite disturbing, even in a field like STEM, where you think, this is an ecosystem of folks with lots of graduate degrees and a very technical, highly skilled workforce. But looking at the lack of opportunities for women in STEM, and the pay gap, the equity issues impacting women become pretty obvious within just a few seconds; we have some data we can share with you about why this program is needed. It’s something that hit home for me personally, thinking about my mother and her experiences with healthcare.
DiversityInc: Some of the companies that you work with are on our DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, like AbbVie (No. 15), Sanofi (No. 27) and AstraZeneca (No. 49), which is great. In what you’re doing, how important is that corporate sponsorship — having those kinds of partners to work with?
Gaspero: Their support is incredibly important — coming back to my earlier point, it takes a village, right? But we’re continuing to grow and scale and expand our national scope. And getting organizations to not only fiscally sponsor and support the program, but also provide opportunities for their female healthcare professionals to participate in the programming is crucial, too — especially because one of the things we’re trying to do is simply expose these women to opportunities, talk to them about what the AstraZenecas and AbbVies of the world do, and what bench research and clinical trials look like.
Beyond that mentorship and inspiration, part of it is just content knowledge. You’re trying to help these girls understand, “if I’m interested in STEM or I’m a high-performer or considering that this might be an option for me, there are a lot of different things I can do. I don’t need to limit myself to one or two professions.” That’s the core, not only from fiscal stewardship but also regarding mentors participating in and contributing to the program — that’s vital as well.
DiversityInc: I wouldn’t think it would be a challenge to get women in those fields to want to volunteer and mentor — or is it? I feel like most of them would be very excited to share their stories and participate. Is that the reaction you get as you’re searching for mentors?
Gaspero: I’m not sure that anyone has ever turned us down. I’d have to think about that. Maybe one or two, just due to bandwidth and time constraints. But no, out of all the different initiatives we have, I think this one resonates pretty deeply with women, and with women of color, and the folks we have in our mentor cohort who want to help the next generation.
DiversityInc: It’s great that so many people want to participate. Do you have any favorite stories from The Science Runway or other projects you’re working on that motivate you to keep going?
Gaspero: Yeah. We do surveys for the girls and the administrators after they participate in sessions, and just hearing that positive feedback is very important for us. But it’s not only that feedback. It’s the challenges in health disparities and the inequities that motivate me in the first place. If you’re passionate about equity, then these things anger you. I’m motivated by the fact that African Americans are 66% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than white patients. And there’s BCT [behavioral construct tailoring] rates and child maternity. We draw motivation from our success stories, but also from staying focused on the reality that these are deep, profound, very acute problems that impact millions and millions of people around the country and the globe. That’s very motivating as well.
“We draw motivation from our success stories, but also from staying focused on the reality that these are deep, profound, acute problems that impact millions and millions of people around the country and the globe.”
DiversityInc: What’s coming down the pike for you now? Do you have other initiatives you’re working on for the future or things you’re expanding on, or branching out in new ways?
Gaspero: I think we’re rethinking events in general. When I talk to DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson about this, given the post-COVID-19 world, I don’t think that in-person events are ever going to be the same — people are Zooming in from everywhere, so I can see that ecosystem changing permanently. And, like many organizations that are program-driven, that’s something we’re also trying to figure out. When COVID-19 hit, we were able to quickly spin up a whole series of virtual programs relatively quickly; we were able to adapt quickly and have had great success. So, moving forward, I think that’s something we’ll continue to do.
We’re also going to be getting into that space more than we already have. So much of our organization is focused on clinical outcomes and health disparities, but our focus isn’t solely on those clinical outcomes. We’re also doing more work similar to The Science Runway. For example, right now we’re working to develop a major event this fall, a career fair to help pharmaceutical entities better connect with and recruit Black and Brown talent. We did a program with DiversityInc and Carolyn a few months ago, looking at how we can help organizations and hospital systems do a better job of diversifying their C-suite and board positions. Again, very data-driven. There was an interesting report four or five years ago — and I don’t know if new data has come out since then — but it was a national survey that found that 25% of all nonprofit hospital systems in the U.S. had zero racial or ethnic minorities on their board.
And, so, in the wake of COVID-19, as organizations across the country think about addressing disparities and broader systemic inequities, it has to start with their top leadership. It’s incredibly difficult to develop a strategic, effective, efficient plan to reduce health disparities when senior leadership is comprised of all white males, quite frankly. That’s something we’re thinking about as well. How do we help? How can we become a trusted voice and resource for providing healthcare organizations thought leadership around that, so they can build a better outcome?
DiversityInc: And if people are reading this and want to try to help you and your mission, are there ways they can get involved?
Gaspero: Yes. It can be different ways, depending on the type of stakeholder, organization and individual, but I’d say visit our website and contact us to learn more.
DiversityInc: Great. And thank you again so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Gaspero: Likewise, thank you. Take care.