By Tara Duke
I had the opportunity to sit down with Jess and chat with her about her formative years, pivotal moments in her growth and stepping into her own, and making choices that were best for herself and the people she loves. Come with me and peek into what makes Jess a unique part of the GKS team.
T: Jess, tell me, if you gave your growing-up years a title, what would it be?
J: “Desperately Seeking Jess!” I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted out of life and what I wanted from myself. It took a while, but I did finally figure it out.
T: What is something you look back on fondly from this period in your life?
J: I really enjoyed the experiences that being an “Air Force brat” gave me. Getting to move around, learn new things, and get a new perspective was important to my growth and gave me a better understanding of the world around me. The only exception to this was during my transition from middle school to high school; needing to start over and make new friends during that intense period in a teenager’s life was a bit rough.
T: Definitely understandable. What would you say are the key experiences from your youth that helped shape who you became as an adult?
J: Beyond moving often, high school was a time where I spent a good amount of time self-reflecting and deep-diving into the question of my sexuality. I did end up coming out to my family and close friends in high school, which was a really pivotal moment. While in high school, I also got the opportunity to be a youth ambassador to Israel for 6 weeks. The group I went with was very diverse, and the experience was eye-opening. And then there were sports: playing team sports was something that has been, and still is, a key part of my life. I played basketball, soccer and still play softball today.
T: Wow, I am happy you could take those steps towards self-acceptance and that you had a core support group! As you continued to mature, were there any pivotal experiences as an adult that changed who you were or your outlook on life?
J: Yes, I feel lucky to have them in my life. I actually took another step in this area when I came out in college. It is a bit of a funny story: I was at a college leadership camp, and they had us complete one of those activities where you take a step forward or backward based on if something applies to you to show privilege and bias. One of the questions was to step back if you were part of the LGBTQIA+ family, and with that step, I came out in a public way.
My family and I also had a very scary and challenging experience when my 14-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia. She is eight years younger than I am, so I was away and well into my career with Deloitte at the time. Fortunately, I was a bone marrow match, and she was able to make a full recovery. As you might imagine, this is when health care became my area of focus.
Last but definitely not least, I met my wife during grad school at UCLA. We were joined by our son, who is now 2. They are the loves of my life.
T: You have been through a lot, but it sounds like you have built a beautiful and fulfilling life through it all. Small detour: tell me some fun facts about yourself!
J: My claim to fame is that I ran the Malibu triathlon in 2013, and I beat Jillian Michaels' time.
T: No way!
J: Yep, that really happened. Her bike may have fallen apart or something in the middle of the race, but I am proud nonetheless! I also got to go to Africa twice while in grad school; I had an internship with an NGO where I delivered mini-MBAs to non-profits.
On the flip side, I also got sent to the Principal’s office in 6th grade…so I wasn’t always an angel.
T: Of course you did! Let’s talk about your career; how did you make your career choice, and did it mesh with who you are as a person?
J: As I mentioned before, I started my career with Deloitte and focused on the public sector. My sister’s battle through leukemia made me realize that I really wanted to focus on the healthcare space. When I was ready to move on from consulting, I went to Kaiser Permanente, where I worked on implementing the Affordable Care Act. I had a series of happy, although somewhat meandering, roles from there and eventually was forced to leave when my wife got a position as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. So that brings us to the present day in Madison, WI, where I am the Associate Director of Research Operations for the Health Innovation Program, and also I am now the Director of the Neighborhood Health Partnerships program (NHP). The NHP program provides ZIP code level health quality and outcome data to neighborhoods in Wisconsin to help identify opportunities for health and health equity improvement, build partnerships, advocate for change, and more.
T: Makes sense. As you moved into leadership, what stands out to you as key leadership qualities?
J: Empathy…I also think that leaders should be facilitators. As leaders, we must facilitate our teams by developing a shared vision rather than creating one in isolation and hoping for adoption.
T: Great answer…who has inspired you over the years?
J: I really love seeing women helping women and bringing them along on a forward path together. And Stacey Abrams! Enough said! She lost her election, but instead of moping, she immediately turned around and helped others win. We should all be like her.
T: Let’s talk about hobbies… What are you into?
J: I really enjoy cycling, triathlons, CrossFit, softball…in case it hasn’t become clear yet, I am an all-around athlete. I also love to cook and am a bit obsessed with trying out different diets and how they affect the body.
T: What about goals? Where do you see yourself in ten years?
J: I would love to start my own consulting business.
T: Nice! With that, what legacy do you hope to leave behind?
J: I hope to have inspired some movement towards improved health and/or health equity in this world, even if it is on a smaller scale.
T: Those are some worthy goals; as we wrap up, what do you hope to accomplish with the network that GKS provides?
J: I love that this is a group of like-minded people who explicitly want to share ideas and then work together to make them (or the good ones at least) happen!
T: Jess, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me and letting us behind the curtain!
Photo courtesy of Jessica Bonham-Werling