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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 69: Valissa Armstead

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David Chandler
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Valissa Armstead

Valissa Armstead, director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion of the Spectrum Health System, is our guest on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

An engineer turned leader in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Valissa Armstead is the director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion of the Spectrum Health System which is an $8.3 billion not-for-profit integrated health system based in West Michigan. Valissa serves as a champion, consultant, bridge builder, strategic leader and partner, empowering leaders to identify and execute initiatives for effective organization transformation.

She is a proven innovator, relationship builder, change agent and influencer for diversity, equity and inclusion, bringing firsthand, expert knowledge to Spectrum Health’s DEI efforts. Valissa today's Powerful Woman.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.


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>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.

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Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us. It is time for another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Again, thanks for joining us. I’m happy to bring you today's powerful woman, Valissa Armstead. She is the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) for Spectrum Health System for the Spectrum Health system. Valissa is responsible for ensuring the strategic alignment of DEI to Spectrum Health’s internal and external strategy. She’s a proven innovator, relationship builder change event and an influencer for diversity equity and inclusion bringing firsthand and expert knowledge to Spectrum Health’s DEI efforts. I'm so glad to welcome you Valissa Armstead, to Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Thank you, Jennifer. I'm excited to be here.

Jennifer Moss: And we're excited to have you. A little more background before we get started with our conversation. Valissa joined spectrum health in July of 2015. Under her guidance, Spectrum Health's leadership signed the hashtag 1,2, 3 for Equity Pledge which builds on the efforts of the American Hospital Association's national call to action to eliminate health care disparities. A native of Flint Michigan, Valissa previously worked as an engineer and as a direct result understands the importance of data as the foundation for strategic recommendation. She also speaks regularly about her lived experience of being impacted by the intersectionality of being Black and female. You use your education and experiences to fuel, inform and guide your work as a leader in the diversity equity and inclusion space. Valissa earned a Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering, a master's in business administration and a doctorate in management as she completes her research in organizational leadership. Committed to public service, Valissa has been a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority incorporated my sorority, for almost 30 years. Had to get that in there. She's earned numerous awards, plus with faith, healthy living and improving the well-being of communities being very important to Valissa she's a member of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Diversity Council where she helps to govern and manage key strategies for the council and truly, you know what, that is just the beginning. Just part of the story. We have a long list of things we could mention, but we're going to stop there because you have quite an accomplished career. The big question that I always like to start with is, are you enjoying your journey?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: I am enjoying my journey and it has been quite the journey. One of the things I'm passionate about is DEI and I actually did diversity equity and inclusion before it was my formal position. So I always joke about if there was anything you love to do and you didn't get paid to do it what would it be and it would be working in the DEI except I wouldn’t get paid to do it.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. That's always a big, big, thing that you want to have. Right? Okay, I’ll do it but.. So as we talk about powerful women, have there been any barriers that you've encountered along your careers path? And I would especially say and ask this when you move from being an engineer into the DEI field. I mean, I don't know how that transition works. Engineer to DEI. So, tell us about that.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: So being in the engineering field, I worked in engineering field for 14 years and that actually is what helped shape my lived experience and my passion for DEI most of the time I was either the only female or the only African American in my position.

Jennifer Moss: Or both.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Yes, or both. So, facing the barriers, a lot of times the glass ceiling and being able to move up within my organization, was a challenge for me and so I used that challenge to actually fuel my passion to be able to help other women not face the same barriers that I faced. Such as being able to grow within your organization and put an emphasis on career progression. So from that point, I decided to take a career change go and get my master's degree in business and really start to tap into understanding organizational dynamics and what it entails when we talk about career progression and then what strategies out there exist that could help women such as myself move up within their organizations.

Jennifer Moss: So as you mentioned that and looking at those things on this journey in life as you strive to move forward, many women say it took a while to get there. You faced those challenges, those obstacles, what did it take for our listeners and our viewers, for you to become comfortable in your own skin? You know, to kind of find that voice doing equity and inclusion work, which I would imagine can be challenging. You had to get comfortable with you first before you can go out there and help other folks, right?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: This a good question. I think I was always comfortable. I think the challenge for me was finding a mentor that looked like me. And that was a big journey and for a long time, I didn't find a mentor that looked like me so, I created what are called my board of directors. I have a mentor, I have someone who supports me as a sponsor and then I surrounded myself with a network to help me grow and develop in terms of my knowledge and skill set and then really help me learn how become more political savvy and that is really what helped me to progress forward was really my board of directors.

Jennifer Moss: And did that give you some confidence, give you that inner, you know, self-feeling of I can do this?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Correct. Correct.

Jennifer Moss: And that's why it kind of bounced off from there. You know, I know you work with a lot of people clearly. What leadership traits do you like to see in folks? You know, perhaps those that you work with, that are on this journey with you, and even those you mentor.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Yeah. In the DEI space. I think you have to really be resilient. So, I’m looking for someone who has traits of being a resilient leader knowing how to flex their leadership style too. In the DEI, you really need to have some servant leadership skills as well because we’re really there to serve. Serve the communities, serve our workforce, serve individuals who we partner with, and our own peers. So, for me it is a lot around resilient leader, servant leader, and a participant leader. One of the things we talk about in the DEI space is we can kind of call ourselves chief collaborative officers because it's all about how do you build those relationships and be able to be an influencer even when you're not in a leadership role. So, those will be the traits that I would say.

