How one fund is tackling health access – and prosperity – for thousands

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linda Lacina, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum

  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • When former Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard J Tyson passed away unexpectedly, his wife Denise Bradley Tyson took on his work to bridge health equity gaps.
  • Working with the American Heart Association, she’s helped drive the creation of a special fund that provides grants and low-interest loans to social entrepreneurs and not-for-profits.
  • In the latest episode of Meet The Leader, she explains how health access gaps can be bridged through entrepreneurship, prosperity, grassroots efforts – and people who lead with their hearts.

During times of great change, when it’s hard to find the silver linings, how can you be an agent of good?

That’s a question that Denise Bradley Tyson has thought a lot about. The answer? Tap into your compassion.

She learned this first from her husband, the former CEO of Kaiser Permanente. He wasn’t just one of 5 Black CEOs at the time. He was a powerful voice for health equity and health justice, using his position to champion care for underserved populations.

She also learned how compassion could drive herself to make change happen. When Bernard passed unexpectedly in 2019, Denise was inspired to find a way to honor Bernard and continue his work.

Working with the American Heart Association (where Benard was a board member), Denise helped launch the Bernard J Tyson Impact Fund. This fund provides grants and low interest loans to social entrepreneurs and not-for-profits, providing both funding and technical expertise to help new projects grow fighting health equity through entrepreneurship prosperity and grassroots efforts.

So far, the fund has helped make a range of dramatic changes possible such as: improving 19,000 people’s access to healthcare, growing 366,000 pounds of fresh produce in areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food; and providing stable housing to more than 300 people.

The fund, she has said, is her “love letter” to Bernard and a tribute to their love and his memory.

I think compassion will drive change in terms of people being mindful of their communities and not putting on blinders to what’s happening around them. ”— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

It’s also a model for other entrepreneurs looking to scale impact. Mechanisms such as seed investment and training for entrepreneurs can help drive prosperity and create the resilience communities need to bridge stubborn gaps in areas such as healthcare.

She explains on the latest Meet The Leader how grassroots efforts can tackle health access and how leaders can harness their compassion to make change happen. Read the transcript below.


Linda Lacina: Tell us about the inspiration for the fund – Bernard.

Denise Bradley Tyson: Bernard, he was truly an inspiration for me and remains my North Star in the work that I’m doing with the American Heart Association. He was such an authentic leader that he shattered barriers to affordable health care. He shined a light on mental wellbeing and he shook up social systems that imperil health and communities of colour and called out structural racism as a fundamental barrier to health equity. And it’s one of the reasons that I respected and loved him so much — because he was so fearless in his advocacy and used his platform as a change agent for good.

Linda Lacina: And after his passing, there’s a million ways that you could pay tribute to his example. Why was the perfect next step this impact fund?

Denise Bradley Tyson: When you lose someone suddenly, I think it gives you pause and you think about honouring that person. And Bernard had such a strong voice he helped me understand why it’s so important for me to continue the work that he, so effectively, led both within Kaiser and outside within the industry and within the community. I thought about him sharing his story about his personal family, medical history, taking stock of who we are and what makes us who we are.

And in my case, my father died of lung cancer, leaving our mother to raise me and my four brothers. In fact, she lost one of her fingers working in a commercial kitchen. In addition, our mother, who remains my original “she-ro” inherited her own family’s predisposition to high blood pressure and diabetes. So, the work of the American Heart Association Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund is very, very, very personal for me. It’s so easy for me to support the fund because it stands for who I personally am. I think everyone needs to think about using their talents and their voice to make a difference — however they can. Being an agent for good is, as the late John Lewis said, in terms of making good trouble.

Linda Lacina: Tell us about the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund. What is its purpose and how is that purpose executed?

Denise Bradley Tyson: The American Heart Association Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund is really focused around changing social economic barriers to healthcare access, which includes food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental wellness.

You know, when I think about the American Heart Association and the amazing work that they’ve been doing for so long, I think what Bernard did was really bringing the head into that equation. From the head to the heart, in terms of the stress and pressures that one faces in their daily lives, even at the highest levels, whether you’re a CEO or you’re driving a bus in the community. And just the ways in which that manifests itself, negatively impacts one’s overall health. And the difference for those who don’t have the financial resources is that they don’t often have access to the help that they need to address those pressures or the issues that may result from those kinds of stresses. And so, the fund is all about trying to level set, creating healthcare equity and giving access to affordable healthcare to those in the community by partnering with people in the communities who are coming up with solutions to address that in their own communities.

And we’ve seen some brilliant social entrepreneurs who we’ve been able to fund in those communities. They’re on the ground and committed to serving the community. Like Bernard, they are authentic leaders in terms of addressing some of those, socioeconomic barriers to having a healthier life.

Linda Lacina: There are a range of projects that the fund is helping make possible. Can you take us through a few of them?

