Alumnae of Cornell’s Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership Program Share Stories of Success

Cornell’s Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership program is the only one of its kind in the Ivy League, with students earning two prestigious degrees from Cornell University. That is one reason why the program consistently produces graduates who become powerhouses in the industry. In an illuminating conversation with three program alumnae on January 26, 2021, current and prospective students gained real-world advice from women dominating the healthcare industry.

The panelists included Dr. Aafia Chaudhry (’20), vice president of strategic program direction immuno-oncology at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Dr. Rache Simmons (’20), associate dean of diversity and inclusion and director of the Office of Women at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Natasha VanWright (’19), AVP of care management - Medicare and strategic initiatives at Healthfirst.

While the alumnae have impressive careers now, they each made strategic decisions to achieve mobility towards leadership positions and noted similar challenges they’ve overcome along the way.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have three very powerful and diverse CEOs. I still found in those organizations, women, and particularly women of color, stalled at that pivotal jump from manager to director, despite having the same level of credentials,” VanWright said. “I think that’s attributed to the career development that women may or may not receive — access to high-profile projects and being able to take the lead on those projects is how you get to the next level.”

In Dr. Chaudhry’s experience, taking personal leadership has been crucial. “I think the reason people get promoted is really a virtue of how you build and lead teams,” she said. “There’s a lot of very competent and qualified people, but at the end of the day, the people who are successful at the really high levels are the people that cracked the code of how to build and lead high performing teams.”

One way the alumnae successfully got promoted to leadership positions was by identifying and working with mentors.

VanWright has gone about this by identifying people in the positions she wanted and reaching out to them directly. “Stop and consider who has the bargaining power to get you where you want to go,” she said. “Naturally, as you’re trying to learn about others, they’ll reciprocate.” 

However, this doesn’t stop after successfully forming one mentor relationship. “You need to have a whole repertoire of mentors who you can call on for different problems and different aspects of your career,” Dr. Chaudhry added. “But don’t wait for other people to manage your career. You make that choice yourself and you figure out what you want to do.”

Dr. Simmons reminded the audience that it is OK to look beyond fellow women to be their sponsor. “Often the people who can really help you are men, and you shouldn’t ignore that. You should take advantage of that when the situation presents itself.” 

Beyond relying on others to help them move forward, the alumnae noted the time they spent in their early careers reading, learning about the industry and making themselves better employees — both in and out of the office.

“You just have to keep your head down and get the work done,” Dr. Chaudhry said. “Some business books were quite remarkable. You learn a lot by breaking down a problem, learning the principle that was used to solve it and figuring out how to apply it to your career.” Her improved business background has also helped her when addressing wages and new contracts. “When I was negotiating my contract with Regeneron, one of the questions I asked HR outright was, ‘How do you practice gender pay equity for this position?’ I would always encourage women to have very open discussions about pay equity. The base salary that you start at has a lot to do with the trajectory of your compensation package moving forward, so you have to be very smart about how you have these discussions.”

So, why did each of these already successful women commit their valuable time to the EMBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership program?

For Dr. Simmons, the program offered a different way of looking at the world than how she was trained in medicine. “In particular, surgeons are really good at taking the lead and being in charge," she said. “The EMBA/MS taught me to be a much better team player, it taught me to listen better and to negotiate better. It’s been an incredible experience for me.”

The program helped VanWright pick up more of the business acumen, but it also changed her level of confidence in going after positions she was qualified for and deserved. “It taught me to say, ‘You have a whole lot of experience, you have a lot to offer and this is how you’re going to package it. This is how you’re going to negotiate your offer. This is the network you’re going to take along with you on your journey’,” she said. “When I made the decision to continue my education, it was initially about getting to the next level, but it turned into something much more.”

Notably, the alumnae expressed their willingness to help other women who want to elevate their own careers. “When I’ve been in situations where I’ve needed help and encouragement and people have believed in me, I realized how important it is to let other people know they’ve got this. I remember how fortunate I am to have come across mentors who gave me five minutes of their time, so I think it’s a wonderful blessing to be able to pass that on,” Dr. Chaudhry said. “It’s a privilege.”

The Cornell Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership Program is a dual-degree program created by two powerhouses in graduate education—the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences— that focuses on building general management skills and developing a deeper understanding of the healthcare industry. Learn more about the program here.

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