Vanessa Briggs, the recently appointed President and CEO at Brandywine Health Foundation, speaks with VISTA Today about growing up in Southwest Philadelphia and then Mount Laurel, excelling in the classroom, and her decision to attend a Historically Black University before transferring and graduating from Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.
Vanessa discusses the impact her parents had on her leadership style and career trajectory, as well as her immediate Brandywine Health Foundation priorities and focus.
Where did you grow up, Vanessa?
I was born the youngest of three children in Philadelphia and lived in Philadelphia until I was 8-years-old, then moved to Ardmore until age of 10. In search of better educational opportunities for me and my two older siblings, my parents moved us to Mount Laurel, New Jersey when I was in entering the sixth grade.
What did your parents do?
My father was a Regional Vice President for a cleaning company servicing the City of Philadelphia; my mother served as an administrative assistant for several nonprofits and businesses.
What memories do you have of growing up in Philadelphia, Ardmore, or Mount Laurel?
I loved Pennsylvania, and was especially fond of Philadelphia, but I understood my parents by moving us to Mount Laurel, wanting to expose us to a better educational system. I didn’t like Mount Laurel all that much. Mount Laurel, looked and felt different, people treated me differently because of my race, and my school wasn’t diverse as my previous school in Philadelphia and Ardmore.
It sounds like the move to Mount Laurel was a hard transition for you?
It was the mid-1970’s, and Mount Laurel was still pretty much segregated. While none of us liked Mount Laurel, it was a lot harder for me than my older brother and sister. The three of us accepted the fact we lived where we did and made the best of it. Since my siblings were into sports more than I, my brother and sister adapted more than I did.
I didn’t care that much for sports as my siblings, but I knew early on the importance of physical activity from a health standpoint and ran track and played field hockey. I went in the opposite direction and immersed myself into my studies. It was apparent the differential treatment I received compared to others. I knew I had to prove I was just as smart as everyone else and had to work ten times harder to prove it.
What was your first job?
Because my father was a Regional VP, I started working for him at his company, cleaning office buildings at the age of 15, followed by the age of 16 I also started working as a Sales Associate after school and on weekends at the local Sears and Roebucks. I continued to work both jobs in the summer and this gave me my strong work discipline. My parents and sister took me back and forth to work until I got my driver’s license and then I started driving myself.
I continued to work at Sears through my sophomore year of college.
Do you remember what Sears paid you?
I believe the minimum wage in the late 70’s would have been $3.10 an hour! I was so excited when I got my first check for $100! I thought I was so rich!
What lessons did you take from your job at Sears that you still use today?
I saw and tried to correct the inefficiencies in Sears’ systems and processes. Even though my job was to help customers, ring up sales, and complete floor sets, I wanted to understand how Sears’ operation and logistics worked. When I made suggestions on improving store operations, my manager would look at me and gently remind me I was sixteen years old. She did listen when I suggested how to stagger employee’s shift to get maximum coverage during the holiday season. I then knew I was onto something!
What kind of music were you listening to as a teenager?
I am fond of most music. It really depends on my mood-classical music when I am writing, smooth jazz when strategizing, and gospel when I am contemplating, old school R & B when exercising, the list could go on and on…
Where did you go to college?
Because of my experiences in Mount Laurel, N.J., I decided to go a Historically Black College and University and selected North Carolina Central University in Durham. The southern pace of life and the fact there was nothing to do around the school drove me crazy. Now that I am older and wiser I can appreciate the slow pace and hospitality. I transferred to what was then Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, graduated with a degree in Dietetics.
What did you do after graduation?
I always worked during college and changed from retail at Sears to working in nursing homes. I continued to climb the ladder in nursing homes from a Food Service Director, Clinical Dietitian, to Regional Dietitian after I graduated from Glassboro. I’ve always been interested in diet, food and how what a person eats impacts their life and overall health. I quickly realized that at the end ones of life, their quality life was also greatly impacted by their socioeconomic status, living environments and heritage.
As a practicing Dietitian in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, I was deeply disturbed of the disparities that to this day still continues to exist among African Americans and the prevalence of Diabetes and Hypertension, which lead to many nursing home residents suffering from complications associated with these chronic diseases-blindness, amputations and the devastation of a stroke. I personally believe this was the awakening of my life’s work in Health Equity coupled with strong business acumen.
Were you trying to run management at the nursing home and run their business too?
I was! My perspective at the time was through the lens of how the residence experience could be improved and how do we build and retain a strong team to deliver quality care and services.
What is the source of your focus and drive to improve?
From my father. He was in executive management and he would share his operational, fiscal and personnel challenges with me when he came home. When I encountered a situation either at Sears or the nursing home that I wasn’t sure about, I would asked him for his advice. Those conversations shaped my drive to always focus on improving the customer experience or employee work environment.
That focus has a leadership element to it. Were you always comfortable being a leader?
