Chief Equity Officer René Salazar speaks about his two decades of experience in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space; Broad’s DEI priorities; and the powers of mentorship.
René Salazar joined the Broad Institute’s Executive Leadership Team as the first chief equity officer in September of 2021. Previously, Salazar was the assistant dean for diversity and professor of medical education and internal medicine at University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, where he established the Dell Med Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We spoke to him about his career, his advice to early-career scientists from marginalized communities, and his top priorities for his new role at the Broad.
What are your top priorities within the next six months at Broad?
Having started just a few weeks ago, I have some ideas, but I want to continue listening to and learning from Broadies. First, I want to make sure that we have a shared vocabulary when it comes to topics of inclusion, diversity, equity, and allyship. For example, it is important that we collectively understand what it means to be anti-racist and what it means to be an ally. It’s also important to listen and pay attention to what individuals need.
As a member of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT), I want to make sure that our leadership is aware of how racism, bias, and systemic oppression impact our internal climate, science, and access to scientific careers. I look forward to engaging the ELT in meaningful conversations as we work to develop the skills to make the Broad a more inclusive and diverse community. An initial step will include self-reflection. Inclusive leadership begins with understanding one’s identity, recognizing opportunities for growth, and using elements of your identity to create change. For example, I am a gay Mexican-American and a first-generation college student who identifies as a cis-gender man and has white skin. Although I identify with some groups which are underrepresented in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine), I still possess quite a bit of power and privilege, which I can leverage to create a more inclusive space.
I will also prioritize supporting our internal talent by creating coaching, mentorship, and sponsorship programs for Broadies from underrepresented groups to further develop their skills and reach their maximum potential. Lastly, it’s important that we collect and share benchmark data and assess our internal climate which will help inform additional priorities for my first year. The data analytics team has been working hard behind the scenes to capture this information.
How did you go about finding mentorship opportunities?
When I joined the faculty at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), I was assigned a mentor as part of a faculty mentorship program. Unfortunately, I didn’t truly appreciate the importance of mentorship until this point. Getting mentored earlier would have been helpful as an undergraduate and medical student. Then, later, as I joined professional societies I learned how to network, and I started to ask people — and was surprised by how responsive and willing people were to mentor me. As I begin to establish my role at Broad, I’m going to be thinking a lot about how to support and mentor individuals, especially those from underrepresented groups.
What is your advice for someone at an earlier stage in their career who wants to do this work, but who is also dealing with impostor syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, is a really important concept and one that I live with every day of my life. Just so we’re on the same page, imposter phenomenon is the idea that you’re fake, a fraud, or that you don’t belong in a certain space. It’s something that I struggle with every day. While it’s made me humble, it’s definitely limited me — and has led to a lot of unnecessary worry — and it’s really important that anyone experiencing imposter phenomenon identify ways to address this so they don’t limit themselves.
My advice is to find your community and make as many connections as possible. There are a lot of people out there—myself included — who are more senior in their careers, understand the value of community connection and are happy to help. The goal is to help individuals who haven’t traditionally had access to mentors and others from marginalized groups to find mentorship and map out a career path where they are able to realize their full potential.
What led you to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work, and how long have you been doing this work?
I’ve been working in the DEI space for over 15 years now. As a gay, Mexican American, first-generation college student, I’ve been navigating these very white spaces for a long time, and now I want to help others including early-career researchers on their journey navigate them successfully and start to change these spaces. I’ve also cared for a lot of LatinX patients throughout my career and it's given me a sense of the inequities that exist when it comes to patient care.
A lot of the janitorial team members at Broad are LatinX, but these essential people aren’t Broad employees and don’t have the same benefits as other Broadies. Can our DEI efforts include giving benefits to custodial workers and giving them the status they deserve?
I just want to acknowledge that this awful pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities. If you look at Texas, where I'm from, the majority of patients admitted into our hospitals were LatinX people who did not have options other than coming to work.
At Broad, we’ve already taken some positive steps to ensure that our essential staff is treated equitably, including ensuring all custodial staff can take paid time off if they're quarantining due to COVID-19 or suspect they might be sick. We also ensured that all custodial staff were fully paid for Broad Summer hours last year. That said, there’s still more to do and it’s important we continue this work.
I think supporting our essential staff is incredibly important. In order to have true equity in our organization, we have to think about where we can lean in and continue to push for equity and drive change.
What are your top three pieces of career advice for Broadies?
Number one: Be willing to take a chance. Be willing to hop on that plane and go to a new place. Don’t be afraid to push yourself and get out of your comfort zone if you are able to do so.
Number two: Seek advice. Don't be afraid to ask for help. There are many people in your community that are likely willing to mentor and support you who were in your same position.
Number three: Take care of yourself. Last year was an awful year for me. I got COVID twice. I had folks that were close to me pass away from it. COVID had a lot of collateral damage. I ended up taking a month’s sabbatical because I needed a pause. Mental health is not something that you can lose sight of. Learn how to say no and set boundaries.
It seems like you made a leap in your career when you transitioned from doing clinical work to working in DEI. What made you take the leap?
I started doing DEI work at UCSF in 2003 pretty early on in my career as a clinician. At that time, I only devoted 10 percent of my time to DEI work. Throughout my career, I’ve devoted more and more of my time to DEI work, to the point that at Dell Med, teaching and DEI work took up half my time. I find this work really important, energizing, and exciting, and I finally decided that I wanted to fully commit to this work. I’m really excited to do that at Broad.
Looking back, what would you change about your career experience?
For me, every step along the way has been incredibly important, so there’s really nothing I would change. Maybe one thing would be to just be true to myself and pay more attention to my own health and well-being. I wish I had had more conversations about well-being, and mental health, and paid more attention to my own mental health earlier in the process. Now, it’s something I’m very straightforward about, but that wasn’t always the case. Ultimately though, these struggles helped create the person that I am now. I’m excited about where I’m going and for the opportunity to work with all Broadies as we move forward in our efforts to make Broad a more inclusive space.
Find out more about Salazar’s research on unconscious bias in medicine, which found that patients are unconsciously biased toward believing that surgeons are men, here (Springer subscription needed). The study, published in the American Journal of Surgery, suggests that unconscious bias may partially underpin the discrimination women experience in the medical field.