Denise Bradley Tyson: In Chicago, for example, Liz Abunaw is a founder and owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market, where she sells fresh, affordable produce in an under-resourced community through pop-up markets. So, our investments there have helped her to grow her business and open the door to additional funders while feeding the south side of Chicago during the pandemic.

In the Chicago area, we invested in an organization of black nurses who, when they’re not doing their day jobs, are out in the community educating and engaging families in low-income areas about how to improve health and connecting them to help. This group is incredibly inspiring to me, when you think about the stresses all healthcare workers are facing these days. And yet, they’re willing to do this on their own time to help families in their community, low-income communities, training to secure higher paying jobs in technology that don’t require a college degree.

Linda Lacina: Knowledge House has a role with that as well. Can you tell us about that?

Denise Bradley Tyson: Knowledge House is a not-for-profit that we funded in New York, specifically in the Bronx. And it’s a business that provides training for high paying tech jobs that don’t require a college degree, which is huge. Most of the people that we serve are people who are people of colour and those from low-income communities. And the exciting thing about this project, or this program ,Knowledge House, is that it’s working.

Before, the participants in the program, their average income was $14,000. And after the Knowledge House training and securing a job, their income went up to — on average — $80,000, which is huge. I mean, it changes the entire trajectory of a family. Including their long-term health, because we know the stress that’s created by not making enough money to meet and to make ends meet.

Linda Lacina: I think that’s an interesting point with the connection with jobs and economic growth insecurity and health equity. What is that connection between prosperity and bridging health equity?

Denise Bradley Tyson: Health equity and income are very much tied. And I think we saw that in its starkest form during COVID, which is still existing. You know, for example, housing security is a fundamental starting point for health and for racial equity, and COVID exposed the inadequacies in our system of providing housing access and security for all.

So having a job to be able to not only to keep a roof over your head, but also to make sure that you have access to food, are critical and it also impacts one’s ability to have access to healthcare.

You know, as my amazing late husband Bernard always used to talk about, his goal was to ensure that everyone was able to walk through the front door to get healthcare, as opposed to going through the back door, which he called the emergency room. And for those who don’t have income, you know, where you have to make a choice, whether you go to the doctor or have fare to ride the bus to get to work or to pay your rent, it does really become a life or death decision.

“For those who don’t have income, you have to make a choice, whether you go to the doctor or have fare to ride the bus to get to work to pay your rent. It does really become a life or death decision. ”— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

You wait until you can’t wait anymore until you have to go into the emergency room for care. So having job security, I think is fundamental to ensuring you at least have a chance at good health.

Linda Lacina: Another investee of the fund is at Lambda Chi Chi. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how it’s also working to bridge these health equity gaps?

Denise Bradley Tyson: I think all of our investees are such wonderful social entrepreneurs. Lambda Chi Chi is based in San Francisco, and it’s an organization of black nurses who, when they’re not working, are out in the community educating and engaging families. So, they work in low-income areas and teach people about how to improve their health, and also help connect them to health clinics where they can get medical assistance when needed. You know, those clinics that are based in their community or who often provide free care. But again, one of the critical things that they do is to teach people how to better take care of themselves in terms of monitoring what they eat, looking for the signs that might be triggers, whether it’s diabetes or the stress — it’s like the silent killer where you’re under stress and you don’t even know it, which can negatively impact your health, your mental wellness. So, I think they’re doing great work and they are to be commended exponentially for me, because you think about all this stress that all healthcare workers, and particularly nurses who are really on the front line, are doing just in doing their jobs and trying to take care of their own families. For them to find time in their personal schedules to help families and individuals in the community, we were so excited to be able to support Lambda Chi Chi.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And in these communities in New York and in San Francisco, what happens in 10 years? Can you tell us a little bit about the before and after and how these communities will be changed?

Denise Bradley Tyson: This one was sort of brings up a John Lennon song “Imagine.” So, that very much comes to mind when I think about that question.

In 10 years, I hope that more families are being fed and no one’s having to worry about where their next meal is coming from or where they’ll be sleeping that night. I hope that these businesses, that we’re seeding are growing and can better serve, and serve more people in their communities, but also that some of them can be borrowed from and replicated in other communities.

I hope that more people are finding jobs. Not just jobs, but jobs with dignity that enable them to feed and house their families. This was a dream that both Bernard and I shared and I’m so happy to see that it’s being realized in some communities already.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How can this work be scaled?

Denise Bradley Tyson: Our focus is to provide grants and low interest loans to social entrepreneurs and not-for-profits. And I think it’s no secret that businesses and non-profits led by people of colour receive a very small portion of venture capital funds and from private foundations.

