Isabel Duffy admits that taking over the executive sponsorship of Merck’s Latino employee business resource group (EBRG) Alianza filled her with some apprehension. Since joining Merck in 2001 as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel, she had only been tangentially connected to Alianza.
“When Celeste Warren, our chief diversity and inclusion officer, came to me about five years ago and asked if I would be willing to be the executive sponsor for our Latino EBRG, I was a little hesitant because I hadn’t been all that involved with the organization,” remembers Duffy, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic. “I spent much of my career with my head down and doing the work. I would go to a Hispanic Heritage Month event here and there, but a lot of the amazing things the group does weren’t on my radar.”
Fortunately, Alianza was in a period of evolution, and Duffy says the previous leader was doing an incredible job of expanding the role of the EBRG within Merck around three main pillars: business impact, social impact, and recruitment and retention of Hispanic talent.
When Duffy saw the full breadth of Alianza’s activities and just how wide-reaching Alianza was looking to grow, she wanted in and became the new executive sponsor.
1. Business Impact
This first pillar is obvious. The Latino market is currently 19 percent of the United States and growing exponentially faster than any other minority group.
“This is a market that cannot be and should not be ignored,” Duffy says. “It’s our goal to help the business better understand this growing population and its needs so Merck can start targeting this population in a more strategic way.”
One example lies in Merck’s efforts to increase awareness of diabetes diagnosis and management. Certain Latinos have a higher chance of developing diabetes, and Alianza has helped Merck’s marketing teams with their outreach to the community to help more Latinos get diagnosed and treated.
Merck also realized the serious disparity in vaccination rates among the Hispanic community, and so the marketing teams, with help from Alianza, created more Spanish-language campaigns to help boost those numbers.
“Through a real team effort, these efforts have snowballed, now into oncology and breast cancer awareness,” Duffy says. “We’re really starting to hone in on where those disparities lie and how we can help change it.”
2. Social Impact
Alianza’s second pillar is focused on helping get more Hispanics into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Merck’s “Imagine Day” brings in school students to learn about STEM jobs across Merck from different Hispanic employees.
The EBRG also works with New Jersey-based nonprofit HISPA to provide more role models for young Hispanics about what their lives could be.
“You have to see it to be able to imagine what’s possible,” Duffy explains. “Hearing from senior Hispanic employees in the pharmaceutical industry helps kids understand that they can have a future with us. They can follow our lead and have amazing careers.”
3. Recruitment and Retention
Internally, Alianza is also helping Merck do great work to keep, develop, and recruit new Hispanic talent. Duffy and the company utilize an Alianza organized mentorship program to develop current talent and show them new opportunities and directions in which their careers can grow. Merck also has several development programs focused explicitly on helping Latinos rise in the organization.
Additionally, Alianza has forged an exciting relationship with Merck lawyers performing pro bono work.
“We had a number of lawyers who wanted to do immigration work, but they didn’t have the Spanish language skills to take it on,” Duffy explains. “We’ve been able to recruit volunteers through Alianza to act as translators, creating a rewarding experience for everyone involved. It’s allowed our attorneys to be of service to people who really need us.”
Alianza is becoming known across Merck, and Duffy says she’s seen generosity from other parts of the business when it comes to sponsoring guest speakers and other opportunities that the business recognizes will be good for all involved.
“Senior leaders are showing up for the EBRGs,” Duffy says. “Everyone involved is doing so outside of their day jobs and seeing that generosity across the organization is inspiring.”
Duffy’s leadership does not go unnoticed by her peers. “Over the past twenty years, I have effectively grown up in the legal profession with Isabel,” says Jeff Handwerker, partner at Arnold & Porter. “I have enjoyed and learned so much from working with her. Among Isabel’s key strengths: she’s a good business counselor, an inspiration to others, and she treats everyone with respect and kindness.”
While she may have been initially hesitant to sponsor Alianza, Duffy she is not alone. Others in her position might think the same, that they didn’t have the right amount of involvement or experience to take on a new responsibility. But those who are willing to invest their time and their talent even if they’re unsure, are the keys to furthering exposure for the Latino community across the world.
Duffy is quick to recommend greater involvement. “Being the executive sponsor for Alianza has been a rewarding experience, allowing me to support the Latino Community and Merck’s mission of improving lives,” she reflects.
“I met Isabel Duffy about twenty years ago. She was then working as a junior in-house lawyer at Merck on a complex pricing matter. I could tell from the start that she was a special talent. It’s with strong enthusiasm that I share my perspective on Isabel, who is a role model for other in-house life science lawyers. Over the past twenty years, I have effectively grown up in the legal profession with Isabel. I have enjoyed and learned so much from working with her. Among Isabel’s key strengths: she’s smart, practical and a good business counselor, a terrific mentor, inspiration, and role model for others, and she treats every person she comes across with respect and kindness. It’s the little things that count, like the thank you notes that I regularly receive from her after finishing any project large or small, the incredible responsiveness to emails and phone calls, and the fact that it is obvious that she cares about the people around her. For someone with great responsibility, these traits stand out. Merck, its employees and external counsel, and the patients they serve benefit tremendously from how Isabel approaches her work. Congratulations to Isabel on this well-deserved honor.”
—Jeff Handwerker, Partner