Costume Culture

“We gotta still have fun. We gotta still dress up in crazy outfits and do silly things.” -Bob Swanson

From the beginning, Bob Swanson believed that Genentech’s success was tied directly to creating an environment that enabled employees to do their best work. What they were setting out to do wouldn't be easy. Almost every day they would face hurdles and failures but would still have to persevere in pursuing goals that seemed out of reach.

His idea was fairly simple: if people doing different jobs were treated fairly, all working toward the same goals, and if they thought of themselves as owners of the company, then they would make the right decisions. He also was convinced that it was important to nurture a culture that would help ease the intensity of the challenges before them.

In the 1970s, employees first established regular, Friday afternoon social gatherings called “Ho-Hos.” As Bob recalls in an oral history recorded by the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley: “There wasn't management on the one hand and science on the other. We were all in it together. Ho-Hos were a way that people could get together in their shirt sleeves and relax at the end of the week, but wind up talking about how to do things better.” He wanted people to be brave enough to follow the science wherever it led and feel comfortable speaking up with their ideas. Four decades later, Ho-Hos are alive and well at Genentech.

Early on, dressing up in costume at Ho-Hos and on Halloween became an integral part of the fabric of Genentech life. Employees at all levels of the company took part. Among the earliest documented and often recalled instances is Bob and Herb parading through Genentech dressed as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Later Bob would comment that their thinking around dressing up was that if you've seen your company’s founders marching around like this, you might be more comfortable bringing them your crazy idea.

The tradition exists to this day and our employees are known for striving to outdo each other, fueled by creativity and a sense of competition.

“Both then and today, employees are the heart of Genentech and the driving force behind the progress that brings important new medicines to the people who need them,” says former CEO Ian Clark. “The truth is that the best ideas don’t always come from the top. I want every person at Genentech to feel comfortable both contributing ideas and challenging them. If dressing up in a pink ruffled tuxedo or like Han Solo once in awhile helps keep that culture alive, I’m up for it.”