A century ago, my Mexican great-grandfather, Ricardo Angelo Mestres, died of the Influenza of 1918 at the age of 39. Born in Tampico, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, he had lifted himself up from sweeping pool halls to support his widowed mother and five sisters. And then, some years later, he fell, alongside the estimated 40 million other souls taken by that last plague. My grandfather, his son, and the family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where I was born and raised. As a boy who came to the U.S. speaking no English, my grandfather was stewarded and mentored by an American industrialist and philanthropist and went on to get an education that charted a multi-generational path of opportunity for his descendants, of which I am one. This origin story contains the roots of much of what brought me to Truveta. Pandemic. Philanthropy. Identity. Opportunity. Being a good ancestor.
For the last seven years, I have had the honor to lead Seattle Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country – centered on equity with a mission to create a stronger more vibrant community for all. I came to the role of CEO of Seattle Foundation after more than 20 years in high-tech, negotiating and building partnerships globally. I chose to leave a blossoming career as a VP at Microsoft to, in some ways, return to my roots, explore my identity as a multi-ethnic white presenting father of a multi-racial family, and truly find my values. It was a terrifying and bold move and a sort of managed mid-life crisis of exploration – of service and purpose.
What courage I mustered to make this radical shift in my career was partly inspired by another Ricardo Mestres. My big brother, the doctor who after 20 years as an entertainment executive, went to medical school in his late forties and is now an emergency medicine physician in Los Angeles on the front lines. I remember our frantic phone calls a year ago as he came off his shift seeing patients with COVID-19 filling the ER. I was trying to get a sense of what he knew clinically as I planned the largest philanthropic effort in Washington state history. We were trying to rapidly respond to the sky-rocketing and urgent needs of individuals and families most impacted by these economic and public health crises, all laying bare the horrific racial inequities that have existed for far too long. As I asked him question after question about his public health opinion of this nightmare we were all facing (given the chaotic, distorted and gap filled information available), Dr. Mestres’ repeated and exhausted answer haunts me to this day: “We don’t know.”
Leading Seattle Foundation was the most rewarding, challenging and humbling job of my life. I had the opportunity to work with thousands of mission-oriented organizations tackling the most perpetual challenges of modern society. The first briefing I received as CEO included a stark data point: the average life expectancy of a resident of the lowest income zip code in the Seattle region was 17 years less than the average life expectancy of someone in the richest zip code. 17 Years.
My time with the Seattle Foundation convinced me that we must do things in new ways; we must do differently. I learned four fundamental lessons in my years working in and with community on the inequities that hold us back.
1. Centering on racial equity was not only a moral imperative, but a data driven socially scientific one as well.
2. The world we live in is plagued by five areas of inequity – wealth, education, representation, environment and health. In each of these, systemic and institutional racism habitually and perpetually impacted and marginalized communities of color first and worst. The only solutions that showed any lasting progress were those that helped populations most impacted and then, in turn, generated universal gains for all.
3. I learned the important distinction between intervention, prevention and re-invention. Along this continuum, by necessity, those of us working in and with community have so often been dragged towards intervention on symptoms, rather than re-invention to address root causes, in a desperate attempt to alleviate as much human suffering as we possibly can from our position of power and privilege. That focus was absolute during this last year of crisis.
4. I saw the insipid effects of fragmentation in understanding the problems of society as well as the dampening effect of wildly disparate attempts to address them.
Based on these learnings, Truveta represented for me a non-declinable opportunity to re-invent a collective approach to inequity that aims to establish insights on health. It could shine a light in new ways on pervasive health inequities while generating knowledge and insight that will truly save and improve lives. Why do African American women with breast cancer have higher mortality rates? Why is it that 1/3 of the nurses who died of COVID-19 early in the pandemic were Filipino and yet Filipino nurses only make up 4% of the nursing population? Why are Native Americans disproportionately impacted by diabetes or Hispanics are 50% more likely to die of liver disease?
Today these questions can only be asked and too often abstractly speculated upon. What I’m most excited about is the opportunity to answer them by reinventing our approach to equity in health using powerful data in new ways to inform and drive change.
Born of the founding health systems deeply committed to the communities they serve, Truveta is working to make it possible for researchers, health care providers and others to embrace doing differently, with a vision of saving lives with data. For the first time, we are building an at-scale data set that can provide knowledge to providers and researchers to inform and generate change and extend knowledge across communities from urban centers to rural areas empowering every provider to be an expert. We will do so with a transparent approach and deep commitment to data reflective of the ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic diversity of the nation. We are building the Truveta platform to fuel understanding – leading to discovery and better care for communities.
The health of our local communities is inextricably tied to the health of our global community in almost every way – health, economy, climate, opportunity. In my past role, we worked in close collaboration with others nationally and globally to build learning networks. That same principle applies to the core of Truveta’s values. Learning and scaling effective impact.
My passion for joining Truveta is simple – it is the opportunity to reinvent our approach to address community well-being and health equity, informed by data. I believe Truveta and its ethical innovation with partners will stimulate a positive impact that can change the course of countless lives in so many communities all over the world. It must be done and, for me, I had to be part of it.