Through Executive-in-Residence program, students gain access to visionary entrepreneur and veteran healthcare leader

Under VCU Health Administration’s new Executive-in-Residence (EIR) program, students and faculty gain a direct link to healthcare leaders who can complement their MHA and MSHA education.

Re-introduced by the department this year, the EIR program establishes a partnership with a healthcare leader who has an interest in assisting students in preparation for transition from an academic setting to a practice environment. The leaders mentor students virtually and are on-site at VCU at least once a year.

“What the executive does from there is really in their court, and based on their unique area of expertise,” says Paula Song, Ph.D., the Richard M. Bracken Chair and Professor of the department. “Students are able to access and be mentored by these professionals, who graciously give us their time, explain industry culture and practice, and help faculty evolve the departmental curriculum and programs to best prepare our students for leadership roles in the world of healthcare.”

Howard Kern and Sheronica Burgess

For 2023, the Executive-in-Residence (EIR) program engaged two VCU Health Administration alumni — each of whom has carved their own path in the field.

On the traditional track: Howard Kern, MHA ’81, Chief Executive Officer Emeritus of Sentara Healthcare

Howard Kern retired as President and CEO of Sentara Healthcare on September 1, but will consult with the Hampton Roads health system until his official retirement at the end of 2023.

He says the opportunity to serve as an Executive-in-Residence at VCU came at the perfect time.

“After 43 years as a practicing healthcare leader, I decided to transition from a full-time chief executive, but I feel that I still have much to contribute to improving healthcare and want to give back to current and aspiring healthcare leaders,” says Kern. “In a career as long as mine, you realize that many problems and challenges we face are cyclical in nature. I believe I can guide the next generation of healthcare leaders to learn from my past successes and learnings and share how I might approach certain challenges differently now.”

As the past CEO of the Norfolk-based, nationally ranked health system with $12 billion in revenue and 32,000 employees, guiding students on health leadership is a natural extension of my work with fellows and young executives in the field and a logical next step for serving in an EIR role. I believe I can give something to students that is really complementary to what the school already provides, which is a framework for how to apply what they're learning in a practice setting,” he says.

He wants to develop a seminar that prepares second-year MHA students to transition from an academic to practice, before their third-year administrative residency begins.

A quality expert and visionary: Sheronica (Barcliff) Burgess, MSHA ’13, Entrepreneur

Since graduating from VCU Health Administration nearly a decade ago, the time since has been “phenomenal, marked with great transition and seasons of harvest and sowing seeds,” says Sheronica Burgess.

She’s founder of The Barcliff Group (her maiden name), an Atlanta-based consultancy serving clients nationwide, focused on helping them improve health outcomes and “understand the connective tissue between corporate culture and making an impact in the community.”

She left a corporate job in Washington, D.C., knowing she wanted to become self-employed, “but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted my business ownership journey to look like.” She’d had no mentorship in the area of starting a business.

“Other industries are more open to the idea of entrepreneurship, but healthcare administration tends to be a more traditional track,” she said. “But there is opportunity for entrepreneurship in the healthcare industry.”

She looked to her wheelhouse: healthcare quality, not necessarily management. She founded her own firm to focus on National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) accreditation and regulatory compliance, plus management consulting, strategic planning, communications, and health tech. The Barcliff Group has served clients such as Kaiser Permanente and Imperial Health.

Burgess met VCU’s Song during the height of the pandemic as a panelist on a talk about healthcare advocacy in the Black community. From there, she mentored a student in the Health Administration Department’s mentorship program, and served on a panel for MHA students doing their oral comprehensive exams. She’s also helped with National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) case competitions and counseling various students.

So the Executive-in-Residence program, for Burgess, is a natural extension of work she’s already doing.

“I will be more vocal about my journey to entrepreneurship so that the path can be accessible to others,” Burgess says. She notes some level of traditional experience is needed for an entrepreneur, but there is a growing chorus of healthcare leaders who dream of innovating the field and carving their own path. She wants to help steer VCU’s curriculum to more topics that explore entrepreneurship in collaboration with faculty.

And with equity as a focus of her consulting work, Burgess notes her role in the EIR is also to inspire students who are from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented or excluded in health administration. 

“When I see future leaders who are Black women, as well as students of color and others from backgrounds that have not always been welcomed in the C-suite, I want them to first see what is possible,” she says. “I want to model the entrepreneurial possibilities for us by sharing my knowledge and lessons learned. I want to impart those gems and treasures that were imparted to me and pay it forward.” 

She said she wants to show the rest of the healthcare world that “Black women, and others who might be underestimated based on bias, are competent, capable, and willing. We are here, we’re present, and we’re operating in leadership — both in corporate and as entrepreneurs,” Burgess says. “We’re here and ready to work.”

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