Bridgette Heller’s 2013 HBA Woman of the Year speech

Bridgette Heller
Bridgette Heller
HBA’s 2013 WOTY

Thank you, Ken, for that very kind introduction. I am deeply honored, thrilled, and humbled to stand before this impressive audience.

We’re all here today because we support HBA — its purpose and its work. This organization and its dedicated volunteers, like HBA STAR Eve Dryer, do a great deal to promote leadership development within our industry. HBA serves as a catalyst to help women in health care fields advance their careers worldwide. Founded nearly 35 years ago, HBA has made a very significant contribution to this industry. I know it has ambitious plans to grow and to become an even more powerful influence in the future. We all know that more is possible, and together we can help make what’s possible real.

Before sharing a few reflections, I’d like to do two things. First, I’d like to acknowledge what a true honor it is for me to share this celebration with so many wonderfully talented people: previous WOTY honorees, Rising Stars and Honorable Mentors. You inspire me.

Many previous WOTY honorees (like Carolyn and Catherine, Meryl and Freda) reached out to me personally following the announcement. This was a real reminder that we — women — lead and compete differently. Many of these women took time to prepare me for the year to come. They showered me with advice, counsel, flowers and sentimental well wishes – something most men wouldn’t do – and I am grateful.

Rising Stars, when I think of what you’ve accomplished early in your careers and then of the vast potential that lies ahead in your futures, I’m a little bit awestruck. There will be challenges on the journey but you will overcome; you will change the face of this industry.  Thankfully, you will not journey alone. You will have the support of many people, like Kevin, this years’ HBA Honorable Mentor, along the way.

Finally, I must give thanks to a few very special folks here today — thanks to Laurie Cooke and the HBA for this amazing celebration; to my friend and colleague Nancy Miller-Rich, thank you for introducing me to HBA and for caring enough for me and for our company to champion my nomination. Thank you to the many personal friends, mentors and sponsors who have so generously shared their wisdom and support throughout my journey. Thank you to my colleagues across Merck who allow me to bring my whole self to this work daily. And, of course, many thanks to my awesome family. I’m sure a few of you will acknowledge that we type A’s are often not easy to live with, even when we strive to put family first.

I have the great blessing of having been born into a village where love was abundant and standards were high. My mom and pops are joining me here from Florida. Both are celebrating birthdays this month so I want to say Happy Birthday to them! I also married into an extension of that village and I built upon that with enduring friendships. I am who I am largely because of this collection of people. They nurture me. Again, I am grateful.

Now, I’d like to share a few reflections that I hope you will find resonant, thought provoking and perhaps even inspirational. The beauty of an occasion such as this is that it gives you an opportunity to look into the rear-view mirror. As I did that, one theme jumped out at me with clarity –the power of authentic connections in nurturing my potential and in shaping my relationship to power.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that a couple of critical nurturing connections in my life truly enabled me to unleash my personal power. This was a revelation for me.

From early on, I don’t believe that my “power” was a concept that I have been comfortable thinking about, let alone talking about. I think this is true for many women, even those in powerful positions.

I will start with a little background. I spent my early childhood in the segregated South. I attended segregated schools until about 6th grade. This was not a hindrance for me personally. In fact, remember that village I mentioned when I thanked my family? I’d have to say that the African American teachers from my early childhood were a part of that village, as were the people in our neighborhood.

My academic talents were evident early within our village, and everywhere I went it was made very clear that I was to embrace and to live into those talents. In other words, I was expected to achieve my potential. Genuine connections within the community made it very clear that power lay in education. Power was defined as an ability to provide for and to protect one’s family. Education provided access to better jobs, money and, hence, power by that definition.

School integration was a little unsettling because within my village the one true limitation to potential was believed to be skin color. In our environment, ethnicity definitely trumped gender on the power spectrum. Whites were powerful; blacks were not. Luckily, I met many white teachers –Miss Cogar (AP English), Mr. Nadar (high school drama) — who did not buy into that power stereotype. I also had white friends whose parents appeared as interested in my academic success as those within my village.

But, in 11th grade, I had an authentic connection which must be counted as a setback. I ran into Mr. Oscher. I wanted to take an advanced math class and Mr. Oscher convinced me I could not. I won’t bother laying out the reasoning, suffice it to say, he convinced me I was not smart enough. As I look back at it today, I realize that Mr. Oscher used an authentic connection to stunt my power, to make me question it.

Now before you write that off to the sins of the past, let me assure you that this is not such an unusual scenario. In fact, it happens every day in our companies.

A high-potential young woman in our industry recently related a story to me about having taken a lateral assignment for three reasons: 1) she thought she could learn something; 2) the company needed her to do the job; 3) she truly believed she could help. The day she stepped into the role, the CEO said to her, “This is a great opportunity; don’t screw it up!”

Another woman spoke to me of a scenario where she was told by her manager that her biggest issue was that she was “too smart”; people could not relate to her. Seriously?

In effect –these managers are doing precisely what Oscher did: they are squashing potential; they are inhibiting these women from unleashing the full power of their knowledge and ideas to drive growth in the business.

