by Patricia Salber

XX in Health Retreat 2014I am so fortunate to have attended the 5th XX in Health Retreat held in the San Francisco Bay Area.  XX in Health, an initiative of woman-led Rock Health - the San Francisco-based health tech incubator, focuses on bringing women in healthcare together to explore how to foster leadership.  There were more than 100 women attending the event at Sausalito’s Cavallo Point.  Even though the event was all women, the diversity was amazing and well-balanced.  There were young women just starting out in their careers and women, like me, with many decades of experience working in the space.  Some women had already attained positions of significant leadership, such COOs of large health plans.  But also there were women just completing their internships and delighted to be starting their first paid positions.  Some of the women work in startups and others in establishment organizations, such as consulting organizations, fortune 500 corporations, and venture capital companies.  There were doctors, nurses, dentists, entrepreneurs, writers, engineers, software developers, researchers, and venture capitalists.  One woman is on the AMA Board of Trustees, another – an engineer – has been in Silicon Valley tech since the 70s.  It was a simply amazing group.

Most of the meeting took place in the former chapel of the army post known as Fort Baker – I am not sure I have ever attended a business meeting in a chapel before.  As soon as the participants started arriving, networking kicked in.  No one waited to be introduced, no one held back.  All through breakfast, women moved from group to group sharing stories, forging connections, and exchanging contact information.  The buzz in the room was electric.  Except for during the presentations, we pretty much never stopped talking to each other.

The Leadership Agenda

By the time MC Lisa Suennen, the former Psilos VC also known as  the Venture Valkyrie,  kicked off the meeting, we were ready to absorb all we could not only from the formal presentations, but also from each other.  Colleen Reitan was the keynote,

Colleen Reitan, keynote at XX in Health Retreat

Colleen Reitan, EVP &COO, HCSC

sharing her journey from junior employee at a plan in Minnesota to COO of HCSC in Chicago  Her story was remarkable not only for promotions she got, but also ones she turned down because she felt she wasn’t ready.  Bridget Duffy, Chief Medical Officer of Vocera; Amy Cueva, Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Mad*Pow; Kathleen Sidenblad Vice President of Engineering at Amplify Health; and Julie Goonewardene, President of Kansas University of Innovation and Collaboration as well as Associate Vice Chancellor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at KU followed – each haring personal stories of their journey to leadership in their respective areas of healthcare.

Midday included “Healthcare Conversations” breakout sessions covering a wide range of topics.   I attended one called, “A Corporate View of Innovation and Partnering with Entrepreneurs” lead by Ruchita Sinha, Director GE Ventures and Leslie Bottorff, GE Ventures, Managing Director, Healthcare.  They shared GE’s vision of how they are working with startups to not only help startups learn from them, but also how startups can help GE stay on top of innovation.  Needless to say there was a packed room of startup entrepreneurs, pen in hand (or fingers on virtual keyboards), reeling in every word.

The afternoon keynote was given by one of the two men in attendance, Vivek Wadhwa.  (The other man was the photographer, Vance Jacobs, who really got an earful).  Vivek message was that women can and should be leading in healthcare – and they can do it but they need to help each other rise to the top.  This theme of women helping women was repeated over and over both by the presenters, but also by the participants.  We are there, they said, we are sitting around the table (even if we are the only there with XX).  We need to mentor and sponsor other women to move up and successfully and effectively assume the reigns of leadership.

An old friend from my Blue Shield of California days, Janet Widman, now COO of the organization, was featured in one of the afternoon sessions.  Called Dear Janet, the session was a Q and A moderated by Lisa.  Janet has modeled mentoring and sponsorship of women by leading an effort at Blue Shield, called WL2X (women lead to excellence) – I wish it had been in place when I was working there.  We closed with an Open Mic session where we all had a chance to share our learnings, thank the organizers, and make suggestions for next year.

Here are my takeaways:

  • We’ve come a long way, baby!  Most of the conversations about going up the ladder were not relevant when I got my first job.  As I was told by my college counselor, get Medical Technology training, women simply don’t get into medical school.  My first post college job was at Wells Fargo Bank where I was hired as a secretary (the term administrative assistant hadn’t been invented yet).  The only other woman in my department had an MBA.  She got to do some research projects for the men – who by and large spent the day reading the Wall Street Journal and calling their stock brokers.
  • We’ve still got work to do.  Many of the women described being the only females in the Board room.  One described sitting down at the table reserved for a CEO panel at an education event only to be told that she had to sit elsewhere as spouses of the panelists were not allowed at this table.
  • We need to help each other – if you have been in leadership, mentor a newbie.  If you learned something that helped you, share with others.  Don’t sabotage the efforts of other women trying to get ahead – there is room at the top for more than one of the XX persuasion.
  • Mentor, sponsor, be open to being mentored, and graciously accept sponsorship.  No one gets ahead without a little help from their friends.
  • Honor the women who paved the way – I am forever indebted to the feminists of the late 60s and 70s who burned their bras and blasted open the doors of all male institutions thus allowing the rest of us to follow.  Thanks Gloria, thanks Betty, thanks Billie Jean!