When Lorraine Vargas Townsend arrived at athenahealth last year, she didn’t find what she expected: for the first time in its twenty-year history, the leading healthcare IT company was in turmoil. She faced dwindling teams not hitting their numbers while an activist investor started buying company stock.
After five months of high HR turnover, she found herself in charge of the entire HR function with the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously revitalizing the culture, meeting business objectives and, ultimately, shepherding athenahealth through their first reduction-in-force. Luckily, Vargas Townsend was already a repeat champion over adversity.
The newly minted HR head possessed the ideal leadership philosophy for athenahealth’s metamorphosis because of her own personal experiences. From dropping out of high school to coming out as gay to getting cancer at age eighteen, her early life shaped the way she is reinventing the HR function to elevate athenahealth to get back to growth and prioritize an inclusive culture. “Given what I’ve lived through, there’s no business challenge that scares me,” she says. “I know I can always win.”
The daughter of an immigrant single mother, Vargas Townsend observed the disparity in opportunity based on appearances firsthand. After moving from Panama to the United States, her Colombian mother was left alone with her three American children who could easily pass for white. She cleaned hotel rooms and worked at grocery stores to make ends meet, while raising Vargas Townsend in an environment rich with strong female Latina role models. Yet, Vargas Townsend knew she had advantages that her darker-skinned family did not.
“I felt like an impostor on both sides,” she says. “Inside, I felt like a first-generation American, but I was treated with a lot of privilege that was not extended to my mom or to my darker-skinned cousins who lived down the road but didn’t have the privilege of having a white father.” The first chapters of Vargas Townsend’s life, however, didn’t lack its share of obstacles.
At age fifteen, she came out as gay to her conservative family in a small town in Texas. She says that her environment at the time was not exactly supportive, which compelled her to leave high school and instead work to support herself. She earned her GED and began taking college classes. Two years later, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. The prognosis was dire, but Vargas Townsend describes it as the best thing that could have ever happened. It reunited her with her family who came to terms with her sexual orientation. That experience made their bonds stronger than ever. “I was dying,” she says. “That finally made all of us realize what was really important: family.”
Once healthy, she returned to college at the University of Texas to earn a bachelor’s degree and then start her HR career at Dell. She spent the following twenty years cultivating a track record of helping big industrial companies navigate their often stagnant industry. Those are the skills she’s been putting to use to help athenahealth recover from staff reductions and to renew their legacy of double digit growth.
Although she admits that, at first, she wasn’t totally sure her HR team would be able to get through the company’s difficulties with her. “They didn’t have a ton of experience, but they challenged me to see that raw potential counts for a hell of a lot,” she says. “When people care and are aligned to their purpose, they almost always rise to the occasion.”
First she integrated HR operations and services to achieve a “One HR” service-delivery model and created an Employee Relations team. Then she scaled the cross-functional department to a global team that’s still hungry to see the company succeed.
Those initial obstacles at athenahealth resulted in an HR team built on personal and deeply trusting relationships, which Vargas Townsend considers a hallmark of her leadership style. The next step was extending that authentic care and collaboration to the entire employee population. Now, Vargas Townsend is rallying project leaders around a talent-management strategy that she refers to as “putting human back in human resources.” Her “Give, Get, Grow” initiative targets the employee life cycle by creating opportunities to invest in each individual on a more personal level.
“Every person is like an iceberg,” she says. “The more we help people let down their guard and bring their entire selves to work, we will have a better work environment and better results at the end of the day. Assumptions about people and which category they fit in no longer belong in the world we live in today. We must acknowledge and respect our differences.” For example, Vargas Townsend admits she still comes out every day when correcting others inquiring about her husband (“Actually, my wife”).
By attracting and empowering the best, diverse pool of talent, she adds, companies like athenahealth can have an impact on fixing the healthcare problems in the United States.
“As an HR leader, as a lesbian, and as an light-skinned Latina, I know that diversity is more than first impressions,” Vargas Townsend says. “I try to create a work environment that honors inclusion as an invitation—inviting people based on what makes each person uniquely them rather than how they fit into a category. ”
The following quarter, the HR team launched a class called “Your Career” and certified frontline HR employees as career coaches. It is a promising beginning for the new mutually beneficial culture—between employee happiness and the bottom line—that Vargas Townsend envisions at athenahealth and eventually workplaces everywhere. Looking ahead, Vargas Townsend hopes to initiate that positive ripple effect through athenahealth’s inclusive, people-first strategy.
“I hope by the time my daughter gets a job, she knows what she wants out of life and a community of friends, mentors, and leaders help her along the way to make a difference in the world,” she says. “It sounds like utopia, but that’s what I want for her and for athenahealth, and I know I can build it.”