I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessie Wusthoff, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Clover Health, a Medicare Advantage company empowering
its members to live their healthiest lives by utilizing its own technologies, platforms and data insights to power interventions and improve member outcomes.
A proven change catalyst, Jessie has spent more than a decade breaking down stereotypes and building inclusion to facilitate cultural transformation. She is dedicated to developing women in leadership and creating awareness around the impact of unconscious bias while also increasing the presence of disability and intersectionality in the greater diversity and inclusion conversation.
Prior to Clover Health, Jessie began the Diversity & Inclusion program at advertising technology company Quantcast and also ran her own life coaching business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I was definitely a strong-willed kid who was always getting into trouble. Looking back, I’m actually very proud of the fact that I was always exploring and not letting things get in my way, even if it did mean that I was sent to my room fairly regularly.
When I was born, my left leg wasn’t fully developed, and doctors told my parents I would not be able to walk. However, at seven months old I started trying to take steps. In my childhood scrapbook, my mom has a picture of me climbing to the top of furniture with the caption, “my ‘disabled’ child,” mocking the label I had been assigned by doctors.
Before I was one year old, I had my first prosthesis, which allowed me to run around and be a very active child. I was fortunate that my parents never expressed anything to me about living life any differently, and so I lived in ignorant bliss as a young child.
I had countless significant surgeries growing up, including some unique enough to be covered by Los Angeles and San Diego news outlets. This meant I was in a wheelchair for extended periods of time throughout my childhood.
For one surgery, doctors expected me to miss six months of school, but I only missed two weeks. The reality is, we all have limitations. However, even at nine years old, I wasn’t interested in someone else telling me what my limitations would be.
I had great doctors, and they are the reason I can walk today. I also had great parents who weren’t going to insist that there was only one, limited road for me to walk down.
There were a lot of great things about my childhood. But as I grew up, I started to realize that the world saw me as ‘different’ in a way I didn’t fully comprehend. I now understand much more about the discomfort and bias I experienced as a child, and continue to experience from people today.
Looking back at what I endured makes me grateful to have a role as a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Manager, where my literal job description is to help improve how people like me are viewed and treated.
Why did you join your current company?
It’s an incredible opportunity to do D&I at a company with a mission that coincides with my personal passions. Additionally, it’s unique to have this role at a small organization that is proactive about diversity.
Clover Health wasn’t trying to fix a reputation issue or check a box by hiring me, but is actually sincere about and dedicated to improving D&I. The moment I decided I really wanted the job was when I was waiting to meet my interviewer and saw someone with a visible disability.
Having a disability myself, that was a very meaningful moment and made me feel like I could be comfortable here. While waiting again for my second on-site interview, I saw another person with a disability, which showed me that I was seeing the norm, not an exception. I wanted to be part of this community, and was excited that I wouldn’t have to represent disability all by myself.
During my interview with one of the co-founders, we discussed his reasoning for wanting this role, and why he was so focused on integrating diversity initiatives. His responses were sincere and motivated by an understanding outside his own bubble. He knew he had the power to contribute to D&I in a positive or negative way, and used his power for positivity.
The work we’re doing here is dedicated to making things better for communities that are generally underserved, and a lot of people within the company want to make sure we’re doing that across the board — not only for our members, but our employees as well. I’m so empowered here because the company understands the importance of diversity.
Instead of spending hours telling people why diversity is good, I can spend my time working to make things better. Having people in majority groups genuinely concerned about unequal accessibility for underrepresented demographics, and engaging me to help them improve it, is the exact type of allyship I need to truly make an impact.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I recently organized a conference with Breaking Glass Forums around disability allyship in the workplace. It’s an extremely rare conference topic, even within the field of D&I.
I’m often invited to events around race and gender, but had never been invited to an event about disability and wanted to address that gap by creating my own forum. I find that one of the most disruptive things you can do is create a truly safe space for people who don’t know what you’re talking about or how to talk about it.
People are so afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing that they often avoid the conversation all together. We need to create safe learning opportunities if we’re going to include the disability community.
Even as a person with a disability, I understand the sensitivities around talking about disability and the disability community because there are so many different language preferences within it. We’re all fighting for equality, but nuanced phrasing is intimidating and can be detrimental to what we’re trying to accomplish.
If I, someone with a disability myself, don’t always feel comfortable having the conversation, it’s not surprising that it can be difficult to find allyship outside of the community.
My ultimate goal is to have disability become a common focus of the D&I conversation by encouraging people who may feel uncomfortable to engage anyway. If I can help others feel more comfortable, then I believe I can make progress in helping them become allies and advocates for change.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
My impactful mentor has been Cynthia Owyoung. She is the founder of Breaking Glass Forums and currently the VP of Diversity & Inclusion at Charles Schwab.
While I have worked and volunteered alongside her at multiple events, we initially bonded over a lunch set up by a mutual connection. I was able to be transparent with her about my personal experiences as a woman with a disability and the level of understanding from her was new and different for me. It was so impactful for me because she wasn’t afraid of my story. Talking about being a woman with a disability didn’t make her uncomfortable. Cynthia was a refreshing shift from and an amazing woman from whom I have learned a lot. I continue to partner with her on various diversity conferences and events.
How are you going to shake things up next?
Clover is releasing its disability and veteran representation numbers for the first time, and I’m spearheading the effort to shine light on areas that are often insufficiently examined by the D&I community.
This list goes beyond the handful of demographics we’ve talked about so far, and we’ll continue to find more levers to pull to become more diverse and inclusive. I’m also very excited to be speaking at more companies about disability in the workplace, to try to get as many people thinking about the topic as possible.
Can you share the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was when Cynthia challenged me to continually step outside my comfort zone and do the things that scare me. Because, if something scares me, it probably means I’ll also grow as a result of doing it. Part of what makes her a great mentor is that she not only gave me this advice, but continues to hold me accountable to it.
When we met, I was in a rough career situation and wanted nothing more than to retreat to my comfort zone 100 percent of the time. I wanted that safety. Sometimes, taking some space for ourselves in our comfort zone is part of the process, but she helped me see that at a certain point I was hurting myself more than helping myself.
It’s also a good example of how we don’t always take our own advice. One of my biggest goals is to get people comfortable with being uncomfortable and here I was, totally unaware I was limiting myself by avoiding discomfort. Her unwavering support is why I’ve been able to grow a lot in recent years and take large steps toward my ultimate goals such as planning the Disability Allyship Forum.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?
Posterchild by Emily Rapp is my favorite book. It is the story of a women who has a prosthetic leg, and how she grapples with her identity and relationship to her own body. Obviously, it is very relevant to my own experience.
I’ve never had a friend with a prosthetic limb and I’ve always been on my own with my experience. Being able to read a book in which someone was so honest and vulnerable changed my life. She was the posterchild for March of Dimes, and I was featured in Children’s Hospital’s marketing materials, so we were both posterchildren in our own right.
I highly recommend this book as a way to begin understanding the complicated intersection of personal experience and disability.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
I would love to meet Cher. People know her as a singer and actress, but she’s also an advocate. She has supported veteran groups, the LGBTQ community, speaks about her experience with dyslexia and so many important things. But, beyond that, she is unapologetically herself.
I have always looked up to people who own their truths, and have been a fan of hers for a long time. Having the opportunity to have a genuine conversation with someone who seems like the epitome of “real’ would be amazing.
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Originally published at medium.com