Diversity Management: Novartis Diversity Leader Understands Value of Giving Back

As the first person in her family to finish college—as well as law school—Rhonda Crichlow has a strong desire to give back to others who need opportunities.

Rhonda Nesmith Crichlow As the first person in her family to finish college—as well as law school—Rhonda Crichlow has a strong desire to give back to others who need opportunities. That led her to helping Black farmers get fair settlements in the racial-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to her new role as chief diversity officer at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (No. 13 in the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50) is a company that both globally and in the United States has made a major effort to end discrimination in drug trials and increase availability and utilization of its life-saving products to emerging markets. Internally, the company has developed programs in diversity management to give women more opportunities for P&L jobs.

The current challenge for Crichlow, who started in November, is to increase the visibility and results of the company’s diversity-management efforts as Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, US General Medicines, undergoes a major restructuring.

“I want to move the needle at a time when there’s some discomfort,” she says. “As a result of the realignment, we’re going to be losing some associates, and I need to keep the focus on diversity and inclusion.”

A Window of Opportunity

For Crichlow, who joined the company in 2006 as executive director of philanthropy and community development, taking over the top diversity slot is both a personal and an organizational fit.

“It’s an opportunity to be involved in something that helps me understand the business and drives goals and objectives throughout the organization,” she says.

This career path wasn’t always that apparent to her. When her predecessor, Marilyn Priestley, announced plans to retire last year, Crichlow didn’t think of applying. “Diversity wasn’t something on my radar screen,” she says. “I was more linear in my thinking of what I knew and was thinking more about legal opportunities.”

But when approached by senior leadership, she saw the potential. Both Priestley and her predecessor, Michelle Gadsden-Williams, had a significant impact on the organization, and President André Wyss is a major diversity proponent. Crichlow’s background—as a lawyer who is able to reach consensus across broad constituencies and as a corporate leader who handled grant-making and community renewal—gives her the platform to take diversity management to the next level.

Her Unique Qualifications

Crichlow has a deep understanding of what motivates people to succeed, what legal barriers exist and how to effect organizational change.

She grew up in the Washington, D.C., area where her parents, who had moved up from the South, struggled to make ends meet. Neither of her parents finished high school; her dad was in the military and then worked at the Veteran’s Administration while her mother was a homemaker.

Crichlow was an excellent student. Her mother pushed her to get an education. She attended The George Washington University, double majoring in psychology and sociology, but she later became interested in policy and societal improvements. She attended Duke University and received a graduate degree in public policy. Pursuing law school seemed a natural next step, and she attended the University of Virginia Law School.

She started her career as a tax lawyer, enjoying the intellectual rigor and the policy component. But she longed “to have a career that would allow me to come to work and leave each day recognizing I had made a contribution to helping others.”

She became a legal consultant for the Office of the Monitor, which was overseeing the consent decree in the nationwide class action brought by Black farmers alleging racial discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm credit program. “It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The petitions you would review were heart-wrenching. So many of these folks just lost their entire livelihood,” she recalls.

She also did a lot of volunteer work, including grant making, and realized she was drawn to philanthropy. A mentor led her to Novartis, where she is using her experience, skills and passion for change to make a significant difference.

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