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Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 87: Lesleigh Irish-Underwood

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood
Credit: Lesleigh Irish-Underwood
Lesleigh Irish-Underwood

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood has been named one of Network Journal's 25 Most Influential Black Women in Business. She joins host Shelley Irwin on this episode of Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood is a native New Yorker who has built her career on serving NYC's most vulnerable and under served communities. She brings executive level experience and local marketing insights to the MetroPlusHealth executive team. Her resume is filled with leadership roles in the publishing field, plus she has been named one of Network Journal's 25 Most Influential Black Women in Business. And she's danced ballet at the BAM and makes a killer Chili. We welcome Lesleigh Irish-Underwood to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

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.

Full Transcript:


>> 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.


Shelley Irwin: Lesleigh Irish-Underwood. Well, she's a native New Yorker who has built her career on serving NYC’s most vulnerable and underserved communities. She brings executive level experience and local marketing insights to the Metro Plus Health Executive Team. Her resume is filled with leadership roles in the publishing field, plus, she's been named one of Network Journal’s 25 most influential Black women in business. She's danced ballet at the BAM and she makes a killer chili. So, we bring you onto this edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Lesleigh, hello to you.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Good morning, Shelly. How are you?

Shelley Irwin: I'm doing fine would you share that chili recipe for us?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: If I share it then I’d have to kill ya. I don’t know if that’s possible.

Shelley Irwin: No, we have a few more items to accomplish and that's good. Keep your secrets to success to yourself with the exception of this conversation. I am glad you’re here Lesleigh and the many awards on your mantle. The lives that you have touched and are touching and continue to touch. What is your professional role today with your organization?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Sure. So, I’m the chief brand and external relations officer for Metro Plus Health. Metro Plus Health is the city's official health plan, really born out of the need of serving the diverse city of New Yorkers that we love. People from every socioeconomic background, from every zip code across the city. Metro Plus Health has about 660,000 members. Many of whom are the essential workers who supported city through the pandemic and so we're really proud to be able to serve New Yorkers who are often in low-income communities and need to ensure that they have access to quality health care for themselves and their families.

Shelley Irwin: A Native New Yorker. Share a few of your growing up highlights.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Sure. So, I grew up in Crown Heights Brooklyn and my family still lives primarily in Brooklyn. My current family, my husband, and children, we are still in Brooklyn. He is a New York City educator, a principal, and was a teacher when we met and we have stayed here in this community. Matter of fact, this Friday with that, we will have been married 27 years.

Shelley Irwin: Wow. I hope there is a dinner out plan for you.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Yeah, there it is. Brooklyn has really been a great proving ground, and what I've loved is to see how it's evolved and changed over the many years that I've lived here.

Shelley Irwin: Yes and again with your talents, it will. When did the passion for studying business become? How did you begin to shape Lesleigh?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: So, you know, I think Shelly, it started sitting on the floor in my father's office. My dad was an executive at the New York City Housing Authority. So, we have a long history of city service and public service in the Irish family and so very often when school was out, my sister and I spent time in his office for the day. Watching him run their entire technical and IT division and so I think, you know, really looking at ways that business could impact people. The people that he dealt with became extended parts of our family was definitely something that I think I always found attractive and so much of that had to do with his work.

Shelley Irwin: What was your educational journey?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: So, my mom was also an educator and we started out at a small school in Brooklyn, Saint Ann School in downtown Brooklyn and then I left there and went to the best high school I think in all of New York City, Brooklyn Technical High School and Brooklyn Tech has just celebrated 100 years being one of the foremost STEM high schools in all of the country and was really the proving ground, I think where I was able to hone skills and be ready to go onto college and career. I stayed right in New York. I went to Stony Brook University right on Long Island where I actually met my husband and I mean, I'm a New Yorker through and through.

Shelley Irwin: When were you called to serve the vulnerable and underserved?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, I would say Shelley from a very early age. It was not lost on me that my father was taking my sister and myself from our home in Crown Heights on the train to school in a completely different place. When our friends, many of whom you know, we grew up with on our block were walking to school and so I think in a very early age, we realize that we were being provided access and opportunity that was somewhat uncommon to some of our friends that we were growing up with and that it was really drilled into us that, you know, to whom much is given, much is required and to who is given those things, really has the need to give back and so, you know, my parents were very clear about what they were investing in my future, and the future of my sister and that, you know, we had an opportunity and would have an opportunity to ensure that we were not moving forward only for ourselves but, that we were constantly looking at ways and opportunities to give that back to others that didn't have some of the advantages that they were providing for us.

