Keynote Speaker Annette M. Walker on Taking Risks

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Attendees of the inaugural Orange County Inspirational Women Awards were treated to an inspiring keynote address by Annette M. Walker, president of City of Hope Orange County. Her condensed remarks follow.

Thank you to the L.A. Times for having this award for the women of Orange County - it’s a sign that Orange County is all grown up!

It is a great privilege to be here today with so many inspirational women who are dedicated to our community.

I want to tell you a story about my daughter, Jesse. It helped reflect on a time in my life where I had to think about being brave and taking risks. Jesse had taken a new job, and she called me one night and said, “Mom, you don’t understand. I’ve never done this before.”

That comment made me pause just for a minute, and then I responded. “Yes, that’s true, Jesse. But every single successful person you know has been in that exact situation. Do not let that stop you. No one has ever done it until they’ve done it.”

I was hitting some great strides in my professional career, but I was playing it safe. Then, out of the blue, I got this call and the person said City of Hope is interested in you. But at that point City of Hope in Orange County was just an idea and a vision of bringing world-class cancer care to the OC.

I wasn’t quite sold - I had never worked for an academic or cancer center, or planned anything from the ground up. I had never had responsibility for construction and I had never overseen a health system. I had to ask myself, am I willing to risk the safety and security of my current situation for so many unknowns? The logical path was to just stay put. So why was there this tension building up inside of me that kept me up at night?

I needed an answer, so I started mapping out the pluses and minuses. I started to see a chance to tend to something great. It would also allow me to test my skills, and it would definitely fill my need to make a difference. Well, as you all know, I did say yes. Our starting team of four at City of Hope Orange County got to work. That was thousands less than my last job, but we were capable and I will forever be grateful to those individuals who trusted me on this great adventure. None of us had ever done this - City of Hope had never done it before. We navigated the changes. We reached employee number 100 in April of ’22. We would add another 250 over the next four months as we prepared for the opening.

As I cut the ribbon to the cancer center, I reflected on that decision that I had made to take on something new. Along the way I learned a couple lessons that I thought might be helpful to you in your journey.

First, many skills are transferable - you may know more than you think you know. One of our construction managers recently asked me: How did you open on time during COVID? What were your secrets?

He mentioned most construction owners throw around a lot of attaboy and they spend very little time on the problems. We did celebrate when things went well, but we spent most of our discussion on the things threatening the timeline. This was based on the lean methodology borrowed from healthcare - that method helped us stay focused on the right outcomes.

The second is don’t close the door on crazy: Every idea could be a good idea. When we were under construction, there were so many barriers to success, a few stuck out. One afternoon, you get this red alert: We have to talk about this, and all it said was “supply chain doors.” We weren’t missing just a few doors. We were missing 500 doors. I know it sounds absolutely crazy, but 500 temporary doors kept us on time.

The third thing I learned was about a goal.

Sometimes we think goals are just numbers. For us, the goal wasn’t just an opening date, it was hope. Do you know that the first Apollo mission was off target about 90% of the time and they kept readjusting? When we announced that we were coming to Orange County, there was this whole community depending upon us - people like Todd. Todd lived in the OC and had to make 67 trips to Duarte for blood cancer treatment. So like the Apollo mission, until midnight of August 21st and until that minute, we mitigated. On August 22, 2022, we welcomed our first patient.

So when I look back on this great adventure and ask: Was it a good trade? Heck yes. The rewards that I received far outweighed the comfort and the security from just playing it safe.

That brings me back to my conversation with my daughter. Have the courage to try. I would personally abide more by the words of Nelson Mandela, who said “I never lose - I either win or I learn.”

If you’re doubting your abilities, I want you to remember this. No one has ever done it ‘til they’ve done it, so next time let that one be you.