How I made it: Jessica Walsh, Managing Director of Healthcare at Hill+Knowlton Strategies
For our latest inspiring stories series, 'How I made it', we're interviewing the cream of the crop across all facets of communications and marketing. This is where you'll learn about how the best in the industry got to where they are today and hopefully pick up some tips along the way to help your own career progress.
Jess Walsh leads the London Healthcare practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Originally from the New York office, Jessica has close to twenty years of experience in global health communications and advocacy. For over a decade, Jessica has worked in London on European, UK and global clients, developing ideas for people-centred healthcare projects that improve outcomes in areas as diverse as HIV, MS, cancer and vaccination. Here, she talks to us about how the right search string at the right time kicked off her career and why she wouldn’t be without her waffle iron…
How did you get in to the communications industry?
A few years after university, I was thinking about going to medical school, so I went back and did two years of science courses at Columbia University. While I was studying, I became an HIV testing advocate. When I eventually decided that the actual experience of practicing medicine wasn’t for me, what really stood out was the communications – making sure people really understood their health in ways they could understand - to communicate and reduce risk – that started to really stand out to me as something I was good at that mattered. I actually googled ‘HIV and communications’ and ended up in an agency in New York working on their HIV portfolio with people who are still friends and colleagues, 16 years later. The decision not to become a doctor was actually the best medicine for my career.
What was your big break?
Saying yes to coming to London for six months, then staying for ‘another six months’ when asked, over ten years ago. That, and getting to step outside of my health work and do an assignment that stretched the bounds of my comfort zone with a major London public sector organisation after taking some time out to work on a personal creative project – saying yes to opportunity seems to be a theme here.
What keeps you sane on those crazy days?
I love what I do. Everyone who does what we do knows that the days are big, and full of twists and turns. But, I’ve never not wanted to come to work. What keeps me sane is the belief that the work that we do, when we do it well, can make a real difference to people’s experience with their health. To me, health, after love, is the most important thing we have and it’s a privilege to work in a complex, private and personal space. We’ve worked really hard in the agency to build a team with a strong culture, a clear purpose and work we’re proud to do.
The other thing that keeps me sane is relationships – my family and friends are beyond special to me and I make a lot of time to hopefully let them know that. Showing up in person or on the phone takes effort, but the rewards of real, tended relationships are sweet. One of my best friends is an exceptional hand-written card writer and sender, and I want to bring that habit back into my life. My work colleagues are beyond good to me and have made an originally accidental expat feel very much at home in London.
Other rituals I count on include a Sunday morning yoga practice and evening meal prep – don’t ever discount the therapeutic effects of chopping. As a health leader, I also believe deeply in the curative powers of cinnamon, sugar and hot chocolate in moderate doses.
Do you, or did you, have a mentor?
Probably the reason that I stuck with H+K through an incredibly intense and busy start in our NY office is a man called Daniel Montoya – he was incredibly influential in HIV policy before joining our business and it was career-defining to become his colleague – his ability and positive attitude coached me through so many challenges early on. These days, Gill Hardy is a great source of inspiration and an incredible sounding board within WPP. I think I am also very lucky to be able to look to my parents, who are still my biggest supporters and honest counsellors. They both worked in service-oriented careers – my Dad still works at 75 - and this helps me remember that the reason that I do what I do is not about getting to the next level, it’s about the difference that I make to people.
What three words best describe you as a leader?
Intentional. Inviting. Evolving.
What career advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Let your light shine!
As a female leader, tell me about your experience of getting to the top.
My experience has been shaped by having a strong Danish working mom who never let me think of myself as anything other than capable, and, along with my Dad, their friends and family, created a framework for me to thrive. When I was 18 I went off to Wellesley College outside of Boston, which is a women’s college – this unbelievable community of almost breathtakingly inspiring women - where you’re given a mandate and the support to go out into the world and do your thing to make a difference. I don’t think I’m at the top, or that I’ve made it. I think I, with my team, have a huge piece of work to do to continue to make the world, our industry and agency a better place.
While my own childhood was ripe with privilege, my mom grew up in Denmark during WWII and her father and mother were active in the resistance. They took a massive leap and were very hardworking immigrants to the US in the late 50s – my mom essentially raised her two siblings whilst building a life with my Dad and I’m a result of their focus on education and creating a supportive place for my brother and me to fly from.
I’m lucky. The women in my early life – my mom and her sister and my mom’s friends - had supportive men around them who believed in them and a lot of personal drive, guts and talent, so I don’t know or expect anything other than that. I know that’s not the case for everyone, so I try to enable and role model those same frameworks for my team and within our businesses. I work hard and spot opportunities to keep growing. I’ve also been fortunate enough to align myself to bosses who have supported my development and recognised me as an individual. It has been a very conscious choice to work with leaders who are supportive to women.
What are the top three things you would do to improve diversity in the industry.
At H+K, we’re spending a lot of time on diversity. We tend to use the word ‘equality’. We’re thinking about how to change the culture and I think that that is the heart of the challenge in the industry. Becoming more diverse isn’t the domain of the HR function - it’s about developing a creative culture that supports equality and educates on why we are where we are and what we need to do to support lasting and positive change.
I think we need to look at this not just in terms of talent recruitment but also how people feel once we invite them through our door. Do the power structures and frameworks that come into play support people not just to feel like they belong, but also to feel like they can thrive in an environment that perhaps at first won’t look or feel familiar?
What piece of technology can you not live without?
It’s a tie between the iPhone and the waffle iron. My iPhone because I can’t do my job or FaceTime my niece without it. Waffle iron because the world seems a much brighter place when you see the faces on your family and guests when you start dishing out yeasted waffles. Try it. (Recipe available on request.)