'My First Time Being the Minority Was Intimidating'

Growing up in a tiny white farming town, Eli Lilly's Steve Fry didn't know much about people who were "different."

Steve Fry has come a long way—professionally and culturally—from the tiny town of Millhousen, Ind., population less than 150, where his parents and three generations before them ran a pig farm.


Today, as Eli Lilly and Company's senior vice president, human resources and diversity, and a member of the executive committee, he is instrumental in helping the company focus on its internal and external diversity goals. Eli Lilly is No. 29 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

His transformation from a member of a homogenous group following in expected footsteps to a worldwide leader in inclusiveness is an example of the value of cultural education. He didn't have one startling epiphany; he had gradual exposure to those who were "different."

Higher Education

Fry was the first in his family to attend college. He chose the University of Indianapolis because it was close enough to home so he could still help at the farm and because he hoped to play basketball. He also had a job working part time as an auto mechanic.

"I expected I would still be a farmer, but I thought if I didn't get an education then, I probably never would," he recalls.

Growing up, almost everyone he knew was white and Christian. When Fry was in seventh grade, he attended a basketball camp, where he was paired with a young Black boy. "I was intimidated at first because I didn't know any African-American kids, but we became friends that week," he says.

When he went to college, he was placed in a dorm where many of the students played sports. The demographics in the dorm were different—of about 37 men in the dorm, around 30 were Black.

"It was my first time being the minority, and it was intimidating. Then I realized we all had the same goals. We wanted to be in school and get an education; we wanted to succeed. We had more in common than we had differences," he says.

His basketball career didn't get too far (although he has enjoyed a pickup game with Lilly's Chief Diversity Officer Shaun Hawkins). His experience as an auto mechanic, however, also changed his view since he experienced for the first time the challenges of keeping very diverse (by class, occupation, personality) customers satisfied.

"It changed my abilities to listen and understand," he says. "I learned that one of the most important things you can do as a leader is know that you don't have all the answers."

Global Perspective

After college, Fry first went to work at another company and then tried Lilly, joining in 1987 as a scientific systems analyst in Lilly Research Laboratories. He planned to work for three years and then go back to the farm. Along the way, he discovered he loved the company and the eye-opening experiences it provided. He started in IT and was tapped for leadership experience, which led him to various HR and operational assignments, including stints in the United Kingdom and Australia, where he was managing director for the Australian affiliate from 2004 to 2007. His last job was vice president of human resources, supporting the bio-medicine and emerging-markets business units.

His global experiences broadened his views considerably, he says, noting he was often the only white person in the room.

"If you are sitting in Indianapolis and have no knowledge of Japan, you won't understand the process and how to be able to connect with customers," he says, citing an example: Five years ago, Lilly would launch new products in the United States and Japan simultaneously. Japan, however, had a more stringent governmental approval process and, because the company didn't use enough Japanese in its clinical trials, launches there were being delayed. "Now we are launching simultaneously because we have people in Japan who get it," he says.

"We are a truly global company. HR helps drive cultural change in a company," he says. He's proud that Lilly's leadership has recognized the value of diversity and has been aggressively improving its diversity-management processes.

"There's a real understanding of why it's important, and our leaders' behavior matches their talk. The place where we need to continue to improve is to literally integrate diversity in our thinking so it's never an afterthought," he says.

When Hawkins started his position earlier this year, Fry, who is his boss, had these words for the new chief diversity officer: "You cannot be accountable for diversity by yourself. When we think about diversity and succession planning, it has to happen naturally and continually."

For more on global diversity best practices and challenges, read Why Is Global Diversity So Difficult?

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