Minita Shah-Mara: Broadening the Scope of Success

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By Andre LaFontant

Cambridge, MA — As Vice President of Organization Effectiveness and Global Diversity and Inclusion at Biogen, Inc., Minita Shah-Mara aligns business, talent, and culture strategies with redefining the corporate workplace. At the core of her diversity and inclusion approach is an impassioned commitment to equity.  “Diversity and inclusion work is complex and multifaceted; it’s about both demystifying what it means to be successful and broadening the aperture of what ‘success’ looks like,” explains Shah-Mara. Her leadership approach fosters the ability to embrace adverse circumstances and find empowerment through the challenge.

“Failure is critical for innovation,” she begins. “I understand the self-pressure that those who are underrepresented may put on themselves to do good work, to mentor and advocate for others who are early in their career. However, I’ve also seen that at an extreme, this self-pressure can turn into a fear of failure and may limit one’s ability to take chances. I’ve grown to appreciate that every failure provides a learning opportunity.”

Shah-Mara accomplishes the layering of diversity and inclusion initiatives into Biogen’s organizational effectiveness strategy by broadening the ways in which Biogen’s employees are valued. “It is a critical [oversight] when companies value employees strictly on performance; Biogen considers multiple elements of employee impact, beyond the traditional factors of performance, by assessing ‘how’ goals are attained against our own cultural values,” she explains. “We also seek to better assess employee learning agility. Learning agility accounts for the reality of an ever-changing business context, especially in the Biotech Industry. We aim to understand one’s ability to deliver results under challenging conditions, through resilience, adaptability, and comfort in ambiguity. For people leaders, we also look at one’s inclusive leadership capabilities.”

“The diversity and inclusion lens weaves in symbiotically with the organizational effectiveness work,” she continues. “For example, we have spent some time with Judy Shen-Filerman, CEO of Dreambridge Partners, to understand her definition of ‘3rd Culture Leadership’, which is a strength of multicultural leaders and aligns strongly with the concept of learning agility. The reality is that employees at all levels with more varied backgrounds and experiences, and pride in those differences, are bringing the capabilities and skills needed to excel in the complex business context we are working in today.”

Integrating performance, impact, and learning agility within Biogen’s people practices is one way Shah-Mara honors the legacy of empowerment passed down from her mentors. “I feel comfortable going through leadership transitions, by leaning on my mentors and assessing how my experiences, worldview, blind spots, and external environment impact my own leadership effectiveness,” she explains. “For example, the current global politicization of diversity and inclusion has emboldened an anti-diversity rhetoric for some. However, I’ve seen a greater desire within our own company and others to take a stand in support of civil and human rights in a way that seeks to embrace differences. With evolving global demographic changes, our customer base will continue to be ever more diverse, and it is an honor to partner with our passionate employees and leaders on such topics.”

Shah-Mara’s first, and possibly the most influential, mentor was her grandmother. “She did not have a lot of opportunity in her own life and experienced many hardships, as many South Asian women of her generation did, complicated further by her becoming a refugee later in life. I was the eldest grandchild and the only surviving girl in two generations; I believe she lived many of her dreams through me. She created an environment where I could dream big and without inhibition,” Shah-Mara explains. “I hope my legacy mirrors that sentiment: creating a space for others to dream big and feel empowered to accomplish their dreams.