Jennifer Moss: You know, there's a lot going on in the country today on diversity equity inclusion as a centerpiece and in many organizations now, for many reasons. How difficult, or is it difficult to navigate in the climate of America today being a DEI in leadership in DEI heading up a major organization?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Yes, that's one of the things we talk about in our sister circle. We talk about how do you ensure you have a tough skin, especially being an African-American woman and seeing some of the things that are happening in society and has happened in society around African American men, for example, or myself for example, raising an African-American son and seeing some of the things that happen in society potentially coming into our workforce. How do I ensure that I remain non-bias and yet, still be active in the work that I do? I think just looking at my children and knowing that the work that I'm doing is actually helping to pave the way for them to be successful, continues to drive me forward in the work that I do.

Jennifer Moss: So we talked about this, touched on it, what inspired you to make your home with diversity equity inclusion making that switch from being an engineer. I mean, what really kicked that off I mean, because for 14 years, you were an engineer and there's a difference there. I think.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: It is. One of the things that I was fortunate enough to do is when I went into engineering my mentor, one of my mentors was in H.R. and so she would pull me in and we would talk strategy on how can we increase diversity within the engineering space or the organization that I worked for at the time. So, part of that was looking at data and seeing the gaps that we had in terms of representation and then how do we come about developing strategies to decrease and close those gaps. I found myself being more excited when I was working with her to address diversity issues as it related to representation, than I was just doing my own engineering work. A lot of times those positions in engineering can be very siloed, very introvert type of work and I’m more of an ambivert. I can go either way and so, just being able to be more involved in that work later on I ended up joining our volunteer African American group and started to get more involved in DEI work and that just continued to fuel my passion. When I found myself looking at other people who were getting jobs, being excited about being with an organization that they thought they wouldn't be able to get into, I said, you know what, I think I need to make a career change because I'm really, really enjoying this and so, the benefit is data. Everything we did in engineering was driven by data and for me, everything in DEI drives by data, if you want to move the needle.

Jennifer Moss: Okay, if you want to move that needle. So, basically it was a passion that it was in your heart?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: Yes.

Jennifer Moss: So, the move makes a lot of sense for you? Are you enjoying it again? I just want to reiterate that.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: I am. I am.

Jennifer Moss: Good for you. So, a lot of women deal with those daily pressures, even if you're enjoying your work, getting it all done. Even if you’re raising kids or still have kids at home. What is your advice to women who are in the process of raising kids? Perhaps maybe on a similar journey? You know, feeling that pressure of getting it all done because it takes a lot to be a mother as well.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: I would say learn to turn it off when you get home, it's important to turn it off in a DEI space. Living in it at work and then sometimes coming home and living in the community can be very challenging, it can be stressful, but you got to learn to turn it off. You got to be able to ensure that you have self-care if you don't find a space that you can be comfortable with just not doing anything, that's when you might need to look at you know, what are you doing wrong, and looking at how that is really impacting your family. So, self-care.

Jennifer Moss: Speaking of self-care, speaking of turning it off. What are some of the ways you relax and have fun with your family and friends?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: I'm very competitive and so are my family members as well. We're very sports oriented but, one of the things I really love that I found out of happenstance, if you will, is running and so, passion about running and a passion about long-distance running. Anybody who knows me from high school, I will not say what my nickname was in running but, I was not the best runner. I'm not.

Jennifer Moss: Contrasting where you are today.

Dr. Valissa Armstead: I did not love long distance running. I loved short running but, I was diagnosed with high cholesterol many years ago and when that happened, my doctor said, you know, you will have to be on medication for the rest of your life unless you change how you eat, how you exercise. Prior to being diagnosed that way, I was already very active but, I didn't realize how much I let myself go. So, I started incorporating running and I had a trainer and my trainer said find something you need to target that will keep you going. So, I found a 5K here in Grand Rapids shout out to 5th 3rd River Bank Run. That was the first 5K that I did and after that I got hooked on running because I found it is a way for me to have time to myself, time to decompress and so I've been using that time to continue to run and it just so happens I’ve been cholesterol free for many years now. No concerns there. Running helps me to continue staying with my self-care.

Jennifer Moss: And again, finding that self-care, finding that piece that you can stick to and that's, I think, a problem for a lot of people is finding what they like to do so that they stick with it to make those changes. Easy, breezy question: What makes you laugh?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: My kids.

Jennifer Moss: Hahaha!

Dr. Valissa Armstead: And I would say one of the things that makes me laugh now is my great niece. She just turned one and she is just the cutest little thing. So, you know, reliving that childhood again, when I raise my own kids just watching her now that she's walking and things like that and trying to talk. Just makes me laugh.

Jennifer Moss: It's kind of fun. With so much happening in the world today, people are often looking for a word of encouragement do you by chance have any favorite sayings, perhaps a motto or something that you used to encourage yourself or others?

Dr. Valissa Armstead: So that's a good question. I would say my favorite word is beautiful. And if you talk to anyone that says “beautiful,” to me you have to look at everything as it is, being beautiful or in the world today, you really have to be down with some of the things that is currently happening but, beautiful is my word.

Jennifer Moss: And beautiful has been this conversation. Valissa Armstead, we really enjoyed you coming here for Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women, Let’s Talk. See you next time.

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>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.

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Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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