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The Harvard MBA Driving UnitedHealth’s COVID-19 Response

Harvard MBA Shawna Gisch is a senior vice president at UnitedHealth, the world’s largest healthcare company. COVID-19 has been a test of the skills and leadership she learned during her MBA


Thu Jul 2 2020


Harvard MBA Shawna Gisch (MBA 2009) ponders what has been the biggest motivator throughout her career.

“I’ve always wanted to be a leader who acts with integrity, who cares about the mission, and who has really stood for something.”

At UnitedHealth Group, where she is a vice president of clinical strategy and innovation, Shawna has a huge responsibility to act on a mission that impacts millions of people’s lives. UnitedHealth is the world’s largest healthcare company, with $242 billion in revenue in 2019 and working with 130 million people worldwide. 

It’s been an exciting journey for Shawna, from a chemical engineering bachelor’s to studying an MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS), before climbing to the top of the healthcare industry—an industry now at the forefront of attention and investment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From chemical engineering to a Harvard MBA

Growing up in Oregon, education has always been an emphasis for Shawna. With two parents who were teachers, and a high-achieving older brother, Shawna has always seen great value in pursuing education to realize her goals. 

She had a science streak running through her, so opted for chemical engineering as a bachelor’s degree. But she quickly realized that she was more cut out for people-oriented roles.

“Pretty early on I realised that I got my energy, and I'm at my best, working with people rather than things,” she recalls. 

She tossed up the possibilities of either business or law, but it was the former that really grabbed her attention. “It teaches you how to be a better leader, and gives you so many skills that are applicable in so many areas. Being someone who likes to learn and explore, business school seemed like a great way to open doors.”

She had a thirst to learn and interact with the best of the best, so it’s no surprise that she applied for the MBA at Harvard. She applied via the 2+2 deferred admissions process, which allows students to defer entrance for two years while they gain work experience. She was accepted, and after two years working for Intel, she packed her bags and moved from west coast to east coast to enrol at HBS. 

Impact of the Harvard MBA on her career

Shawna shared the numerous ways the Harvard MBA impacted her on a personal and professional level. 

First and foremost, the people and network she built while she was there. 

She celebrates the amazing diversity of the people on the program. “It was a place where I felt people celebrated diversity in a way that I'd never really seen before. People are really proud of what makes them different, and want to share that with others.”

But she also found a great deal of commonality between her and her classmates, particularly when it came to being socially driven. “A lot of people that are mission driven, and want to make a difference in the world,” she says. “Part of me thought it might be filled with people who just want to come in and make money on Wall Street, but it really isn't.”

This diversity contributed in a big way to the second highlight: the classes. The HBS case method throws students into a classroom environment where everything is up for discussion, and participants must be prepared to debate their opinion. 

“It teaches you how to think, reference past experiences, pull out examples, and even fine tune your own internal compass of what kind of leader you want to be,” she emphasizes. “It helped me feel ready for any conversation in the real world.”

Getting into the healthcare industry 

HBS gave Shawna both the career direction she was looking for, and the contacts and connections to employers and recruiters. Given her science background, healthcare had always been a particular interest of her’s. 

During her two years at Intel between her bachelor’s and her MBA, she was involved in Intel’s foray into the healthcare industry. She was on a team looking at how the company could leverage its technology in healthcare, particularly when it came to helping older people live more independently through the help of technology. 

She was drawn to the social aspect of the industry. “I knew early on that I couldn't just work to live, I needed work to be more meaningful, it needed to be something where I felt I was making a difference.”

At HBS, she was lucky to take part in a healthcare immersion course, led by Professor Michael Porter, creator of the famous five forces strategy framework, where she could take a deeper dive into how healthcare works, as well as taking part in discussions on how it could be improved. 

Towards the end of her MBA, she met representatives from UnitedHealth during on campus recruiting. She got interested in the company, specifically to the Optum branch of the business, which deals with the services that UHG provides. She was actually introduced to another Harvard MBA graduate, who guided her through the application, and remains a mentor to this day. 

Ten years on, Shawna is now a senior vice president for clinical strategy and operations, overseeing the clinical and quality programs delivered to UnitedHealth's Government Programs. It's a mammoth task, overseeing medical cost savings, quality performance and population health strategies for 6 million Medicaid beneficiaries and 12 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Responding to COVID-19

As for many companies and leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge test for Shawna and UnitedHealth. As a leader in the healthcare industry, many companies and state agencies look to UnitedHealth as a thought leader and model of good practice. 

They recently pledged $1.5 billion of additional support to their members, aiming to widen its access to those in need. The Medicaid side of the company, which provides healthcare cover to low income or unemployed adults, has a huge responsibility to protect those who are at greater risk. 

“It’s about figuring out the right balance of helping the populations that we serve while protecting the safety of our staff,” Shawna explains. 

For Shawna, this has involved analysing the funds available and working out where money is best allocated to deliver the best possible healthcare, as well as non-medical services like food banks. She’d had to think creatively to come up with solutions to problems on a scale they’ve never faced before—fortunately, this is something her MBA taught her to do. 

“What an MBA really helps you do is always approach things from an overview position. It allows you to take a step back and teaches you to be the positive disruptor of the way things have worked, to see opportunities and understand how to influence change.” 

Read More: Meet The Harvard MBA Who Is Reinventing The Gap Year


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