Navigating the Health Equity Challenge: A Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Discussion

By Mikena Richards

(From left to right): Erika Fry (moderator), Vanessa Broadhurst, Kerry Kennedy, Kellie McElhaney, and Asahi Pomey.

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women (FMPW) conference is an annual event that reflects on the contemporary and historical challenges we face in society that force us to reassess and reevaluate our impact. FMPW is also designed to celebrate a new era for business and business leaders, where they recognize their power to affect change and embrace the responsibility and opportunity that comes with it.

“Started as a list, FORTUNE MPW has evolved into the world’s most extraordinary leadership community, convening the preeminent women in business — along with select leaders in government, philanthropy, education and the arts — for wide-ranging conversations that inspire and deliver practical advice.” — Fortune

This year’s event reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic and its unprecedented impact on business and business leaders. The event put particular emphasis on the pandemic and the social and racial reckoning that coincided with it on a global scale. “Despite these challenges,” Fortune writes, “many businesses boomed and the pace of innovation only accelerated. What’s more, business leaders stepped up, realizing the power of their platform in new ways.” Indeed, the pandemic held a mirror up to our inner and social worlds and emphasized the flaws and feats of how we approach our work in business. Fortune asks, “How do we make sure that we don’t lose sight of the progress leaders have made in embracing a more holistic and empathetic approach to leadership?” The panel, Navigating the Health Equity Challenge, was sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, and included Vanessa Broadhurst, Executive Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs for Johnson & Johnson; Dr. Kellie McElhaney, Founding Director of the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership, and Berkeley Haas lecturer; Asahi Pompey, Global Head of Corporate Engagement at Goldman Sachs and the President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation; and Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

According to Dr. Kellie McElhaney, FMPW has emphasized just that. The event, which she’s attended almost every year since 2008, has only grown more humane, empathetic, and deeply personal over the years. “Over time, there’s been a lot of thematic information around women role modeling aspects of vulnerability and showing up with empathy,” Kellie explains. Kellie also noticed that the events have only continued to grow more and more diverse and heavily attended, and the speaker and participant choices have become palpably more intentional and inclusive. This year’s event opened with Laphonza Butler, a union organizer, former President of EMILY’s List, and current Junior United States Senator from California. Governor Gavin Newsom chose Butler to fill the U.S. Senate seat on October 1st, 2023, after the death of Dianne Feinstein, and is also the first Black, lesbian woman to serve as a member of the U.S. Senate.

Kerry Kennedy (left), Kellie McElhaney (center), and Asahi Pompey (right).

On the panel Dr. McElhaney spoke on, each participant brought their unique perspective to equity challenges in healthcare. Vanessa Broadhurst started the panel by discussing how we might better foster accessibility to medicine by addressing certain logistical barriers, like long FDA wait times, for example. Broadhurst discussed such solutions but also touched on the widely proven social disparities in healthcare, especially for Black Americans. For example, a 2022 Pew Research Center survey revealed that “A large majority of Black women ages 18 to 49 report having had at least one of seven negative health care experiences included in the survey. They are also more likely than other Black adults to say they would prefer a Black health care provider for routine care and to say a Black doctor or other health care provider would do a better job than medical professionals of other races and ethnicities at providing them with quality medical care.”

In talking about options for enhancing healthcare literacy and solutions to racial disparities, the panel began discussing the popularization of barber shops during the AIDs crisis as a location for spreading critical information amongst Black communities. To this day, the barber shop has proven to be a successful environment for sharing and disseminating life-saving information thanks to the culture of trust and safety within them. In a 2022 article published by Patrick Waechter in Our Towns Civic Foundation, a Baldwin Hills, CA doctor William King explained, “If you want to know what’s happening in the Black community, go to the barbershops. It’s a safe space to discuss a range of topics, including politics, current events, cultural preservation, and healthcare[.]” The speakers of the FMPW panel concurred with King on this sentiment. Further, the speakers questioned how we might foster that same sense of safety and community in other environments where people gather — like churches, for example — to continue spreading helpful information about healthcare access, especially given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Asahi Pompey also touched on the need to fund Entrepreneurs of Color and introduced to the audience the One Million Black Women program, a Goldman-Sachs program that “commits $10 billion in direct investment capital and $100 million in philanthropic support to address the dual disproportionate gender and racial biases that Black women have faced for generations, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Dr. McElhaney brought EGAL’s Equitable Design Fellowship into the conversation, noting that the fellow’s work on a meditation app is inherently connected to healthcare. Dr. McElhaney wanted to emphasize that meeting diverse audiences is critical to any app development, but what is also essential is having people from diverse backgrounds working on developing the app. Following this, Dr. McElhaney discussed how app creators will face challenges in meeting broad audiences when things like meditation apps are developed with a specifically white audience in mind, and with a white voice guiding the user experience. The development of healthcare accessibility tools has to integrate diversity to truly thrive and meet the needs of audiences that are especially traditionally neglected in the healthcare sphere.

The overarching themes of this year’s panel focused largely on empathy as a driving force for transforming healthcare to make it more accessible and inclusive. A helpful example used by a member of the panel referenced a study that, using the Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) Measure, revealed healing began at the inception of a white doctor putting their hand on the shoulder of a white patient. The study showed that the patient’s healing was not contingent simply on the medical care they received, but on the disposition of the doctor. It additionally revealed that when that same care is not extended from white doctors to Black patients, the lack of empathy and warmth in the exchange can (and will continue to be) a hindrance toward their healing. These painful truths are why business leaders invested in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging need to come together to discuss the challenges we face in a society that can make equity feel impossible. The FMPW conference shows and reminds us that change is not only possible, but that it is happening, and we must celebrate our feats while acknowledging the work that still must be done to dismantle harmful and oppressive systems.



Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL)

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.