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When a CEO sees a talent need and fills it

John Bluford, founder of the Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute, an intensive summertime program for promising African-American college students. The institute, which just completed its fourth summer program, is fueled mostly by passion to fill the gap of minorities in health care leadership.
John Bluford, founder of the Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute, an intensive summertime program for promising African-American college students. The institute, which just completed its fourth summer program, is fueled mostly by passion to fill the gap of minorities in health care leadership. WikiCommons

This is a story about an executive who didn’t just say, “There’s no diverse talent in the pipeline.” It’s a story about an executive who did something about it.

The talent that John Bluford looked for was minorities – specifically African Americans – who might aim for executive careers in health care, an industry where only 14 percent of leadership positions are held by minorities.

Bluford, who served as CEO of Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo., and Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, was often the only African American in his top health care leadership circles. He noted that, while nearly one-third of patients nationally are minorities, their ranks are far thinner in health care management.

So, in “retirement,” he founded the Bluford Healthcare Leadership Institute, an intensive summertime program for promising African American college students. The institute, which just completed its fourth summer program, is fueled mostly by passion to fill that gap.

Bluford, 66, personally interviews students – usually freshmen or sophomores – at Fisk University, Florida A&M, Morehouse College, North Carolina A&T State and the University of Missouri-Kansas City to each year select a class of 14 minorities. The students are paid $600 a week plus room and board to spend two weeks in Kansas City, hearing prominent speakers, visiting companies, nonprofits and health care institutions.

“They don’t have to be students looking for health care careers,” Bluford said. “We’re looking for bright students with leadership attributes, and then we do a heavy dose of training in life skills, etiquette, budgeting, presentation skills – everything that would teach executive presence. We tell them, ‘You’re always on stage.’ 

The year after their Kansas City intensive training, participants get help obtaining summer internships around the country. All this on an operational budget of about $130,000 a year, largely because Bluford donates his time and most of his expenses (although his institute board did insist he draw a small stipend this year).

Bluford wants to build at least a $1 million endowment for the program to live after him, and he believes corporate, foundation and individual support will make that happen because his mission resonates.

“We have major health care disparities in serving the minority population in this country,” he said. He’s hoping more leaders of color can address that.

After four years, Bluford said some of his “graduates” have landed pipeline jobs in health care. Others are in graduate schools, including some in medicine. One chose Wall Street, but that’s not a loss in Bluford’s book: It’s executive presence the institute helped foster.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford,kansascity.com/workplace

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