As a part of our commitment to celebrate inclusivity, we are proud to be celebrating Black History Month and recognizing African American women entrepreneurs who inspire us.
R+F Director of Diversity Partnerships, Josefina Aguayo, sat down with our Dermatology partner, Dr. Jenna Lester, to discuss her family’s three generations of contributions to medicine and female African American entrepreneurs who inspire her. A Harvard undergrad, former Brown medical student and current faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Dr. Lester also founded UCSF’s “Skin of Color” program and is passionate about finding modern skincare solutions for people of color.
Josefina: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today! Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you know that you wanted to go into medicine?
Dr. Lester: It’s a little hard to pinpoint, but I knew I wanted to do what my mom did. When I was little, she came to my first-grade class to dissect a cow heart and talk to us about the circulatory system. And I think then I thought medicine and science were cool. There was a period that I wanted to be a Supreme Court judge, so I didn’t always want to be a doctor. I certainly knew I wanted to go into medicine at some point in college, but I had inklings that I wanted to practice medicine earlier than that
Josefina: I understand your grandmother was also in medicine.
Dr. Lester: Yes, she was a nurse practitioner.
Josefina: Is there any advice that your mother or grandmother taught you that stays with you to this day?
Dr. Lester: This is more practical advice. My mom taught me something that my grandmother instilled in her: that every member of the healthcare team is important.
My mom would tell me this story about a nursing assistant who worked in her practice and would give her a heads up about a patient in distress. Based on the hierarchy in medicine, some people wouldn’t listen to someone who wasn’t another doctor. This nursing assistant, who some people would ignore, gave my mom good and helpful information about a patient who needed help.
I think that is something to keep in mind every day when I’m interacting with all different members of the healthcare team; realizing that every single person can be helpful in caring for patients.
Josefina: Shifting gears to talk about overcoming challenges. What challenges have you had to face similar to what your mother and/or grandmother had to face in medicine?
Dr. Lester: That’s a good question. It allows a moment of reflection to realize that a lot of things have improved, but a lot of things have not. There is still a lot of racism and sexism in medicine.
As a black woman, I stand at the intersection of those two identities, and I still get it from both sides quite often. As a veteran of the field and a department chair, my mom still faces things that she experienced when she was in training 30 years ago. It’s a little bit discouraging when those things happen, but I feel very fortunate that I have her to speak with.
Josefina: That’s a great segue. What advice would you give an African American woman considering a career in medicine?
Dr. Lester: Medicine is hard. Leading up to getting into medical school, taking all the pre-med courses, medical school itself, and residency training. It’s a very long road.
I think of the journey as the actual destination. For the young women and men of color that I’m speaking to: you need to identify people who are in your corner when something happens.
To have people who have your back – they don’t have to be in medicine – I think that it’s really important when you’re facing a challenging endeavor. Having people to remind you of why you’re doing something and to lift you up in moments when you feel like quitting is important and invaluable.
Josefina: I love that. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Oprah, “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”
Dr. Lester: It’s funny that you mention Oprah! She is the person I think of when I think of black entrepreneurs who inspire me. She is all-encompassing. She started as someone who faced many challenges. She did something that many thought that she couldn’t do, and turned out to be a wild success.
She has capitalized on this opportunity and has created community in many ways: through her book club, through her magazine following, and now, through the pursuit of health with Weight Watchers. She’s an example of a renaissance woman who was able to take an encapsulated opportunity and one that many didn’t think she would do well in. Not only did she do well, but she turned it into many other opportunities that serve others as well as her own pursuits for success.
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