Shelley Irwin: I trust there are many lives you've touched and assisted both past, present and with your current opportunities.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, my work is super important, Shelley, but I think that actually being a mom is my number one job and really being able to ensure that I've used the platform that I’ve gained through business to impact communities is probably what I'm most proud about. I'm very engaged in mentorship, I've worked with a number of different leadership programs to try to help, especially young Women of Color and see themselves at tables that they might not necessarily have seen a Woman of Color at before and so, you know, I try to even make sure that I take opportunities to ensure that people can find someone who looks like them, that they can aspire to know that possibilities for them exist to work in whatever industry they're interested in and to sort of reach for their goals and objectives to be in significant leadership roles.

Shelley Irwin: A little birdie tells me you are motto driven behind your shoulder, create the things you wish existed. Would you tell me about this?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Sure. You know, I am definitely a sayings person. I love sayings and, you know, I think for the ability to dream and to vision, I think is for any leader is a must and so that saying for me means, you know, the things that don't exist, how do you build them? How are you not waiting for someone else to build them? The person who asked to put those things in place is you and so as I think about spaces, places, programs, opportunities if they're not already in place, I always challenge myself to be the person who actually creates them and puts them in place. There's nothing that can't be accomplished but, you also have to stop thinking that someone else is going to do it.

Shelley Irwin: Well, obviously you have been praised, as I mentioned in my opening a couple of awards on your mantle. Tell me about the opportunity to be recognized with Network Journal’s 25 most influential Black women in business and 2022 Craines Notable Black Leader and Executive. I trust you pay forward these talents and young women do look to you for these.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Absolutely, Shelley. You know, the recognitions are wonderful but, I think the platform is what's important. Really being able to use the platform of the Network Journal and certainly that of Crains, which I think is one of the most important business publications in New York City, really gives the opportunity again to see emerging leaders and to create opportunities for younger girls to see. There's a woman sitting at the C suite table at one of the most important health care organizations in New York City and if I'm thinking about going into brand work, marketing work, finance, whatever it is, I can now see someone that looks like me that has actually carved out a space for themselves in those industries and so why can't I do it? Sure, I can do it and it's not a matter of not being able to see yourself in those spaces and places. And so, I try really hard to make sure that the accolades are wonderful, but that I'm using the platform to create you know, energy for people that are looking for inspiration of what they can accomplish, to know that it's completely and utterly doable.

Shelley Irwin: You mention mentorship. If one watching or listening and says I would like to be mentored by Lesleigh Irish-Underwood, what's an ideal mentorship relationship these days?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, I think mentorship is so important and I would say that it has to be authentic and honest. I think for people to want to be mentored, they actually have to be ready to accept and hear the truth and to know that the relationship is meant for their improvement in love. Great mentors are going to tell you what you need to hear and keep it sort of unsugar coated and very direct because it's meant to actually improve, grow and ensure that you are able to reach your full potential and sometimes that news is not so easy to take. You know, as leaders, we often do 360 reviews. Where our peers, our board, our direct reports, will actually, you know, give us feedback and sometimes the feedback is wonderful, sometimes the feedback is meant to help you understand some things in your own leadership that you need to improve and so I think mentor relationships are very similar. It's really got to be a great close and loving relationship where the mentee knows they’re going to hear the great things that they can do even more of but, they’re also going to hear the things where they have to improve and they’ve got to be ready and willing to hear those things and to work on them.

Shelley Irwin: Nice. Tell me about your glasses.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: So, for my 50th birthday, my husband gifted me Lasik. I have been a glasses wearer and nearcited since the 5th grade but, when they fixed my eyesight, they said no matter what we do, you're going to still need reading glasses and so I figured well, let's juju it up then, let's figure out how to have a pair of glasses for every occasion. So, I have about 60 pairs of reading glasses of all colors and patterns. They're all pretty much the same shape and size but, I kind of mix them up constantly and I have to say during the time of zoom it ended up being a great conversation starter.

