In the late 1990s, entrepreneur Kelvin Westbrook met developer Paul McKee Jr., and soon thereafter they had a long conversation about health care access and inequities.
At the time, Westbrook and his family had just moved to St. Louis from New York and were trying to find some meaningful volunteer opportunities. McKee was chair of BJC HealthCare’s Board of Trustees and was looking for a fresh look at the challenges facing Christian Hospital.
Both Westbrook and his wife, Valerie Bell, are Harvard Law School graduates.
“I’m fairly creative in my approach to finding solutions,” said Westbrook, president and CEO of the consulting firm KRW Advisors. “McKee came to appreciate my approach to problem-solving. I did not know how much interest I had in health care until it was front and center.”
For more than 15 years, Westbrook has volunteered as a problem-solver for BJC HealthCare system – serving as a board trustee for 12 years and a Christian Hospital board member prior to that. And at the beginning of January, Westbrook became the health system’s new board chair – making him the first African-American or minority to chair the board of trustees at BJC.
Westbrook’s five-year term puts him at the helm of the region’s largest employer, with a network of 13 hospitals and reported revenue of $3.8 billion in 2012. Westbrook succeeded Don Ross, vice chairman of Enterprise Holdings Inc.
“Kelvin knows BJC, and he knows the St Louis community,” said Steven Lipstein, BJC president and CEO. “Kelvin has always encouraged BJC’s board and leaders to make health care more available, more affordable, endlessly in pursuit of even better patient outcomes. He wants St. Louis to be a healthier community.”
Lipstein also said that BJC must be an inclusive environment. Out of 17 board trustees, there are three women and three people of color, he said.
“While we are not yet where we will be someday, as openings arise and opportunities present, we will continue to seek out more women and minority leaders of BJC HealthCare,” Lipstein said.
Sense of responsibility
Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, Westbrook was one of 11 siblings and the son of a bishop for the Church of God in Christ. Being involved in that larger community, he saw how the lack of quality health care and economic resources affected some of the church members’ lives, he said. He also saw how some others would step up to help those in need.
“We saw firsthand how the church and my parents would give their time and other resources to help the lives of those less fortunate,” he said.
Westbrook attended middle and high school in the suburbs of Tacoma during the late ‘60s and ‘70s – when more of society started to be transformed during the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, he said.
“I have been fortunate to benefit from all the hard work and efforts of the generation before us,” he said. “My access to opportunity – educational and others – are the direct products of those efforts. There is a sense of responsibility that I feel and my family feels as a result of the sacrifice of others. It’s coupled with church teachings I learned growing up.”
His wife, Valerie Bell, grew up in Brooklyn, and she still considers New York a second home.
The power couple met at Harvard, where their three children – Lauren, Erinn and Brent – have also attended. Both practiced law in New York for more than a decade. Shortly prior to moving to St. Louis, Westbrook got involved in the “telecommunications explosion” by becoming a partner in a limited partnership that purchased a Charter Communications affiliate. He ultimately wanted to start his own business, and subsequently he did that.
But first, he sold his partnership interest and took a year off to volunteer by mentoring young African-American teens in St. Louis. He then co-founded the cable and telecommunications provider Millennium Digital Media, LLC, where he served as president and CEO from 1997 to 2006.
Westbrook serves on the corporate board of Archer Daniel Midland, a Fortune 500 company whose headquarters in Decatur Ill. will soon move to Chicago. He’s also a board member at Commerce Bank (St. Louis) and Stifel Financial Corp. (headquartered in St. Louis), among others.
When he and Bell moved to St. Louis almost 20 years ago, their children were 9, 6 and 1. They both have always believed: To whom much is given, much will be required.
“We quickly identified that our passions galvanized around education and health care,” said Kelvin, who has also served as board chair at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Soon after arriving in St. Louis, Dr. William Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University, asked Bell to be an attorney in the St. Louis Public Schools desegregation case. Both Bell and Westbrook strongly believe that the two pillars of success are health and education.
Health isn’t just what happens in the exam room, and Westbrook understands this, said Jason Purnell, assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.
“He understands how important education is as a predictor of health outcomes,” said Purnell, who leads a team currently researching health disparities among African Americans in the region. “The fact that he is focused on both of those issues is crucially important. Westbrook is an accomplished business executive and also somebody who cares about the community.”
Westbrook said he also will work towards expanding opportunities for young people, including African Americans and other minorities, to pursue careers in healthcare.
Lee F. Fetter, group president for BJC, said Westbrook had a strong influence on increasing workforce diversity as board chair of St. Louis Children Hospital.
“Kelvin’s philosophy in this regard is simple and direct – effort is important, but results are the only true measure of intent,” Fetter said. “Kelvin played a key role in the creation of a new leadership position, vice president for diversity inclusion and equity at SLCH and BJH – a first for the two BJC teaching hospitals.”
He has also been a strong advocate for increasing St. Louis Children's financial commitment to community-outreach programs and improvement of hospital care programs that directly benefit minorities and low-income families, Fetter said. Westbrook said he is proud that BJC is now reaching into the community through piloting initiatives such as Raising St. Louis, which provides pregnancy and early childhood services to residents in five North St. Louis zip codes (call 314-747-7785 for information).
“It’s an interesting time in health care, as you know,” Westbrook said. “Throughout my careers, I have learned that I do my best work when there are no obvious solutions. Some people run to the fire, and some people freeze. I would rather embrace the situation.”
With the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Westbrook said BJC has a number of new regulatory issues to consider. Overall, the changing landscape in health care is going to present a number of new challenges, he said.
“We have to do something – and the ‘something’ is the big question mark,” he said. “We have an opportunity to make some inroads. We’ve been blessed as a system with great leadership. Our platform is not broken; it’s very strong. We are well-positioned to withstand the changes ahead.”