When Reza Green, chief intellectual property counsel at Novo Nordisk, moved from Manhattan to College Road in Princeton, she missed the cacophony of races and ethnicities so integral to life in the Big Apple. “It was a big culture shift, moving from New York,” she says, “and the lack of multiculturalism in Princeton became very evident.”
To reconnect with the diversity that does exist in Mercer County, Green and her colleagues in the patent group developed a program in 2002 to mentor teens in Trenton as a way of giving back to the community. The idea was to focus specifically on high school students intrigued by the legal profession at a time when minority enrollment in law schools was plummeting.
“We felt an obligation to do something to identify students interested in law and provide them with some encouragement, attention, and resources,” says Green.
After preliminary investigation through various government agencies and teachers groups, David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management, introduced Green to a Princeton Chamber member who had connections with the school board in Trenton. The member, in turn, put Green in touch with Trenton Central High School.
“The school had no mentoring and no corporate sponsors in place,” said Green. “We stepped into the breach.” One of the school’s several “learning academies” is devoted to law, criminal justice, and public service, and that is where they found students to mentor.
The idea was to bring 10 sophomores into the program each year to work with Novo Nordisk patent lawyers and other professionals on writing and presentation skills. “These are basic foundational skills that because of our backgrounds we can help them with,” says Green. The patent lawyers are experienced teachers and mentors, having come to patent law from careers in academe, biotech, or engineering. Novo Nordisk provides each new student with a laptop computer, a critical tool for completing their assignments.
Teaching the future. The faculty volunteers at Novo Nordisk rely on their partners at the high school to filter suitable candidates, based on grades, attendance, and the absence of discipline problems. “They also can judge who can get the most out of the program,” says Green. The current advisor is the librarian of Trenton High School West campus, Angelo Mitale.
The students come to Novo Nordisk for three or four-hour sessions each month, from October to June, where they are exposed to modules covering a variety of areas, for example, environmental racism, security at the high school, and lobbying. In the context of these modules the students do presentations and writing assignments, and the Novo Nordisk professionals mentor them.
“The students have intimate contact with attorneys and other professionals who are giving them feedback on essays and presentations, and peers also provide feedback,” says Green. Between visits the group uses E-mail to send writing assignments and communicate back and forth. The result has been visible, dramatic improvements in these skill areas.
Students also participate in a mock court, in which teams take different sides of cases and prepare and deliver arguments.
The program has evolved over the years and varies with the group of Novo Nordisk employees who lead a particular class and the needs of the students they work with. It has included, for example, SAT preparation, advice on college applications, and even a road trip to visit colleges. The mentors have also helped the students run health fairs for their school and community, including outside vendors like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Planned Parenthood, and other not-for-profit organizations. The fair also offered screening for diabetes, a widespread health problem in Trenton, in line with Novo Nordisk’s focus on the disease.
Students have spent a day at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, where they attended classes and had lunch with professors and students. The mentors have also invited outside speakers. One was Michellene Davis, chief policy counsel for Jon Corzine and former state treasurer and director of the state Lottery Commission. Another was Princeton attorney Bruce Afran, who presented modules on constitutional law.
Learning in return. Through the mentoring program Novo Nordisk professionals have been exposed to the challenges that bright inner-city students often face. One issue is school security. “From the stories they are telling us,” says Green, “they just don’t feel safe in school, and they are explicit and evocative about it.” Many students live in families that are not intact and most are economically disadvantaged — although some students have parents who are college educated or in government jobs.
“They are strong and resourceful,” Green says. “But this is not a comfortable, middle-class group.”
In a school in which gangs are so active, Green has been happy to see that the students in the program self-identify at school as “the Novo Nordisk kids.” Beyond the monthly meetings, the students bond when they get together at school to work on projects.
Success stories. Graduates of the program have matriculated at Notre Dame, North Carolina State, Rutgers, and Fairleigh-Dickinson universities and Spelman College, among others. Many of the students are athletes. The student who went to Notre Dame, for example, was a world-class sprinter, and Novo Nordisk helped send her to the United States games.
Another student, who immigrated from Haiti with nothing — not even the ability to speak English — graduated last year at the top of his class and is now a freshman at FDU on an athletic scholarship.
As the program has evolved, the faculty teams have expanded to include Novo Nordisk professionals who are not patent lawyers, from areas like compliance, intellectual property, and government affairs. Because the government affairs department lobbies for the corporation, for example, the mentoring group was quick to recognize the invaluable guidance it could offer these inner-city students.
“The idea is to impart to these kids a sense of empowerment and that they can actually influence their environment and lobby their legislators at all levels,” says Green.
In total about 30 Novo Nordisk employees are actively engaged with the program, including 15 faculty team members and others who help with all kinds of administrative and other details. Green estimates that faculty team members spend 80 to 100 hours per year on the program, and others contribute varying amounts of time as needed.
All are volunteers, but the company has also supported the program financially. Grants pay for the laptops, and college-bound seniors receive modest scholarships.
“The program really flows from our corporate philosophy,” says Green, describing the company’s commitment to what it calls the triple bottom line — social responsibility, environmental soundness, and economic viability.
Green grew up in Baltimore, where her father and mother were both school clinical psychologists. “I always knew I would have a Ph.D.,” she says.
Green attributes her interest in science to great teachers she had in high school. After high school Green went to Israel to live on a kibbutz and then stayed on to complete her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Bar Ilan University.
She completed her Ph.D in cell and molecular biology at New York University, where she did her dissertation on protein folding and secretion. She spent six years as a postdoctoral fellow at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and then became a faculty member at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where for seven years she continued to do research and also taught cell biology.
So why law school? “It was a midlife desire for something new,” she says. “I wanted to leverage all of my scientific expertise into a new career.” She enrolled in an evening program at Fordham Law School with the goal of becoming a patent lawyer, working days at patent law firm Darby and Darby. “The good part is being able to practice immediately,” says Green. “When it’s your second career, you don’t want to put it on ice for three years.”
She completed her law degree in 1997 and moved to Novo Nordisk in 1998.
Green finds the high school program to be a nice adjunct to practicing law in a pharma-biotech context. “It brings us down to earth and into the real world,” she says. “There are ups and downs, but the ups are always extremely inspiring. Whenever the kids are here, I am set to go for a week.”
The downs, she says, are more in line with the normal frustrations of dealing with teenagers.
“The fundamental value of this program is in paying attention to these kids in a way that they may not receive anywhere else in their environment,” says Green. “That sustained attention over a period of years becomes extraordinarily valuable.”