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Remarkable Leadership: Meet Yvonne Cook

Our vision is a world where everyone embraces health. In our Remarkable Leadership series, we talk with people who are making that vision a reality by leading the work to create a new system of health, empower our customers and communities, and better support every individual’s health journey.

Yvonne Cook, president of the Highmark Foundation introducing a 2019 Women’s Summit: Power of Diversity event.

Yvonne Cook, president of the Highmark Foundation introducing a 2019 Women’s Summit: Power of Diversity event.

President of the Highmark Foundation and a respected leader who has served on the boards of numerous community organizations, Yvonne Cook says a central theme of her career has been “to connect, engage, and operate in a way that helps vulnerable people.”

She feels a personal urgency to take action and do what can be done to make a difference.

“Just focusing on basics, why are there still these practices and obstacles that impede people from being healthy and happy and treated fairly?” she asks.

Whether collaborating with other leaders, advising a Foundation grantee, or sharing expertise with a community group, Cook isn’t just an advocate for doing the right thing, she is adept at finding a pragmatic way to get the right thing done.

“We will solve problems in the community with passion, commitment, and courage,” she says. “But I’m also the person who will take a step back and ask, what problem are we trying to solve? Do we have what we need to solve it? What else is needed? That’s where I believe the Foundation has been effective — it’s about getting resources to the right place to make a difference.”

A strong moral compass

Cook’s resolve to help others goes back to her childhood.

“We grew up poor,” she says. “My parents did a wonderful job hiding that from me and my brothers as best they could, but we knew. There were times when we had no electricity. So we’d bring out the flashlights and candles — we tried to make it fun.”

Both parents worked multiple jobs. Her father converted from Baptist to Catholic in order to be able to send the kids to a Catholic school, which they saw as the best choice for education. Through both faiths, Baptist and Catholic, and many day-to-day examples, Cook says her parents instilled a “deep moral compass” in their children — a kind of instinctual desire to do good.

“Sharing wasn’t just a lesson I learned in school,” she says. “We lived it.”

By “we,” Cook adds, she means not only her family, but her entire community. “If someone in the neighborhood had a vegetable garden, that’s where the rest of us got our tomatoes and green beans,” she says.

From clerk typist to foundation president: a remarkable career

Cook’s family couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she took shorthand and typing classes and started her career as a clerk typist at Mellon Bank. Over the next 18 years, she climbed the internal ranks while simultaneously earning both her undergraduate and graduate degrees, in public administration and public management, respectively.

When she left the bank, she took her first job in the public sector, as an Arts Program Officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation. Next, she served in the administration of Allegheny County’s first Chief Executive, before joining the Highmark Foundation as president in 2003.

Reflecting on this remarkable career journey, Cook says that, “Every career move I’ve made has been progressive — each step I’ve taken has led me somewhere new.” Similarly, when I ask about her career advice to young women, she emphasizes building on what you’ve done and seeking positions that allow you to grow and take on more responsibility, but also staying open to the possibility that your next step may not be in the exact same field or environment as your last one.

She’s also adamant that she did not get to where she is on her own. In particular, she cites Oliver Byrd, a Mellon Bank executive and early mentor who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. When she was just 20 years old, he recognized her moral compass and talent and got her involved working with a committee at the United Way that did management reviews at different nonprofit organizations. She says that experience offered valuable opportunities to meet many different people involved in community and policy work, and exposed her to a wide range of creative ideas for addressing regional, national, and global challenges.

That ties in to a second piece of advice she offers: Whether you want to do more in your community, or take the next step in your career, don’t be afraid to reach out to others and ask for help. That includes reaching out to her directly. “It’s OK to come to me and say, ‘Yvonne, this is what I’m interested in, can you link me with the right people?’” she says. “If I can, I’m happy to do it. I do it often.”

The Highmark Foundation: Making health accessible to all

The Highmark Foundation is a private, charitable organization dedicated to public health and human service initiatives. Its website, HighmarkFoundation.org, spells out this mission:

Our mission is to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for communities and individuals in the diverse areas served by Highmark Inc. and its subsidiaries and affiliates. This includes rural areas where health care access and human services are limited or nonexistent. Vital to this mission is our goal to continuously identify and re-evaluate our region's prevailing health care needs as they change and evolve.
We achieve our mission by awarding high-impact grants to nonprofits and other charitable organizations that implement evidence-based programs aimed at improving community health and happiness.

That grant money, totaling nearly $3 million in 2018, currently covers three priority funding areas: chronic disease, family health, and service delivery systems. Children’s health has been a notable focus through the years, including programs geared toward bullying prevention and childhood obesity.

“Although we’ve had a hand in some very diverse programs, I also try to keep what we do at the Foundation steady,” Cook explains. “At the end of the day, we’re still trying to solve the same basic problems, many of which come back to people not having access to what they need to be healthy. Over the years, we have evolved a great deal in our effort to meet people where they are. If our vision is a world where everyone embraces health, then we have to be sure that everyone also has access to the services and support and information that makes that possible.”

