In Conversation: AbbVie Executive and Family Reach Board Member Melissa Walsh On Career and Community
Just because you start in one place, doesn’t mean you end up there. This was the case for Melissa Walsh, who began her career in lead paint litigation. While she developed her passion for helping communities in that role, she’s now Vice President of State Government Affairs at AbbVie — and the newest member of our Board of Directors.
I had the distinct privilege of chatting with Melissa about her interests, career path, thoughts on Family Reach’s mission, and even some advice on how to grow both as a professional and human being.
Adam Heidbreder, Administrative Assistant at Family Reach: Before we talk business, how are you doing in this ‘new normal’? Any quarantine tips for us?
Melissa Walsh, Vice President of State Government Affairs at AbbVie:
Before the pandemic, I loved to travel so it’s been a challenge to find creative ways to change my scenery. I’ve been spending as much time with my wife and family as possible, and I’m also a short-distance runner and have become an avid ambassador of Peloton over the past year.
My big tip for working remotely is differentiate between work and non-work hours. The two were blending together in ways that were not healthy for me! Also, it’s important to see people’s faces and not just hear their voices – which is why Zoom helps with not feeling overly disconnected.
Adam: Alright, let’s dive in. What was your first significant job in your career, and what did you get out of it?
A litigator! I’m an attorney, and my first job out of law school was practicing as a plaintiff-side litigator. I specialized in lead paint litigation. A lot of my clients were primarily very poor families whose children had been impacted by landlords who hadn’t protected them within the confines of the law and they needed an advocate.
We all have a customer or a client — it’s important in any role to identify who that is. It could be a customer, a patient, or anyone. Understand who you’re serving and what they need from you.
You have to recognize the needs of a community, which sometimes pushes you outside the four corners of your job description. If we limit ourselves to our job descriptions, we’re not going to achieve the best results for our clients, and we will limit the satisfaction that we get out of doing the real work.
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Adam: From there, how did your career evolve?
In every role I’ve had, I found opportunities that went above and beyond what was expected of me. In most cases it led to experiences that opened doors to my next role.
As a litigator, I took a leave of absence to run a state senate campaign. Through that campaign, someone asked me to go to Partners Healthcare. I loved it. In that role, I had the amazing opportunity to impact first-of-its kind-healthcare legislation, which was what the Affordable Care Act was modeled on.
Through that experience, Deval Patrick asked to quarterback the $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative. That enabled me to get involved with building something new and important from the ground up.
I think the best thing that we can do for ourselves and our career is be open-minded and flexible, and allow ourselves to get pulled into different projects. That’s where we can distinguish ourselves from our peers and allow ourselves to be ready for what’s next, even if what’s next is something we’ve never thought of before.
Adam: Why the healthcare industry?
Healthcare is the great equalizer. It touches each of our lives every single day, from areas of general wellness to mental health to illness and disease. We know that diseases don’t strike only those who can afford it. For me, being able to participate in the amazing work of a company, of an industry that is specifically patient-focused, has been an incredible privilege.
I don’t take the work that we do every day for granted. I’m a patient myself, a consumer of healthcare, and I’m someone who cares about protecting the health of the most vulnerable. The healthcare industry gives me the greatest opportunity to have an impact on people’s lives.
Adam: You just started a new role at AbbVie — VP of State Government Affairs. How does it feel?
It’s terrific. This is a critical time for patients in the United States. COVID-19 has created even more dire circumstances for patients and families who were already vulnerable. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play a role in increasing access, and to make sure that it’s protected for the patients who need that access to healthcare the most.
Adam: Our partnership with your team is truly invaluable. AbbVie’s generous $5 million gift, for example, propelled Family Reach to a whole new level. What made your team so sure about Family Reach?
Family Reach did. We were very focused on identifying organizations that were not only doing work that supported our philanthropic priorities, but could also deploy resources in effective ways. Given the magnitude of the $350 million we were committed to disbursing, good stewardship of those dollars was a critical component of our analysis and assessment.
Family Reach did an amazing job demonstrating that they could use those dollars swiftly, and in ways that would drive incredible impact. Funding was their only major hurdle from doing more for more people. They made it easy for us to plug into their strategic plan — and they’ve done all the great things they committed to doing with that money.
Adam: Now we’re lucky to have your voice on our board! What does the Family Reach mission mean to you?
It reminds me that our responsibility as individuals is to protect and support our neighbors. It makes me remember how close each of us are, irrespective of economic status or geography, from catastrophe hitting our families. The ability to play a role in preventing a circumstance that is completely untenable for a family is an incredible privilege. I am honored to be a part of the board, and to help continue its mission!
Adam: What do you hope to accomplish as a Family Reach board member?
I think that our collective goal should be to eradicate financial hardship for families impacted by cancer. It’s an incredibly ambitious goal, but taking our sights off that as the ultimate goal would take away from achieving the impacts for our families that they need us to.
Adam is an administrative assistant who wears many hats, both figuratively and sometimes literally. He is passionate about the Family Reach mission, and when he isn’t working, he enjoys spending time with family and friends, writing, and listening to way too much music.
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