Thinking outside the box: a personal journey

MacRae shares his story of growing up biracial in the US and the impact it has had on his career today.

He was just 10 years old when he first noticed other people’s reactions to his father.

“We were at a store in Washington, DC, where I grew up. I was tagging along with my father, and someone approached me to ask if I was lost or needed my parent,” said Rob MacRae, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, US Commercial. “In the moment, my dad laughed it off, but later when we talked about it, I realized it was deeply humiliating.”

During summer visits to the south, the family was warmly welcomed by his father’s relatives.

“They instantly celebrated me as one of their own. I felt included, and that was the flip side of the negative interactions my father had,” MacRae said. “That profoundly influenced how I look at others who may seem ‘different’.”

For the affable lawyer with a ready smile, that encounter stirred up the realization that some needed to put others in a box, a neat little category to identify them.

“My father is Black, and my mother is white,” MacRae said. “My parents raised me and my sister in one of the most diverse cities in our country, but that didn’t stop people from making assumptions. We didn’t fit into other people’s concept of what is Black or white.”

Rob MacRae

SVP & General Counsel US Commercial

Rob and his family

MacRae is very clear that his life has been one of significant privilege. People often assume he is white, and he graduated from Yale, then Harvard Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But it was a little box that caused friction with his father.

“When I was applying to the Kennedy School, I checked ‘white’ even though I’d previously checked ‘Other,’” remembers MacRae. “That was how I viewed racial identity at the time – through the prism of other people’s reactions to me. My dad got angry because he thought I was rejecting part of my heritage. We had a very emotional argument about it.”

Thirty years later, in May of 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by a white police officer. The shocking video led to protests around the country and, for MacRae, propelled him to action.

“We needed to talk about what was happening. Can we stop debating whether racism is a thing? It is, so let’s do something about it,” said MacRae. “I do not have the same experience as someone who is Black living in the US. But, on a personal level, I’ve seen the daily indignities that people of color deal with.”

MacRae was asked to share his story at an internal GSK meeting about the racial strife in the US. That request gave him a measure of comfort, almost an affirmation that his voice needed to be heard. He began speaking more about his background. Then he decided it was time to make a change.

“When I started at GSK, you didn’t have the option to self-identify as two or more races,” said MacRae. “Now you can, so I did. Psychologically that felt more comfortable to me in a way that it didn’t 30 years ago.”

Over the years, this married father of two has served as a mentor and ally to many women and people of color. For these groups, their development may vary from what senior leaders envision. Whether career or community, MacRae lends support with a fierce determination to pave the way for others.


Rob's headshot

He hopes to guide them through times where they feel a little different or shoulder the burden of making others feel comfortable. While no one can relate to what everyone has gone through, MacRae understands and appreciates others’ experiences in a relatable way.

“I have the wonderful burden of setting an example,” MacRae said. “There is enormous satisfaction in finding talented people and helping them navigate the world. I met one of my mentees when he was 16 years old. He’s now in his 30s, is incredibly successful, and has built an amazing life. When I reflect on what I’ve done with my life, those are the types of accomplishments I’ll be quite proud of.”