As we continue talking about the Foundation’s work, it is clear that this commitment to making health accessible transcends any specific program. The health care industry has been expanding efforts in recent years to address social determinants of health, like housing, transportation and food instability, and lack of health literacy and education. In a real sense, that has been part of the Foundation’s focus all along.

For example, Cook tells me about learning that a school system’s nurses, principals, teachers, and guidance counselors were taking money out of their own pockets to make sure that their students had basic items like socks, coats, glasses, soap, deodorant, and feminine products. The Foundation stepped in to provide a small grant to purchase those items. At another school system with many low-income and poverty-level families, the Foundation funded a washer and dryer after teachers reported that students came to school each day wearing the same clothes.

The Foundation is equally responsive to broad population needs like lack of access to dental care. It has provided grants to several organizations that operate free “pop-up dental clinics,” including Call to Care, Inc. and its signature program, Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh. In 2019, this program’s two-day event at PPG Paints Arena drew roughly 1,500 people for everything from cleanings and fillings to more complicated extractions and root canals.

“Many people have health insurance but may not have dental or vision coverage,” Cook points out. “People started lining up at four in the morning for a 6 a.m. start time, so that gives you an idea of how much this is a need in our community. I met one man who had to have 15 teeth extracted.”

The Foundation and its staff have also had influence as thought leaders in health care. They were involved in a pilot program around patient navigation, for example, well before it became as widely embraced as it is now. Partnering with Accenture and the Harold P. Freeman Institute, they worked to make the case for why hospitals should integrate patient navigation into their budget and operations.

“Patient navigators, and the whole concept of coordinating care across a person’s health journey, are valuable changes in how the health care system works, and I’m proud of the contributions we made in that area,” says Cook. “After the pilot, we spoke at an AHIP conference about Medicare and Medicaid in Washington, D.C., and an amazing number of people asked questions related to creating and sustaining patient navigation. These were the questions we had been asking ourselves all along as part of the pilot, so when the time came, we could share our answers.”

A personal commitment to the community

Oliver Byrd, the dear friend and mentor who first got Cook involved with the United Way, recently passed away. She says memories have been flooding back about all the causes they’d been involved in together.

“Over the years, he would bring me in on things, and I would bring him in on other things,” she says. “We constantly pushed each other, because it wasn’t about us. We just kept fighting to make sure people were better off.”

That is also to say that Cook’s work to help the community does not stop with the Foundation. There is a long list of groups and causes she has supported, including serving on the board of directors for Women for a Healthy Environment, and co-chairing a Girl Scouts Western PA Awards of Distinction Luncheon that raised more than $150,000.

A decidedly special accomplishment: being one of the people who helped bring to life the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

She recalls initial discussions going back to her time with The Pittsburgh Foundation in the 1990s. Cook, along with other African Americans involved with a multicultural arts initiative at the time, realized that they had a unique opportunity to develop a more focused strategy around promoting and celebrating African American arts and culture. A key insight was that there were limits to what could be accomplished simply by providing funding for African American programming to established cultural institutions. The step beyond that would be to establish a new cultural institution with African American programming as its core purpose.

“Many different stakeholders had to be involved, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), city council, and community leaders black and white,” Cooks says, admitting that it was a long hard journey to opening the center in 2009, and to sustaining it through the present day.

“People have had to dig down deep, again and again, to make sure it was built, and to overcome a host of challenges,” she says. “But there it is, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, presenting continuous African American cultural programming, and anchoring the corner of Liberty Avenue as you enter Pittsburgh’s cultural district.”

“Get engaged wherever you can”

Although humbly describing herself as “someone who found her way along the way,” Cook exemplifies empathy in action. As a corporate and philanthropic leader, her work has bettered the lives of countless others. I asked what advice she had for people who want to make a difference but may not know where to start.

“Get engaged wherever you can,” she says. “Start with what you’re passionate about. Let that shape your purpose — then be intentional in looking for ways to make progress as you operate within that purpose.”

Emphasizing that “anyone can step up and get involved,” she says you don’t need a title or position to develop a sense of purpose and choose to get engaged.

Early on, I knew that my purpose was service and community work,” she notes. “Think about Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, or the young people who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Think about the people being vocal in the ‘Me Too’ movement. Or think about that nine-year-old who opened a lemonade stand to raise money for his brother’s medical bills. We can all do something, and it can start at any age.”

Like anyone grappling with the many challenges of public health and injustice, Cook admits that sometimes the work feels overwhelming. What does she do when there is just too much bad news or frustration passes the tipping point?

“I have a good cry, and I pray,” she says without hesitation. “I’m someone who works out, so that also helps. And then I get back to work. If you’re in a position of power, you have to be OK at the end of the day and get back to doing what you can.”

She also stresses the value of a personal community — of knowing that you’re not alone in seeing the problems or working for the solutions. Citing her relationship with Byrd, her friend and mentor, she says that over the years there were many times that she was down, or he was down, but, “We could always reinvigorate each other through our connection.”

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