And the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund investments are often the first and largest institutional investment that these organizations have received. Working through our network of, volunteers and also corporate partners, we try to facilitate even more funding connections for them. And just by virtue of them having been seed-funded through the American Heart Association Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund, it helps to validate their business model, which, one, gives them confidence to go out, to raise money. But we go above and beyond because it’s not just the money that we are, investing in these organizations. But that also comes with an amazing amount of technical support where the investment team and our volunteers across the country are working with these organizations to ensure that their double bottom line business models, which most of these social entrepreneurs have, is helping to make sure that their profit-loss metric, as well as their social impact metric, is being measured. Because all investors or donors want to see results in terms of the metrics.

“Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund investments are often the first and largest institutional investment that these organizations have received.””— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

We are working to ensure that our investees are able to deliver those annual reports where they can demonstrate those metrics. We’ve helped to get 19,000 people access to healthcare, 366,000 pounds of fresh produce were grown for areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. $1.4 million worth of fresh produce and healthy meals were purchased in former food deserts and food insecure communities. 322 people are living in stable housing now as a result of our programs. And even there’s been a 3% recidivism rate across our portfolio programs compared, to 45% national rate. So, for me, I would call what we’re doing really true impact investing. And this is how communities are being transformed.

That’s sort of been important in terms of my healing journey, focusing on gratitude, as opposed to the sadness of loss. I still miss him tremendously, but gratitude for both the time that I had with him as a husband, but also as a life partner, the learnings that I was privileged enough to gain as a result of being so close to him. But it just brings up going back to the mental wellness component, that regardless of where we sit, practicing mindfulness in terms of our mental wellness is something that each and every one of us can embrace that doesn’t necessarily require money to do so.

Whether it’s breathing, whether it’s taking time out. Sometimes it’s hard in one’s busy schedule just to sit and be still and to get re-energized by just letting go and sort of focusing on how you want to effect change in your life or little differences that you can make. Self-care is not about being selfish. It’s about enabling us to be our best selves and also to support our loved ones in our community in the most effective way that we can, because you know, if we’re not healthy, we can’t do any of that.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What is your advice to people listening to this conversation and looking to make change happen in areas like health equity?

Denise Bradley Tyson: Gratitude is an internal thing. But I think in terms of this being a call to action, certainly for those who have the financial capacity to look at the American Heart Association Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund as a place where you know that your dollars are going towards their intended purpose, we’re seeing that the need is greater than ever. People being aware of social or socioeconomic inequities.

So that’s one way, but then I’d also say people using their voice as advocates. Whether it’s within their companies, within their communities, within their churches, to not only give their voice, but also their time and their expertise to become a volunteer, whether it’s through the American Heart Association or other community organizations to help those who are on the front line focusing on those socioeconomic healthcare disparities that Bernard so passionately and fearlessly led during his time walking among us.

“We’re seeing that the need is greater than ever.””— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

Linda Lacina: You have driven a range of projects and initiatives in your life, but how have you changed as a leader?

Denise Bradley Tyson: Rather than saying change, I would use the word evolved. Because at an age where you think about, again, your personal journey, which I think I shared a bit about, but it’s sort of how can I leverage all of my experience and my relationships to be a change agent for good? And it’s also a reminder. This was both Bernard’s and my second marriage. Bernard, he had had his own health care challenges and talked openly about having had open-heart surgery. We really focused on life and living, as opposed to death and dying. His passing gave me pause in terms of thinking about take no day for granted. I’m sure many of us have heard the expression tomorrow is not promised to any of us. Whether we think we’re in good health or not, circumstances beyond our control sometimes take people out. That every day we’re here, I think that we have the ability, while we’re moving our own personal lives forward to make sure that we are not leaving anybody behind. Making sure we’re using part of our resources and our humanity to look around us, to either support directly by rolling up our sleeves in the community or by sharing some of our financial blessings to empower those who are in the trenches doing the work.

“How can I leverage all of my experience and my relationships to be a change agent for good?””— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

Linda Lacina: What can other leaders learn from this approach of leveraging seed investments and betting on prosperity?

Denise Bradley Tyson: I’ll start with a quote from my husband. He always said: “Don’t ask for permission to help improve lives of the peoples in the communities you’re pledged to serve, but instead march through the doors of red tape, make bold moves and usher in access.”

So, I think that that’s sort of my personal mantra, but having worked in the private sector for many years, I think others can learn by just the spirit of cooperation. And I think, we are truly living in a connected system as we truly are a global village these days.

“It’s really important for us to sort of lead with our hearts.””— Denise Bradley Tyson, Executive Chairman, Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund

It’s easy, I think, when you see it sometimes to become numb to it, but it’s really important for us to sort of lead with our hearts, how we can make a difference in the communities that we have.

Bernard, in his daily route to work at Kaiser Permanente, would pass homeless encampments, and people living on the side of the street. One day he actually walked through these encampments and talked to the people who were living there, and in some cases, helped some of these individuals move from homelessness to temporary housing.

I think compassion will drive change in terms of people being mindful of their communities and not putting on blinders to what’s happening around them.

It’s one thing to listen, but then it’s a whole other thing to take it to the next level and ask, what can I do in terms of the action step?

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