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Haas Voices: ‘Fighting for healthcare equity in my community’

Portrait: Adilene Dominguez, EWMBA 24
Adilene Dominguez, EWMBA 24, is determined to make healthcare more equitable.

Haas Voices is a first-person series that highlights the lived experiences of members of the Berkeley Haas community. In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, we spoke with Adilene Dominguez, EWMBA 24, who’s determined to create a new business model that will provide equitable health care to everyone, regardless of economic status. She shares her story below.

Growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago, I lived in a world with many blessings. My parents weren’t millionaires, they were migrant workers who worked 80 hours a week. But the opportunities afforded to us–access to public schools, tutors, health insurance, the ability to find work–were privileges that many Latinos in my community, including my extended family members, did not have.

I began to notice inequities, specifically in healthcare, when I was about five years old. I often accompanied friends and family whenever they needed to see the doctor. They spoke little English, so I translated on their behalf. I noticed that they’d have to stand in line for hours at the local clinic to get medical treatment, whereas if I needed medical care, my parents would take me to a hospital because I had health insurance. It just didn’t seem fair to me that our friends and family couldn’t get the same quality health care as I did.

family portrait featuring a mom, dad, 2 girls and 1 boy.
Dominguez’s family portrait. Dominguez, (center), began translating for friends and family when she was five years old.

Observing those disparities early on, coupled with a natural aptitude for science and math, led me to Beloit College where I joined the pre-med program. As a pre-med student, I interned with doctors and volunteered at hospitals, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I thought that I’d have a greater impact if I could find a way to bring equitable health care to my community.

After college, I landed at Becton Dickinson (BD), a medical device company, working as a research and development (R&D) technician. I moved up the ranks from a technician to a scientist and eventually transitioned from R&D to global marketing and strategy. 

I also lead the Hispanic Organization for Leadership and Advancement (HOLA) at BD. Through my work with HOLA, I help raise awareness within my industry about health disparities that impact the Latino community. When the pandemic hit, access to testing was limited, especially in Latino communities in California, Arizona, and Texas. I, along with marketers across eight HOLA chapters, decided to advocate for the distribution of Veritor, a rapid antigen test that can detect the COVID-19 virus, to health clinics servicing Latino communities. Through our efforts, we helped the Family Health Center of San Diego, which provides care to more than 215,000 patients a year, 91% of whom are considered low-income and 29% are uninsured. 

It’s been gratifying to help my Latino community as it’s been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But I need to do more. The pandemic magnified health disparities that have long existed in Black and Brown communities. Whenever there’s a hurricane, earthquake, or any natural disaster, health care seems to be the primary resource that’s out of reach for these communities.

The pandemic magnified health disparities that have long existed in Black and Brown communities.

That’s why I’m at Haas. I want to acquire the skills needed to disrupt the healthcare system in the U.S. I want to design a profitable business model that will provide equitable health care for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.

What does disruption look like? It’s putting the patient first and profit last. Currently, the way healthcare works in the U.S. is that whoever or whichever entity has the most influence or paying power gets access to the best medical supplies. Typically government contracts are fulfilled first. Thereafter, private institutions and public institutions get priority, and community health centers are served last.

But what if we flipped the funnel? If we help community clinics first, which serve people like farmers and hourly-wage workers–the people who are growing our food and working at grocery stores and other service industries–we can prevent the spread of any disease.

For too long, our approach to providing health care has come from the top down, when we really need to flip the funnel and think about the process much differently. We can’t keep doing business as usual when there are hundreds of people filling up the emergency room because they don’t have access to COVID-19 testing or vaccines.

Creating a new business model for the healthcare system is a lofty goal. But someone has to do it, so why not me? 

Creating a new business model for the healthcare system is a lofty goal. But someone has to do it, so why not me? 

I know that I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, but it’s my responsibility to help my community. That philosophy has been ingrained in me since I was a little girl. My family, who migrated from Tonatico, Mexico, made enormous sacrifices so that my siblings and I could have a better life. So I must move forward and be a role model for younger generations. If I don’t help my community, who will? 

Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22: Why goats should be part of mental healthcare

Haas Voices is a first-person series that highlights the lived experiences of members of the Berkeley Haas community

Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22, dreams of opening a wellness retreat center that offers animal-assisted therapy to children and adults—and she’s moving closer toward that goal at Haas. Wisnicki is a 2021 recipient of the John E. Martin Fellowship, (named for the father of Michael Martin, MBA 09) awarded to students who are working to improve mental healthcare quality and access. 

Elle Wisnicki photo with goats
Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22, dreams of opening a wellness retreat center that offers animal-assisted therapy.

I’m Black and Jewish and was raised by a single mom. I was an independent kid, always wanting to help others, so when I wasn’t caring for stray animals in the neighborhood, you could find me babysitting.

Growing up in Hollywood, Calif., where wealth exists parallel to a large population experiencing homelessness, I learned about mental health challenges at a young age. My mom and I got to know the stories of our neighbors who were homeless and faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, and more.

From childhood to high school, my career aspiration was to become an OB/GYN doctor or genetic counselor for families. However, after realizing that a lot of people can’t even get to the doctor for basic care, I shifted my goals away from providing care to helping people access care.

After realizing that a lot of people can’t even get to the doctor for basic care, I shifted my goals away from providing care to helping people access care.

After undergrad at Columbia University, I worked in consulting. At that job, I began connecting the dots among common mental health issues within different groups of people I’d met and worked with for over a decade, including homeless veterans, patients I worked with at Planned Parenthood, students I supported as an RA in my dorm, and even my financially well-off consulting coworkers who were burning out. No matter their walk of life , many shared a common thread: determining how to best address their mental health problems.

When I started putting it all together I began to see how I could thrive in this line of work and I wanted to start focusing on it right away. When I considered leaving consulting, I knew I had to align my career with my values so that my work would reflect my life’s greater purpose. After reaching out to diverse people in my network, I was inspired to become a mental health coach at Sibly, a text-based mental health and wellness app.

This was the first step toward starting my own mental health-related venture. However, I knew that creating a startup without the support of an MBA network would be challenging. So I initially came to Haas to focus on startup solutions for crisis response. What I quickly learned was that the many hours of research, customer discovery calls, and networking on a computer screen, on top of my MBA lectures, was leading to burnout.

In November 2020, I took the month off of my startup to spend some time restoring my own mental health. I volunteered for a ferret rescue and took llamas on walks up north in Yuba City, played with goats and did goat yoga in Half Moon Bay, and worked with kitten rescues. My soul lit up.

My soul lit up. I felt healed when an animal rested in my lap or greeted me.

I felt healed when an animal rested in my lap or greeted me, or when I moved my body around innocent beings, who only wanted to provide affection.

goats with Elle Wisnicki in barn
Goats are part of Elle Wisnicki’s animal-assisted therapy plan.

I realized others enjoy animals and nature in a healing way as do I and many people are looking for alternative wellness solutions. My potential customers told me they benefited from being closer to nature, but craved structure and couldn’t find affordable group wellness centers near them.

My vision is to offer that structure, by opening a retreat center with half day, full-day, and weekend wellness retreats. I’m also considering animal-assisted individual and group therapy, goat yoga, sustainable farming workshops, garden box subscriptions, children’s birthday parties, summer camps, a petting zoo, products, and transportation to access all of these services through bus rides between San Francisco and Oakland.

When I was applying for the Martin fellowship I connected with a Haas alum who had won a similar fellowship a few years before me. We recognized we both had similar goals. He recently began developing land he and his family own and considering what kind of venture they want to use it for. We’ve started discussions around the types of pilots we will put together to determine what is most appealing to our customers.

In addition to these plans, I continue to work in mental health tech.  This semester, through the Lean Launchpad entrepreneurship class, I worked for a wellness startup Shimmer, focused on employer wellness benefits and insurance. My summer internship is focused on health insurance and mental health access for children and youth in  foster care.

Throughout this journey, I’ve realized how grateful I am to be living and working at a time where as a society we’re finally prioritizing mental health. There has been tremendous growth in the wellness industry and I am thrilled about increasing access and with the movement toward mental health destigmatization.