In the early days of the pandemic, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) in South Los Angeles faced a shortage of face masks and isolation gowns for doctors, nurses and other medical workers.
“As you can imagine, the dwindling supply of personal protective equipment, combined with the unknown, created a lot of fear among our staff,” recalls CEO Dr. Elaine Batchlor.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, another CEO was coping with COVID-19 risks emerging in her industry. Bank of the West CEO Nandita Bakhshi was working to protect her employees while serving customers—including those at the bank’s branch just three miles east of Batchlor’s hospital.
“Just like nurses, teachers, and grocery store clerks, our bankers are essential workers who, from the very beginning, have been on the frontline,” says Bakhshi.
While the bank began implementing new procedures and steering more customers to digital services, Batchlor found solutions in surprising corners. MLKCH is a “safety-net” hospital that serves 1.3 million residents—many from low-income and vulnerable communities. Its emergency room saw an astounding 110,000 cases in 2019, more than double the average for a hospital of its size. It is a keystone of the South LA community.
As the COVID crisis spread, local seamstresses went to work and donated hundreds of masks and gowns; Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jo Becker and her colleague Tim Arango at the The New York Times wrote of MLKCH’s plight, bringing a flurry of donations; Tesla and Target and other corporations contributed gear; and then, in mid-April, Bank of the West gave the hospital $350,000 for emergency use.
At the time, CEOs Bakhshi and Batchlor did not know one another. And, yet, their worlds share surprising similarities: both are leaders in essential businesses, and both their industries employ women as a majority of their workforce.
As women of color, they also share a determination to drive change: Batchlor’s parents took her as a child to the Poor People’s March on Washington and taught her to not accept the status quo, and Bakhshi emigrated from India, started her career as a part-time bank teller, and rose in an industry where just two percent of bank CEOs globally are women.
Means & Matters brought Bakhshi and Batchlor together for a conversation about gender, race and leadership during COVID-19, and, as naturally happens in a year of confinement, cooking. They began the conversation thinking about the next generation of leaders.
What’s Your Advice for Young Leaders?
How has race—either as an immigrant or being American-born—shaped your career?
Nandita: There are not too many immigrant women in the upper echelons of the banking industry. So I’ve had to prove myself every step of the way. I didn’t start off with a network of friends, mentors or advisors. I didn’t know anyone of whom I could ask: Hey is that a good job or should I move to that company? And because of those early days on my own, I think I learned how to move from company to company and be OK with personal risk. Which leads me to my favorite career advice: take a job that is one third comfortable, one third stretch, and one third white knuckle of terror.
Elaine: My parents attended Dr. King’s I have a Dream speech, and they took me to the Poor People’s March on Washington. I also had an uncle—a self-styled revolutionary—who fed me on books written by the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. And partly because of their influence, I grew up wanting to be both a doctor who could heal bodies and a social advocate who could help to change systems that need to be changed. I worked in a lot of different areas of healthcare. I’ve been in academia. I’ve worked for a healthcare foundation. I’ve worked for insurance companies. And I’ve worked in managed care. And every time I made a change I had naysayers who told me I was crazy to leave this job and I was crazy to take on this other job. What I found is that making changes opened doors for me, and taking risks led to new opportunities and made me a better thinker and a better leader. I’m happy to say that none of those naysayers turned out to be right.
What Are Your Thoughts on Careers and the Workplace?
What are your Woman of Color insights during COVID-19?
Elaine: Through this pandemic we’ve come to see and appreciate our essential workers and to recognize how dependent we are on them. Health care is an industry where women do a lot of the work. Most nurses are women. And many other health care workers are women. A lot of them are also low income and people of color. So, as a woman and as a person of color, I’m very concerned about how we protect and support our essential workers. I must say that is one of the reasons I am disappointed when I see people who refuse to wear masks, because they continue to go to stores and interact with people who are there to serve them, and who deserve to be protected.
Nandita: For most banks, the branch network is the frontline of the organization. And those folks are mostly women who are earning an hourly wage. They are some of our most junior employees. Taking care of them and keeping them safe has been one of my most important priorities. I started out as a teller, which helps me empathize and recognize what our frontline workers need to stay safe and also help customers through this crisis. I’ll add that as a person of diverse background, it has felt natural to me to convene individuals from different cultures and professional backgrounds toward a common cause.
Let’s close with life at home during the pandemic. What moments of joy have helped you get through this time of confinement?
Elaine: I have two boys who headed off to college in the fall 2020, so what I’ve enjoyed most has been the proximity of family. We ride bikes as a family and we have friendly competition around the bridge table. And of course there’s cooking – good old fashioned comfort foods like quiche, macaroni and cheese, soups and stews.
Nandita: I’ve gone back to cooking as well. I hadn’t cooked in the last six years, and recently set up a full kitchen again to test out my basmati rice pilaf and lamb curry. My husband is so surprised. I’ve also brushed up on my singing. I used to sing years and years ago. If you’d heard me recently, it might have been an audio assault. But, I think I’m getting better… And, I think my husband agrees.