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What I Learned About DEI From Sweeping Floors

What a Whole Lot of Sweeping and a Little Bit of Vulnerability Taught Me about DEI


Racial and social justice are not just buzzwords, they are crucial elements of public health. As Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), Pharmaceuticals, R&D and Global External Innovation at Janssen, my journey and passion for transforming the culture of healthcare has been deeply influenced by my personal experiences.

My connection to healthcare began humbly, in my father’s pharmacy in North Philadelphia. As a kid, I was tasked with stocking shelves and sweeping the floors while my father filled prescriptions. Watching him impact lives by ensuring patients received their medications at the right time left a profound impression on me.

A young Cecil Johnson stocks shelves in his father's pharmacy

My father’s pharmacy was also a hub of diverse interactions—from pharmaceutical sales representatives to customers from all walks of life. Little did I know that these early observations would fuel my desire to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals and ultimately set me on the path of advancing DEI within the broader industry.

With a degree in business from Hampton University, I jumped into the world of pharmaceutical sales, engaging with physicians as well as administrators at hospitals and health systems. This job experience allowed me to interact with communities and individuals whose experiences were different from my own.

It also revealed the vast disparities that exist in healthcare access and the poor outcomes many face. Witnessing these disparities firsthand ignited a deep passion to transcend my role in sales and become a catalyst for change in the pharmaceutical space.

From sweeping the floors of my father’s pharmacy in North Philadelphia to shaping global strategies for a diverse workforce, here are just a few of the valuable lessons I have learned about what it takes to advance progress:

Inclusion Requires Pushing Through Discomfort and Being Vulnerable

Cultivating an inclusive environment requires pushing through what feels uncomfortable, embracing vulnerability and being okay with not having all the answers. Like many, I enjoy learning, but I had to learn to be comfortable with not knowing everything, especially when discussing sensitive issues like race, health equity and social justice. Growth and progress, however, often come from pushing through discomfort, acknowledging our blind spots, and actively seeking to learn from a variety of perspectives.

Being Part of Making DEI Happen Is a Privilege

Building a diverse team has been another profound lesson in my journey. My experience working at my father’s pharmacy taught me the value of connecting with people from different backgrounds. However, when I started working after college, I soon realized that I couldn't wait for others to come to me. I needed to be proactive in reaching out to individuals with diverse perspectives and talents. Creating a truly diverse and inclusive team demands purposeful efforts and a genuine commitment to expanding our networks.

An essential aspect of my role is recognizing the privilege I have in driving DEI efforts that impact our business. I learned that being a leader in this space means stepping out of my comfort zone, engaging with people who have different experiences and perspectives, and being open to learning from them. This mentality aligns with the People First culture we drive at Janssen as part of Our Race to Health Equity (ORTHE)—a commitment to transform the healthcare industry from the inside out by supporting solutions that systemically address racial health equity.

We’ve done this in the last year by initiating the “Inclusion Dialogues”—a platform for open conversations led by VPs across the organization. These dialogues allow us to keep our fingers on the pulse of what is happening within the company and foster a culture of transparency and inclusivity. By actively engaging with employees at all levels, we can identify areas for improvement, implement meaningful change and grow our business.

DEI is for Everyone

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of my journey is realizing that DEI is a business strategy that is not the sole responsibility of a single leader nor department. It's a shared mission that involves every individual in the organization, which is why our definition of DEI at J&J is We All Belong. By tapping into the collective expertise and perspectives of our diverse workforce, we can assess what resources are needed to stay competitive and create a culture where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute to our business results.