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Lokvani Talks To Brenda Cole

Anil Saigal and Ranjani Saigal

(This article is sponsored by Immigration Solutions)

Brenda Cole, VP Marketplace Inclusion Development

Brenda’s knowledge and experience within the healthcare industry spans 30 years, including tenures at Aetna and BCBS.  Brenda joined Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in February 2012 VP of Customer Service & Sales Operations, and transitioned into her new role in 2013 as VP of Marketplace Inclusion Development.  Brenda is responsible for developing and implementing the strategy that prepares the organization for the changing, multicultural/multilingual demographics, and aligning the Marketplace Inclusion Initiative with the end goal to profitably grow business in new and existing markets, creating customer value through innovation and technology, while delivering the best in-class customer experience in the communities we live and work in.

Brenda authored a non-published book on Mentoring several years ago which assisted in the development of a formal Mentoring Program at Aetna, Inc., and she has been selected as a “go to” Mentor four years in a row by Women Unlimited, Inc., a national program focused on developing women leaders.  Brenda is focused on being an effective leader, and an example of leadership for others to follow.   She is also currently writing a book entitled “Leadership - Up Close and Personal”.  

Brenda was a recipient of the 2015 National Diversity Leadership Excellence Award, which recognized her invaluable work as a leader who has not only achieved personal success, but has made it easier for others to follow in her steps.

In addition to receiving both her BA and MBA Degrees in Organizational Management and Business Administration respectively, and most recently a certification from Harvard University in “Strategies for Leading Successful Change Initiatives”, Brenda is a Board member of both the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM), and Building Bridges For Education (BBFE).

Brenda considers herself a lifetime student, open to learning and growing in her passion to inspire and motivate others to succeed.

Lokvani had a chance to talk to her about her career and activities.

What motivated you to join Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare?

I think there were a couple of things that motivated me to join the Harvard Pilgrim team.  I was extremely happy in my job before coming to Harvard Pilgrim, so I wasn’t looking at the time to move to a different company, but I understood that Harvard Pilgrim was implementing a new Inclusion Initiative, and I knew firsthand and through research that companies that embrace Inclusion outperform their competitors in almost all aspects of their business.  I thought there would be an opportunity to have diversity of thought, in being more innovation and creative in what I did, a place where I could be authentic and quite honestly, to have the opportunity to offer my insight to meet the unique needs of those who represent the changing workplace and marketplace.  Today, I have the distinct opportunity to have an impact to create distinction in the marketplace by sharing our Inclusion commitment, and our Eastern Harmony Program, so that we are not just copying what our competitors are doing, but being more forward thinkers and differentiators.  

Under your leadership, Harvard Pilgrim has worked proactively to reach out to diverse populations. Why do you think that is important for the business? 

There are several reasons why it is important for Harvard Pilgrim to reach out to our diverse populations.

1.     It was important for us to address our changing demographics, while also being able to serve the larger communities who may have previously been neglected or under-served. 

2.     We wanted to promote our company’s brand in a positive and very modern way in the communities we serve, by demonstrating our business inclusiveness of a wide range of individuals, groups and lifestyles, hence our Eastern Harmony Program and Visiting Family Medical benefit through our partnership with IMG..

3.     As part of our Inclusion focus in the workplace, we’re outreaching to a more diverse talent pool of potential candidates to choose from to build upon our already qualified workforce.

4.     It’s also important for us to increase our creativity and innovation by bringing in fresh ideas, and different points of view into the decision-making, problem-solving and  selling processes which can only be a win/win for us.

5.     It has been proven that reaching out to our diverse populations and growing diversity internally helps to improve employee morale and teamwork by making each employee feel valued for who they are, and by being more accepting of what each employee contributes towards a common goal regardless of cultural, racial, lifestyle, age and gender differences.

6.     Lastly, it is our goal to win the trust and confidence of our SA Indian communities and businesses, and hopefully we have achieved that through the great work that Rose Hom and I have done in the last few years.  At the end of the day, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care want to be the carrier of choice for your health insurance needs, the needs of our SA Indian businesses, and the needs of their employees.  So far we have been successful in accomplishing this, but we want to continue to build upon the relationships we’ve established, and continue moving forward in supporting your communities from a health equity perspective, and from a health insurance and health care perspective.

