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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla Discusses Curing the Epidemic of Exclusion at APEC CEO Summit

Albert Bourla speech

This week, the annual APEC CEO Summit was held in San Francisco, California. The Summit brought CEOs, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and other stakeholders together with senior political leaders from the Asia-Pacific region for two days of dialogue. This year’s Summit focused on “Creating Economic Opportunity” via sustainability, inclusion, resilience, and innovation.

On Thursday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla delivered one of the Summit CEO Spotlight speeches, with remarks focused on “Curing the Epidemic of Exclusion.”

We invite you to watch the video of Albert’s speech or read his remarks in their entirety below:

Good afternoon. It is a privilege to be here at the APEC CEO Summit speaking with such an esteemed group of business and government leaders from across the Pacific. Thank you for having me, and thank you President Biden for hosting us this week.

We are gathering at a critical moment for the trans-Pacific relationship – indeed a critical moment for the whole world. This year’s focus on Sustainability, Inclusion, Resilience, and Innovation is well matched to both the problems before us and the immense potential for progress within the grasp of the leaders in this room.

As you may know, English is not my first language, so I am in the habit of looking up words and concepts for inspiration when I am preparing for a speech.

In doing so, I read that one definition of inclusion is “having a sense of belonging.”

I think there is an important nuance in that definition. Inclusion in the fullest sense of the word does not simply mean being allowed in, perhaps grudgingly; it means being welcomed.

My inquiry confirmed that our subject today is something of enormous importance. In fact, there may be nothing more urgent than the need to create a world that is rich with inclusion. There may be nothing more dangerous than failing.

Those of us lucky enough to have spent our careers in science and medicine focus relentlessly on patients, and on treating the underlying causes that make them ill. Not just the fever or the cough, but the virus that caused them.

As we meet today, we all recognize that our society is ailing — our world is ailing. And just as with a patient, those of us who want to heal this world need to look to the deeper conditions that are underneath our surface-level problems.

I believe that many of our most urgent problems stem from the absence of inclusion, the heartbreaking sense of isolation or otherness. And many of our most urgent solutions will depend on generating inclusion for those who have been robbed of it.

So today, I want to talk about how we address the forces that are causing the world to hurdle towards disorder and suffering.

We are facing an epidemic of exclusion – and we must cure it.

As we meet today, it is clear that rarely have we seen a world with so many challenges at one time, in so many places. And yet for all their particulars and complexities, I believe they have exclusion at their root — four types of exclusion that we must and can cure.

First, we must cure the epidemic of economic exclusion:

Wherever women, minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable do not have equal access to equal work, equal pay, and equal justice – economies and our society suffer.

To name just one example: according to a report earlier this year, narrowing the equal pay gap can increase global economic activity by a breathtaking $7 trillion. That is higher than the GDP of all but the two richest countries on earth. All it would take is for us as a global community to include women — fully include women — in our workplaces and our economies.

This is not just an economic crisis. This is a human tragedy. Think how many ideas and opportunities are left unrealized, how many people are denied the chance to reach their full potential, by this lack of inclusion.

We must cure it.

Second, we must cure the epidemic of social exclusion:

The poison of prejudice leaves all of us vulnerable.

For instance: Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an explosion of violence against Asians globally, in places as widespread as the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. It is infuriating and sad to have a virus politicized and a community scapegoated.

In my company’s home city of New York, there were 131 hate crimes targeting Asians in 2022 compared to 28 in 2020 and just one in 2019, according to police statistics. The increase has continued so far this year.

We are all diminished when Asian communities are scapegoated and attacked by the hateful ignorance that has festered under the pandemic. And this is just one example. The unacceptable degradation faced by Asian communities in the United States is felt by many other communities here and around the world.

We must cure this.

Third, we must cure the epidemic of political exclusion:

We all see the tragedy of oppression, dislocation and xenophobia that has driven jaw dropping numbers of refugees around the world from their homes and into the uncertain welcome of places with anti-immigrant anger.

And we do not have to search hard to find examples where those attitudes have descended into unthinkable suffering.

