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Martha Molina Bernadett

Graziadio Business School | MBA 2001, PKE 105
Chief Executive Officer and Board Chair, The Molina Foundation

Martha Molina Bernadett is a family physician and member of the founding family of Molina Healthcare, a Fortune 500 company and the largest Hispanic-owned business in the United States.

Martha Bernadett

What does being an honoree of the Outstanding Alumni in Healthcare campaign mean to you?

I am proud to be honored by Pepperdine. I hope that my career focused on providing access to care to underserved or marginalized populations can be an example to others. I have enjoyed serving individuals and families directly as a family physician, indirectly by establishing policy and overseeing systems of care as a Medicaid health plan executive, and finally in the nonprofit sector addressing some of the root problems that lead to health disparities, namely access to education and health.

Describe your road to success.

I have traveled many paths as my career evolved from direct patient care as a family physician in a rural town with "three stop lights and no Starbucks" to leading research, innovation, and digital transformation at a Fortune 500 health plan. Along the way I became involved with philanthropic and humanitarian efforts focused on youth and families including 4-H, Cooperative Extension, and founding a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing disparities in access to education and health.

The experience of caring directly for the poorest and most vulnerable patients and their families in a rural setting was foundational in my work in the years ahead. This ground level exposure to patients and their families helped me to identify issues that needed to be addressed to improve the health of individuals and communities. Some lived in the forest without electricity or running water, many were illiterate, and others simply faced the barriers presented by poverty each day. I listened to their stories. I cared for them and I cared about them. My work later as a health plan executive allowed me to address these issues on a policy level and that included work with major nonprofits and agencies including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Centers for Disease Control, National Governor's Association, and First5.

My career has always focused on providing access to high quality medical care to those who face the greatest barriers to receiving it. This naturally went hand in hand with efforts to address the root problem of illiteracy and lack of numeracy and basic math skills that prevent many people from understanding and following instructions necessary to care for themselves or their families. I worked with Plain Language initiatives addressing doctor-patient communication in English and over 20 languages, and consulted for health systems, hospitals and municipalities who struggled with the challenges of caring for limited English-speaking, economically diverse populations. Curiosity, empathy and listening are what led me to a lifetime love of learning and continuous evolution to identify problems and meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities. It took hard work, perseverance, faith and humility and could not have been achieved without patience, a sense of humor, and support of family and friends along the way.

Who has helped you achieve success in your career?

My parents were most influential in my success. My mother started school in a one room schoolhouse in rural America and became an elementary school teacher. Her parents were hard-working immigrants with a deep faith. My mother taught me to value hard work, education, humility, and selflessness. She taught me to solve problems using logic, data, and common sense; and with humility you can and should learn from everyone. My mother taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. My father was an elementary school teacher, too. He later became a physician, then earned his master's in public health. His relentless perseverance to learn from his business setbacks, overwhelming optimism, and determination to provide access to care to those who were most underserved was inspiring. His public health background also influenced my interest in population health and disparities. Pepperdine Dean Otis Baskin, and professors Wayne Strom, Dave Hitchin, and Kurt Motamedi were also particularly helpful. Otis Baskin taught me about family business transition from one generation to the next; Wayne Strom reinforced that in business "You don't have to react (immediately)"; Dave Hitchin's organizational development lessons guided my decision to choose the "middle lane", to check my ego, and focus on results and developing others, and Kurt Motamedi taught me to take a long-term strategic view guided by listening, observation, and data. In the end, though, I learned from so many along the way that they are too numerous to count. I learned from patients and colleagues, from family, friends and outside executives. Drs. Brian Andrews and Doreen Sabalesky at UC Irvine taught me that curiosity would lead to a lifetime of learning and joy. They were all right. I continue to learn and grow each day. Last, but certainly not least, over the last 23 years, my husband's support has been essential to my success. His love, wisdom, patience, and sense of humor has made it all worthwhile.

Describe a lesson you've learned from a challenging time in your career or life.

My very first night on call in the hospital as a family medicine intern, I was called to the bedside of a woman clutching her chest in pain with one hand, waving the other arm and wailing loudly. She was hysterical and screaming, telling me she was certain that she was having a heart attack. The monitors displayed her heart rate and rhythm as a little fast, but normal. I listened to her heart and lungs with my stethoscope without revealing anything unusual. Her wailing was quite out of proportion to what her physical signs and monitors were conveying. A nurse stayed with her as I stepped out into the hallway to call my supervising resident for help. He was busy in the emergency room, unable to assist me. I was on my own. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and the sense that someone's life hung in the balance. I gave myself a quick pep talk in the hallway outside of her room. "Pull it together. Use your common sense. Stay calm." I had seen people having heart attacks before and there were physical signs that showed it and the monitors would reflect it, too. Everything I knew indicated that this was not a heart attack, but this was my first day as a "real doctor." Was I missing something? I stepped back in the room, asked her some questions and calmed her down. As she calmed down, my heart rate slowed, too. The nurse gave me a knowing smile. I was not the first intern she had seen through such a moment in her career. My respect for her experience and gratitude for nurses on the team reached new heights that night and were never forgotten.

In a moment, my crisis of confidence resolved and taught me an important lesson: In a crisis, the first pulse to take is your own. As a leader, you must remain calm and clear headed. Make judgements based on everything you know, not just what you see at first glance. This applies in medicine every day and in business, too. Question what you see, listen to the answers with an open mind, and always be calm. There is always time to think before you act.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Teaching. My "back-up plan" if I had not been accepted to medical school was to earn a PhD in Organic Chemistry and teach college chemistry. Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to teach others including medical students, residents and other physicians. Still, I've not taught a college class - yet.

"In a crisis, the first pulse to take is your own. As a leader, you must remain calm and clear headed."

Martha Molina Bernadett  (MBA '01, PKE 105)

What's next for you?

"What's next" seems far away these days. I am using my skills and experience to offer consultative assistance where it is needed at this time. COVID-19 has exposed many vulnerabilities in healthcare delivery systems. I have been working with federally qualified health centers and municipalities to help guide their responses to the pandemic. I am also advising non-profit community-based organizations outside of healthcare on how to survive through the pandemic.

In the future, I plan to apply my experience with low-income populations, technology, and big data to early detection of high risk individuals and interventions that bend the disparity curves in both health and education outcomes. I also look forward to sharing my experience with family business transitions, family offices, and private foundations to further philanthropy and social enterprises.

What is your mantra or favorite quote?

Say little, do much.