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Three Women Pharmacy Leaders of Color Call on Lessons Learned in Childhood

Karen Blum
Karen Blum Published: March 3, 2022
Lourdes Cuéllar, BSPharm, MS, FTSHP, FASHP

IN HONOR OF NATIONAL WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH, ASHP is celebrating women pharmacy leaders hailing from diverse backgrounds. In this article, the first of a series of three, we recognize three pharmacists whose early life experiences had lasting impacts on work and leadership styles. From growing up in a Hispanic family during the post-Civil Rights movement, to escaping Vietnam in a boat of refugees, to being raised a first-generation Asian American, we highlight their journeys and their secrets to success.

Speak Up: Your Voice Matters

Throughout her long career in pharmacy, Lourdes Cuéllar, BSPharm, MS, FTSHP, FASHP, encouraged other minority women to assume leadership roles in practice, advocacy, and professional associations. She retired in 2019 as administrative director of pharmacy for TIRR Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center in Houston after 45 years of service.

"Developing talented minority women for leadership positions is no longer an aspiration but a fundamental necessity for our profession," Ms. Cuéllar said. "Minority women who ponder questions such as why, when, or what if—along with visionary transformation goals for our profession—should make the commitment to take a step, even a small step forward, in the direction of their passion and leadership goals."

Growing up the middle child in a Hispanic family, Ms. Cuéllar was curious and easily made friends. Her culture at the time stressed women's priorities as raising and caring for family, yet her parents encouraged all of their children to attend college and find successful careers. She went to college in the 1970s, at a time with quotas for minorities in many higher education institutions. Then, one of her first career experiences was working as a pharmacy intern in the Veterans Administration hospital in Houston, where she and a friend were the first two women ever to work in the department, aside from the secretary.

To make it through these challenges, she relied on a core principle learned early: developing a sense of purpose aligned with personal and professional values. Ms. Cuéllar always strove to emulate the characteristics she admired in leaders: passion, integrity, humility, leading by example, active listening, and finding one's voice.

For example, in 1979, Ms. Cuéllar became the first female pharmacy director in one of the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center. An obstacle she overcame was breaking into the quarterly all male leadership meetings. Having a sense of purpose, addressing common concerns, possessing confidence in her leadership potential, and being committed helped her crack the glass ceiling.

Ms. Cuéllar also made it a point to support other women and other minority pharmacist and technician colleagues by serving as the practitioner advisor for the Mexican American (Hispanic) Pharmacy Student Association, working through the Texas Society of Health-System Pharmacists (TSHP) to provide leadership development for young practitioners, and establishing scholarships for pharmacy students of Hispanic heritage at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy and through the TSHP R&E Foundation.

Ms. Cuéllar encourages others not to be defined by gender, race or ethnicity, and to take risks that may be uncomfortable, such as speaking up, having difficult conversations, or making tough decisions.

"Regardless of your job function, be the best at it," she advised. "Do not let gender or ethnicity define the story of your career; let your dreams and passions define your career. Find strong mentors and networks and be willing to speak up because your voice matters!"


The Value of Persistence

Yen T. Pham, BSPharm, MBA, chief pharmacy officer, pharmacy services and clinical dietitians, at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) Hospital and Clinics in Portland, also calls upon lessons learned during childhood.

Yen T. Pham, BSPharm, MBA
Yen T. Pham, BSPharm, MBA

At age six, Ms. Pham escaped Vietnam by boat with her father and seven siblings to seek freedom in the United States. During a long ocean journey with hundreds of other refugees, food and water were scarce. They temporarily landed in Indonesia, then lived in challenging conditions for a year and a half while waiting to enter the United States. The experience taught her the value of being persistent and created a strong determination to prosper.

Ms. Pham worked in both retail pharmacy and specialty pharmacy before moving to the OHSU system, where she devised and implemented initiatives like home infusion; specialty, mail order and compounding pharmacies; and pharmacy benefit management services.

It wasn't always easy for Ms. Pham, who at one time did not receive a promotion to pharmacy director because she then was considered not qualified. She battled barriers, including a lack of support from key stakeholders, but said rejection made her stronger and a better leader.

"I often remind myself that we learn from failures and rejections—a key component of success and leadership," she said. "My goal is always to set a good example for my team members who observe and learn from my actions and decisions. Anticipating and managing roadblocks helps me create successful strategies to drive change."

As a leader, she surrounds herself with a team of 21 managers with diverse educational experiences and backgrounds who continue to challenge her. Many of their decisions are agreed upon by a majority.

Ms. Pham offered additional advice for women pharmacists: Don't rush for the next title; enjoy the knowledge and experiences available through each position. Think outside the box to keep up with constant changes in health care. Maintain work-life balance, and always remain calm and cool under pressure. Be loyal to the pharmacy profession, and lastly, have fun.

"As I've taken a quick glance back over my career, I am proud of what I have accomplished," she said. "I will continue to expand our footprint to create opportunities for our pharmacy team, and I push to elevate and move our pharmacy profession to the next level."

Leading Powerful Change

Sophia R. Chhay, PharmD, assistant director of the ASHP Innovation Center, says her outlook, too, was shaped by childhood experience. Growing up as a first-generation Asian American whose parents each had escaped Cambodia during the late 1970s invasion by Vietnam, Dr. Chhay was pushed to do well in school so she could land a good job. Grades were valued highly while extracurricular activities and a social life were seen as "unnecessary distractors."

Sophia R. Chhay, PharmD
Sophia R. Chhay, PharmD

"I was obedient in virtually every aspect of my Cambodian culture except this one," Dr. Chhay said. "I simply did not see extracurricular activities and socializing as a bad thing. I saw it as an opportunity, a learning and growing experience, a door to something greater."

While Dr. Chhay did maintain a high academic performance, she also became highly interested in additional activities that brought extra demands on her time. After soul searching, she realized that she wouldn't have to give anything up—as long as she allowed herself some leeway. Allow yourself to accept imperfection, while giving yourself the freedom to take risks, she advised.

"As long as my [grade point average] was above a 3.0," she said, "I decided that it was good enough. I allowed myself to pursue additional leadership positions and, as a result, I grew in ways both professionally and personally." This included serving on the executive board of the Student Societies of Health-System Pharmacy during college.

During Dr. Chhay's third year of pharmacy school, she did an ASHP elective Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience rotation, where she found her passion. She later was selected for the 2017-2018 ASHP Executive Fellowship in Association Leadership and Management. She could barely contain her excitement when she verbally accepted the offer. She stayed on at ASHP, becoming a strategic and innovative initiatives associate, then assistant director of the Innovation Center in July 2020.

"My biggest hope is that you, too, have great, strong women in your life to look up to, lean on, and learn from," Dr. Chhay said. "Further, I hope that we can join these women in empowering others and leading positive change."

Dr. Chhay, Ms. Cuéllar, and Ms. Pham are among 31 contributors to "Letters from Women in Pharmacy: Stories on Integrating Life and Career" published by ASHP. Designed to support successful professional women through the power of personal stories from those from diverse backgrounds and career paths, the book is available for purchase at ASHP's store.

Posted March 3, 2022

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