I was! My mother told me she knew when I was a young I was a natural leader, a sentiment that was confirmed when she listened in on us kids playing outside. She told me I was always the one directing everyone.
Were you competitive?
I’ve always been competitive but never to the point where it clouded my judgment or I was pushing other people out of the way to get what I wanted. My competitive spirit is focused more internally- pushing myself to be better. I remember coming home in tears because I got an A- not understanding at all why I didn’t get an A+!
Who gave you big breaks, Vanessa?
I have to mention my parents first. My father was big on education and told me I could do anything I wanted to do with my life, not to let my race or gender get in the way, but I had to be educated to succeed and help.
My mother, on the other hand, kept me grounded and taught me how to serve and take care of individuals. Since being young, I always wanted to help those in need and she taught me to never think more highly of myself nor separate myself from anyone else regardless of their socioeconomic status or walk in life.
The other person who had an impact on my career was the general manager of the nursing home I worked at right after I finished college. Even though I didn’t have my dietician’s license yet, he hired me anyway knowing I had all the education and he had faith in me I would get my license in time.
Within a year of taking the dietician job, I was gravitating back into management by sticking my nose into the administrative leadership within nursing homes. Creating my own projects which I would discover in need of improvement. No one ever asked me to take on extra projects; I just did it because it would improve operations and systems and I was bored and looking for more challenging work. I realized I wanted to be in executive management and decided to enroll at Eastern University for my MBA, Health Administration.
How would you define your leadership style, Vanessa?
I’m pragmatic, strategic, analytical, realistic and bottom-line driven. Over the years, as I worked my way up the ladder, I discovered that if I wanted to improve efficiencies and stay in the black, I couldn’t operate from emotion. When work has to get done, I don’t let my emotions get in the way. I am focused on the end result.
How did you hear about the opening at Brandywine Health Foundation?
After a 15-year stint in the City of Philadelphia as an Executive Director/Managing Director overseeing statewide health promotion programs, then making a pit stop to in Maryland as a Vice President of Community Health for a regional health system, I had a lot of friends and connections in the Philadelphia area. One of those connections recommended me and the search firm suggested I apply.
Were you surprised when the search committee selected you?
I’ve always had a desire to work in philanthropy, so I was excited when I was offered the position. Ironically, the strategic plan I created in Maryland had the exact same priorities as BHF.
Looking out over the next six months, what are your priorities and focus?
I try to look at where the natural opportunities are for the Foundation. My priority is expanding the infrastructure and operational capacity of the Foundation. I intend to focus on improving efficiencies within the Foundation’s operations and since I’m new to the county, building relationships is equally important. From there I want to drive the Foundation to become more visible in efforts to improve health with measured impact.
Since no one is certain what will happen to the Affordable Care Act in Washington, I would like the Foundation to continue to be on the forefront of making healthcare accessible and affordable by all.
There are other important policies and reauthorizations that the Foundation can get behind in partnership with others, like continued funding for Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and The Farm Bill that is up for reauthorization soon. The Foundation can play a key role in making sure residents of the Coatesville area have equal access to health, health care and food.
What’s your impression of Coatesville so far?
I’m very excited about the economic development and revitalization happening around Coatesville. Coatesville and the many partners are ripe to embrace the Foundation’s focus to create a culture of health by folding and embedding health into policy, economic development strategies, and other countywide and local initiatives. I have found in Coatesville that many of the Foundation’s partners and community residents share a common value “strive for diversity & inclusion through health equity for all”. As a leader of a Health Foundation being good stewards of our endowment means investing with integrity.
Conversely, the Coatesville area is in dire need for coordinated and integrated health, social and behavioral services that lead to sustained improved health outcomes. The Foundation will remain true to its mission, to improve the health and well-being of people who live and work in the Greater Coatesville area by fostering community partnerships, providing capacity building support, and making grants to promote Health Equity, Healthy Youth and a Health Community.
There’s a lot to do, lots to learn, a lot of relationships to develop!
Finally, Vanessa, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It came from Mike Connor who was the general manager of the first nursing home I worked, who I mentioned above. I was frustrated with my team and commented that I didn’t understand why the team didn’t get it. He stopped me and told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Vanessa, there aren’t a lot of little Vanessa’s running around in the world” and that I always had to be cognizant that everybody had their own perspective. It’s my job to build and lead the team in a unison direction.
That was telling for me and lit a passion for building teams from a place of strength and fairness. This has manifested into my passion for addressing inequalities using team based strategies. It doesn’t matter who a person may be, what the policy or procedure is, one person’s interpretation may be different from others because 1) their values are different or 2) they may come from a different culture or background, or 3) they are impacted differently from being born into privilege verse poverty; either is inherited and not chosen.
No matter what the circumstance each person will look through their unique lens, values and experiences. My role as a leader is to get the team to acknowledge differences, find common values, and remove barriers that may prohibit understanding and the ability to get the team to reach their full potential.