As I thought about these situations, they reinforced to me that our greatest power as leaders comes from our ability to create space for all individuals to be comfortable with their personal power. To be clear, the definition I am using here is different than the way in which it was defined in my village growing up. In this context, what I mean by “power” is a capability, a strength, a force to make things happen, to pull people and teams together to bring about change and achieve goals.

In my life and career, I’ve been fortunate to have had outstanding mentors and sponsors. Each one of them saw power and potential in me that sometimes I did not see in myself. Every one of them encouraged me to step toward power – not to shrink from it — to capture and direct that force, that potential, instead of allowing self-doubt to put me on the safe path.

My first boss at Kraft asked me every single day “what did you do for the consumer today?” It was his way of creating a power framework for me that was very different than that of my peers. This guy truly believed I had the “power” to make a difference for consumers. By the end of the first week, I believed it, too! I believed it because every day we talked about it and we did it.

Very early in my career at Kraft, I was traveling with the division’s chief marketing officer, someone several levels above me. We were in a car, heading to a meeting with the ad agency and she turned to me and said, “You’re going to be a CEO someday; I’m just holding the door open for you to get to the chair.”

What an amazing example of power in leadership! Her name is Ann Fudge, our friendship is legendary. Ann is truly a “servant leader.” She has never felt threatened by up-and-comers; instead she always encouraged and enabled others to rise. As you can tell, Ken Frazier, my CEO, epitomizes that type of leadership. When you’re confident about yourself, you can see the power in others and help unleash it.

The way I look at it, the idea of helping women advance breaks down into three categories. One has to do with environment –where leaders of organizations purposely create workplaces that are conducive to women stepping up to take on higher-level positions and responsibilities.

Another element simply comes down to what women can do for themselves to move ahead, by making the most of their own strengths and capabilities, by recognizing the power that’s within each of us, and having the confidence to exercise it.

Finally, there’s what others can do to help. Here I’m talking about mentors and sponsors, the people like my friend Ann who generously give of themselves so that others can do better – and so the business can prosper for the long term. Kevin spoke about this aspect of power in leadership earlier.

We came here today to applaud the HBA and the progress women have made in the health care industry. But let’s be clear, we’re also here to signal how much farther women still have to go. Women make up 47% of the workforce, yet only 4% are CEOs.

So we need to pull together. We must recognize our inner strengths, have the confidence to go toward power, and use the power within all of us to unleash our potential, to change this industry for the better.

In closing I want to share two experiences that came to mind for me when I first learned that I’d been selected as the HBA Woman of the Year. Let me tell you about Bianca Baily. Bianca is a Girls Inc. girl. She grew up in Texas. Her mom died when she was two years old and unfortunately despite her father’s best efforts Bianca was often homeless and hungry. Last spring, Bianca graduated from Howard University with a degree in chemical engineering.

She credits her involvement with the Operation SMART Program at Girls Incorporated (Science, Math and Relevant Technology), for nurturing her love of science and helping her to survive some very difficult life circumstances. Bianca has gone on to pursue a PhD in engineering with a dream of working to improve the worlds’ access to clean water.  She is a brilliant young woman. She has been celebrated at the White House as an agent of change and she was named as a “Young Futurist” by her university. When you meet Bianca you are absolutely struck by the confidence and inner peace that she radiates. She brings her whole self to every situation and she seems to understand and embrace her own power. She inspires me. I find myself wanting to create an environment that attracts young people like Bianca to come to Merck; to change the world from within our company vs. outside of it.

The second experience is from a school retreat in Blairstown, NJ. My youngest daughter attends Princeton Friends School, a Quaker school. PFS provides for Sara the type of village I grew up with, where the love is abundant and the standards are high. Every year PFS hosts a three-day family retreat. This experience occurred during my first retreat. At the close of the retreat the entire community gathered in a send-off to the graduating 8th grade students. It was a big Quaker meeting format where we held the kids in silence and gradually anyone who was moved to could speak. When the 8th graders spoke, typically to each other but a few to others in the community, I was awed.

These kids reflected a tremendous universal support for each other that I simply cannot describe. It was beyond inspiring.

In a world where the headlines are so often about middle school bullying, here was a group of kids professing the value of each individual, not regardless of their differences but because of their differences. The kids literally talked about people being accepted for who they are. They talked about uniqueness, diversity and different perspectives as assets of the community, making it richer and stronger and more vibrant. It was a powerful, emotional experience for me. I was moved to tears.

This is a true nurturing environment, free of prejudging, where students can express themselves without fear of being ridiculed or second-guessed. The result is that students and teachers build up each other’s confidence and self-assurance. And this enables students to recognize and tap their power and creativity – they’re able to unleash their potential.

Just think for a moment of what could happen in your business with this kind of nurturing environment. Just imagine the power that could be unleashed. Imagine the amazing things that could be accomplished by harnessing that collective support and releasing people’s confidence and creativity.

We are the leadership. We have the power to create this space and in so doing to make a true difference in the lives of the people we work with and, ultimately, to generate more value for the consumers, customers and shareholders we work for.

Thank you.


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