Shelley Irwin: I'll be able to find you on the streets of New York in the next visit. All right, no chocolate, no wine so, those will not be part of your next birthday gifts? I guess.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: No Ma’am. You know, I don't know what happened in the god line when they were handing out the wine and chocolate likes, but I must have missed that moment but, no and people think its so odd. It’s amazing how odd people think it is that you don't like chocolate but no, I think for my birthday, you know, what Shelley?

Shelley Irwin: What?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: A spa certificate is good everyday. I am a self-care religiously kind of gal and so, you know, it's interesting, I think as Women of Color, you know, my mother, my grandmother was so invested in trying to sort of bring our generation up and to pour so much into us. I think the thing that gets lost there is the opportunity for self-care and so I have to like drag my mother and convince her that we should go to the spa, go get our nails done because it's just not in her DNA. So, I love to make sure that I take time to take care of myself and I try really hard to make sure that I model that for my daughter who I’m hoping will grow up understanding how important that is for her as well.

Shelley Irwin: Now make sure she watches and listens to this conversation. Tell me about your chili.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, I actually made the transition to try and use less red meat in our diet and so I transitioned to making a turkey chili that really is just fantastic. A mix of really great Goya beans. They have a marvelous selection of beans for chili but, really using ground turkey, which makes it very succulent without so much of the calories and it really cuts down the fat and no one knows the difference.

Shelley Irwin: And it's winning an award that's for sure. Alright s couple more. What is a Tech knight?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Oh, Shelley. A Tech Knight is someone who graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and so we're called Engineers or Tech Knights and so Brooklyn Tech is the number 2 High School in all of New York State. As I mentioned, it's celebrating a 100 years of service to New York City communities. It's one of the New York City's specialized high schools anchored in Brooklyn and it is it was a marvelous, marvelous time in my life. People think it's odd that Tech Knights find each other all over the world but, somehow we honestly do and it was it's really an extraordinary place. Lots of first, you know, immigrant families, first generation college families came through Brooklyn Tech and for so many of us, it was a life changing experience that set us off on a trajectory for success in college and career.

Shelley Irwin: You just know that you are most likely are available for the keynote address. I would recommend.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: I’d hope so, I’d love it.

Shelley Irwin: Or you can dance. You've ballet danced, you still do. Tell me more.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, actually, when I was growing up, I had incredibly flat feet. I don't even know why but, I did and my mom in her genius figured out that the way to correct that with something I would love would be to put me in ballet and so she enrolled me in ballet, which I seem to somehow have a natural affinity for. So, from the time I was about 4 years old until well after college, I danced ballet and I spent some of that time dancing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I love to dance but yes, it was all in an effort to try and fix my little teeny flat feet.

Shelley Irwin: Lesleigh, what's still on your bucket list?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: You know, I think I would love to write a book my background in publishing part of the reason I got into publishing is because I love to read and I think that there's a book inside of me somewhere. I'm not sure Shelley when I’ll ever find the time to write it but, I feel that there's a story in here somewhere that is aching to get out and so I hope that one day I’ll be able to set aside the time and the discipline to actually get that book written one day.

Shelley Irwin: What are you currently reading?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: I'm actually reading Lead From the Heart. You know, there's so much conversation right now about the importance, especially as we're moving into this sort of post-pandemic phase of leading with empathy, really trying to connect with your staff, with your leaders around this difficult transition back to the workplace and to this whole new way of working in this post-pandemic world and so this book was highly recommended to talk about transformational leadership, especially thinking about leading through empathy. So, I’m about halfway through it and I have to tell you, it's absolutely a great read.

Shelley Irwin: Do your kids know you are a powerful woman?

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Haha! I think my kids Shelley, just know that I'm mom and they know that I expect of the best from them. You know, they’ve heard a lot of my sayings. So, I think that they know that I kind of try to mix those worlds between how I inspire my staff and also how I try to inspire them in their lives and you know, it's rewarding to see how things are developing for them. My daughter is now working and has transitioned out of school and is starting her career and I have to say to see how her career is progressing already, that's the most rewarding award of all.

Shelley Irwin: Here, I thought she was about 5 years old. So, there we are.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Oh not, she’s 25 years old.

Shelley Irwin: Nice. Lesleigh Irish Underwood, thank you for this conversation on our Powerful Women, Let's Talk.

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: Thank you Shelley. It was pleasure.


>> 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.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The WGVU Morning Show, a newsmagazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. features a wide variety of local and national newsmakers, plus special features.
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