Terrorism, persecution, religious conflict, ethnic violence – our headlines are full of bloodshed from all over the world and it can seem as though peace is falling further and further out of reach.

We must cure this.

And finally, we must cure the epidemic of personal exclusion:

This is perhaps the hardest to see, yet it may have the farthest-reaching consequences of all.

The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued a report titled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.

Its results were sobering. It revealed that young people aged 15-24 had 70% less social interaction with their friends than two decades ago.

And it warned that the physical consequences of poor connection can be devastating, including:

  • a 29% increased risk of heart disease;
  • a 32% increased risk of stroke;
  • and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

The want of inclusion does not just harm our economies and our societies – we can see its effects in the human body itself!

Exclusion is the common denominator of all four of these epidemics — and inclusion is the cure we must reach for together.  To be sure, these are daunting challenges. But as a deeply optimistic person, I want to make clear: we can do this. And by doing it, we won’t just solve problems, we will bring new benefits to the world.

Leaders of the business community all have a role and a responsibility to build more inclusive cultures within our companies, and more importantly still, to build a more inclusive society in the places we live and work.

A part of that is simply... showing up.  Showing that we are on our own learning journeys, just like everyone — by joining forums like these. Inviting experts into our offices. Attending convenings of civil society. Listening to our own teams. Challenging them to think differently about inclusion and how it must shape our businesses.

Appearing in the right place can be so easy, yet so powerful.

We must also strive for broader impact. We can do that in our corporate practices, by providing a level playing field where equity reigns; where every single person is seen, heard, and cared for.

This begins in our workplaces themselves, which are the modern-day town commons, where people who otherwise might not meet can come together. To achieve maximum impact, we must return to the office and see each other face to face. Teleconferencing is simply no substitute for the personal interaction that makes it possible to share ideas, build connection, or even agree to disagree. Business is uniquely positioned to provide spaces for these once treasured principles, and we must act on that opportunity.

We can widen the aperture of inclusion by understanding that, yes, inclusion is about race and gender and religion, but it is also about so much more. It means including different perspectives, methods, and ideas from different geographies, industries, even class structures. For those of us in health care, it means understanding and responding to our patients, in particular.

And for companies on the cutting edge of technology, it means listening to the fears and concerns associated with the advancements we strive for. Rather than dismiss those who criticize us or worry about unintended consequences, we should strive to listen, to understand, address, and hopefully resolve their concerns – to seek not to leave them behind but to bring them along with us. For all those of us who embrace and find joy in science and technology, there are equally many who feel excluded. It is our job to include them, not just in our words but in our research, our discoveries, and our strategic plans.

And we must also build more inclusive ecosystems. When Pfizer thinks about partnerships, we look for organizations that can help us make the next life-saving drug or vaccine, but we also look to partner with organizations that will create the next underlying technology, the next curriculum, the next scientific breakthrough. This is why we have developed the Pfizer School of Science – to ensure we are fighting the typical exclusion of underserved communities from science-based careers.

We must be active corporate citizens beyond the four walls of our company headquarters — combating the underlying sources of division that may originate beyond the workplace, but that certainly impact our operations.

For Pfizer, that work often focuses on disinformation. Fighting against disinformation helps our polarized society find common ground and begin to include and welcome one another again.

I believe all businesses should pick a cause that does good for society. Because let us remember that our voices are uniquely powerful. Corporations remain among the most trusted voices in society – a finding confirmed again in the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey of public sentiment in 28 countries.

So, this is my message to the leaders in this room: exclusion is an epidemic. Business must be a part of the cure. And like any new medicine, this cure requires purposeful partnerships to develop – partnerships that we want to help create.

This work starts at the top. We must lead by example. Inclusion will only become a priority if we make it a priority, if we challenge hatred and prejudice, and if we stand up for inclusion publicly.

I believe, with all my optimistic heart, that we are poised to see a pendulum swing in the years ahead – if we dedicate ourselves to this important work together. I challenge myself, and all of you, to lift the heavy weight of this epidemic to expose and reap the benefits of alleviating its burden.

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    Albert Bourla Business Diversity & Inclusion Leadership