Marina Kakavelos

Marina Kakavelos never saw herself having a career in healthcare. As she describes it, she didn’t necessarily fit the box of someone who excelled in math and science. Instead, she pursued an undergraduate degree in public relations and started her career in communications. While completing an internship with the New York State Department of Health, she witnessed how confusing the system could be for patients and families and realized that her communications skills—especially in evaluating an audience’s needs—were invaluable in healthcare. Marina is now an alumna of the EMBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership program, which she pursued to strengthen her leadership ability and prepare for higher-level roles within the industry.  

Marina worked in healthcare for seven years before beginning her master’s but was often the only person in the room without any clinical experience. She considered pursuing various MPH and MHA programs but was intent on building both her business acumen and broadening her understanding of various healthcare policies.   

“The program at Cornell was in a league of its own for me,” she said. “It was the only program that put equal weight on both the healthcare side and the business side. It was also important to me to be surrounded by peers from different sectors of the industry who shared the same mission and values.”  

Having started the program in 2020, Marina’s first year was fully virtual. For many students, it was their first experience being in a virtual classroom. Students were unable to meet in person and get to know each other on a personal level, which usually aids their understanding of each other’s preferred leadership styles and overall group work. However, it taught Marina to build connections more intentionally. Now that her team at work is also fully virtual, she finds herself prepared to delegate and identify other’s strengths, without meeting them on a regular basis.  

One of her most memorable courses was the leadership class taught by Dr. Elizabeth A. Mannix. She explains that the course encouraged students to be more introspective and to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Marina also reflects positively on a “Leadership 360” activity, where students identify upwards of 20 people in their professional network who each assess the student’s skills.   

“It was a really great way to get actionable, personalized feedback from people who know you in all facets of your career,” she said. “It can be a little nerve-wracking to open yourself up to that review, but I received some feedback that I wouldn’t have been able to acknowledge otherwise.”  

Another highlight of the program was her capstone project. The project is assigned in the second year, and students engage with an external stakeholder in the healthcare industry to address a given problem. For the majority of the program, Marina consistently worked with one team. For the capstone project, however, the teams were changed, which challenged her and fellow students to quickly determine one another’s work styles and capabilities.   

“[Capstone] was a small microcosm of what happens day-to-day at work. You can, at any moment, be thrown into a new group of people with new priorities,” she said. “The program really helps you think in a more agile way, become comfortable under ambiguity, and feel like no matter what is thrown your way, you have the awareness to navigate it.”  

Marina graduated in 2022 and is currently a lead director of enterprise strategy at CVS Health. She’s grateful to have worked with people in the program who each had different viewpoints and incentives to consider as they addressed various issues. As she moves forward in her career, she’s passionate about translating complex healthcare concepts in a way that empowers patients and consumers.  

“The role I may have in three years is one that probably doesn’t exist today,” she said, acknowledging how quickly the industry evolves. “That’s what excites me and keeps me so energized. When I pursue new roles, I think less about the title and more about the type of impact I want to have. I want to advance a goal of ensuring that every single person, regardless of anything, has resources to make healthy decisions and be healthier.”