From Farm to Pharma: How Diversity Shaped a Career

Jeff Winton, right, with Jim Modica and award-winning dressage horse Sir Earl Grey

By Grace Gubbrud

Inside his new office in downtown Chicago, Jeff Winton glances down at his desk to see a picture of his partner, Jim. This may seem inconsequential to many, but as a gay man who has spent over 40 years working in the world of communication, Winton remembers a time where “You had to be very closeted if you wanted to get ahead in the business world.” Diversity and inclusion have no doubt played a large role in Winton’s life and career as a trailblazer in the industry.

A Not-So-Simple Journey

With a self-proclaimed “circuitous” career path, Winton’s journey has been anything but ordinary. From humble beginnings growing up on a dairy farm in upstate New York, he was the first in his family to attend college. Winton attended Cornell University, where he studied animal sciences and took couple communication classes that peaked his interest.

Upon graduating, Winton moved to New York City and landed a job at an advertising agency that had a large range of agriculture and animal health clients. Surrounded by “mad men” who had lived their whole lives in the city, Winton shared his knowledge on animal health in exchange for learning about the world of communications. He continued this throughout the early days of his communications career where a farming background positioned him as a unique asset for teams with agriculture clients.

Mid-way through his career, Winton decided to return to college. As a free thinker who decided he wanted to pursue what was of most interest to him, he attended Union Theological Seminary.

The next part of Winton’s career once again grew out of his own identity. As a gay man living in New York City in the 1990s, Winton was directly affected by the HIV/ AIDS Crisis; “Many of my friends were dying very mysteriously and no one knew why.” After doing some volunteering in patient advocacy surrounding this epidemic, Winton was hired by Roche Pharmaceuticals to be their in-house patient advocate and thus launching the second half of his career centering around human health.

Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Much of his career has been rooted in what makes Winton diverse. Yet, when discussing progress in the industry he believes that, “Unfortunately, we have not made nearly as many strides as we should.” He notes that the biggest difference from when he started his career to now is that diversity and inclusion are being talked about more; however, he believes the lack of progress the industry has made in the past four decades is “shameful.”

From the early days of his career where he would find women to take to company holiday parties, to being able to take his partner of 35 years to his new company holiday party, it’s easy to see changes have taken place. However, as he notes, “There is still bias, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t.” Looking back on his career Winton can pinpoint times where he has not been afforded certain opportunities because of his sexual orientation.

While there has been some progress with getting people in the door, Winton sees the current struggle surrounding inclusion in regards to making those people stay at the company. Recruitment processes mean so little if there is no plan to keep these people encouraged once they are hired

“I’m encouraged by the progress we’re making but we still have a lot of work to do,” states Winton. With diversity and inclusion being some of the most talked about topics surrounding the workplace today, it is crucial that those entering the workforce learn from folks like WInton who have been forging a path for those to come. True diversity and inclusion will only happen when we all come together, no matter our background.

Grace Gubbrud is a current graduate student at DePaul University with a passion for creative storytelling, strategic solutions, and dog influencers.

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