Healthcare continues to be a constantly changing landscape. What do you think are the biggest opportunities for the insurance companies? 

As health care costs continue to escalate, primarily due to the growing chronic disease burden, insurance companies are looking for ways to restructure their financial incentives to better align them with health outcomes and economic value.  I think some of the models being looked at are rewarding providers for their success in driving long term positive behavior changes, and delivering agreed upon health outcomes, and also identifying ways to better use data to understand our customers and what they need to do to change behaviors to live healthier and longer lives.  Harvard Pilgrim has made great strides in these areas, and I think you can look for us to do even more to make sure we are doing our part in decreasing overall medical costs, and implementing health and wellness programs that support healthy eating and healthy living

What are the major challenges? 

Going back to chronic diseases, I think understanding how to manage the rising cost of medical care associated with those chronic diseases, and really understanding what it is our members want and need.  We have a focus on both of these areas and so more to come in the future on what our strategy will be regarding these concerns. 

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care has included complimentary therapies such as acupuncture and other non mainstream medical techniques as part of its Eastern Harmony offerings. Why do you think this is important? 

We are extremely proud of our Eastern Harmony program, and this program didn’t happen by accident.  We were looking for a way to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, and it is a direct result of our Corporate Inclusion Initiative for the marketplace, and our desire to tap into a marketplace that we haven’t been before.  We realized our demographics, specifically in our SA communities were changing, and we wanted to respond to that change.  After years of research and reaching out to these communities, holding focus group meetings, and creating an Inclusion Advisory team, we heard through these groups loud and clear that they were looking for a more holistic approach to health and wellness.  Today, we hear employers tell us that our competitors also offer non-traditional medicine, but they are excited that Harvard Pilgrim has packaged it in a way that is comprehensive and works well with our traditional offerings.  I think it important to offer our members choices in how they view their care, and Eastern Harmony offers this choice.

What advice do you have for customers as they use various offerings from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare to have a healthy life? 

I would recommend that our customers take advantage of what we have to offer through our wellness programs.  These programs are designed to help our members reduce stress, eat healthier, and work to prevent illnesses.  We put a great deal of thought into our wellness plans and we have our customers in mind when designing them, so please, take advantage of them.

I would also recommend that they take the time to understand what their health plans offers, what are their copays and deductibles that apply, and if they don’t understand, ask us questions.  We want to help so that they are proactive educated consumers of their health plans.

You have engaged actively in mentorship roles. Why do you consider this important? 

I have always positioned myself to be a mentor to others.  Mentoring is a passion for me, and I have an obligation to pay it forward.  I’ve been very fortunate in both my personal life and in my professional career.  I am not where I am in my career through mere happenstance.  I’ve worked extremely hard to get here, and I’ve had many obstacles along the way that I’ve had to overcome. When I see someone else take my advice, apply it, and succeed with it, that’s solid proof to me that I’ve earned my stripes, and so mentorship to me is a lifetime obligation, and the rewards are endless.

What advice would you to give to women who would like climb up the corporate ladder? 

I would first say from my personal experience that it is important as a leader to have courage, and what I mean by that is being able to act in the best interest of others, empowering others through personal actions, and in having integrity, and demonstrating grace under pressure.  Lastly, being able to stand for your values, in order to stay true to who you are.

From my professional experience, I would say don’t be clueless.   Understand the impact you are making and know that you can’t do it alone so you have to be able to play well with others in the sandbox. Reach for excellence, not perfection, and finally, lead by example.  

Any special message for our community?

Get to know who Harvard Pilgrim Health Care is, and all that it has to offer to the SA Indian communities.  We are committed to these communities and have been actively engaged in many of the activities that have been taking place.  We’ve established very strong relationships with many of the community and business leaders, and have been highly visible and attentive.  We like to say that “You talked, we listened”.  That’s how Eastern Harmony was developed.  We embrace Inclusion, and understand the value that partnering with your communities brings to our organization.  Finally, once again, we want Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to be your carrier of choice, and we know that we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors in better understanding your culture, your lifestyles, and your needs, and we are proud to be a part of your community.


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