Health Equity
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

"How I'm Building" with Jessica Halem, MBA

by Marjorie Alford

Jessica Halem, MBA talks with Onboard Health about the changes she has seen over her twenty year career, the usefulness of humor in every interaction, and the Golden Age of Television.

As healthcare is projected to account for a third of new employment in the next decade, we have the opportunity to build health into our society with new models of care and access; address the social determinants of health head-on; and revolutionize chronic disease and mental health.

Accomplishing all of this, however, calls for inclusion of varied viewpoints and lived experiences in problem solving and decision-making. This is how Onboard Health views sustainable health innovation — through the inclusion of change-makers from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Onboard Health’s blog is dedicated to giving a voice to these talented individuals hard at work creating lasting change in our society. This post, featuring Jessica Halem, MBA is the ninth of a Q&A series — “How I’m Building” — highlighting members of the diverse Onboard Health community.

You have over twenty years of experience across nonprofits, healthcare, and education. Can you briefly describe to us some of the changes you’ve seen over those two plus decades?

We’ve gone from being the problem you were afraid of to the solution makers that everyone benefits from.

We are a movement. We have a history. We make the world better for everyone. It’s an honor just to be part of the Onboard Health Community where so many of us are swimming in the same direction!

But of course, there are still families and workplaces and politicians trying to put us back into the closet but I have news for them – look around – we aren’t backing down. We are here. We are queer. And we aren’t going anywhere.

You serve on the board for the Tegan & Sara Foundation, what does the foundation do and what does your work with them look like?

Board service is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life and career. I was so excited to be introduced to the artists Tegan and Sara five years ago when they were launching their foundation. From the start, health was a vital pillar of the impact they wanted to make. I was happy to hear this since so few funding sources are available for improving queer health access.

I was honored to be asked to join the Board and am still waiting to see if they want to bring me on tour to play the cowbell.

We are a very hands-on board who help to raise money, engage volunteers, implement projects, and support grantees. Now five years later, we are clearly making a name for ourselves by funding frontline, grassroots organizations and change makers and also developing unique projects no one else is funding. Tegan and Sara’s platform gives us access to millions of people and we are able to harness that energy in really impactful ways. 2022 is going to be a big year for the Band and the Foundation!

During your time in Chicago you trained at Second City and went on to have a successful standup career. Can you tell us how you merge these two identities?

Using improv skills along with my sense of humor means an ability to deeply listen and be present, think on my feet and engage everyone’s ideas, and remain optimistic and expansive even when the going gets tough.

My comedy career may not look like it did 10 years ago but I am still engaging audiences and creating experiences with storytelling and heart that will motivate change.

As one client said: “You are the perfect mix of Harvard and Second City!” And the best part? Anyone can learn the improv skills I use to make their work better.

What does Onboard Health’s mission — “building an inclusive health workforce” — mean to you?

I worked with a major hospital who had a problem on their hands. They had invested tons of money into a city-wide marketing campaign to attract LGBTQ+ patients. All over the buses and television were messages saying some version of “You are welcome here”. The problem was the clinicians and staff didn’t feel that way. A group of LGBTQ+ doctors and staff and everyone in between were enraged to find out they were somehow left out of the big investment. How could this hospital claim to provide high-quality, LGBTQ+ affirming patient care when those very same people weren’t even safe to work there? A transgender man had just quit the residency program and a lesbian primary care doctor was left out of important meetings and a gay man in Endocrinology heard the front desk staff make gay jokes about him. These were just the three stories I had the privilege to learn directly!

Changing healthcare for LGBTQ+ patients cannot be done without ensuring workplaces are safe, inclusive, and positive for LGBTQ+ providers and staff. It starts with happy staff. Save your marketing money and invest in your workforce first.

We talked about the changes over your twenty year career but how have you seen the field of health equity shift since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve heard a lot about how the cracks that were always there have been exasperated. We were only a few weeks into the pandemic when a doctor friend of mine said her hospital would have to stop putting into her 401k. Only a few weeks with no elective surgeries and everyone working overtime putting their own lives on the line, and their retirement plans would suffer. We cannot achieve health equity for our most vulnerable patients when we have a workforce so undervalued and unsupported. How can I give my best to those most in need when I myself am so depleted? It’s not sustainable. We must ensure healthcare institutions are equitable inside before they can do that work outside too.

Where are you drawing inspiration from lately?

I have been providing free 1:1 coaching and mentoring to everyone from pre-med to attendings to Chiefs who are LGBTQ+ and also those who are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous. I did this work at Harvard Medical School and since leaving have continued to provide 30 minute sessions a few times a week. I use my MBA skills and improv theater background to help support organizational change makers, provide real interview acumen, and general career coaching. I walk away completely optimistic that the future of healthcare is bright. Over the past two years, I have met with over 100 people who inspire me with their stories of tenacity and dedication to making the world a better place.

As I always say to them: “You are the manifestation of our hopes and dreams. It won’t be easy but we need you.”

What hopes do you have for health equity in the coming year?

We finally have a consensus on the best practices for data collection for every aspect of healthcare – surveys, forms, EHRs. I hope by the end of 2022 every institution at every step of the way is asking and collecting sexual orientation and gender identity in a meaningful way. LGBTQ+ people are everywhere – they are your staff, your clinical trial participants, your patients, your students, your faculty – but if you don’t ask, you will never know! So practice saying the words in the mirror, take a deep breath, and ask everyone, every time.

As we are all constantly learning, relaxation and rest are of equal import to our work. How do you recharge?

We are living in the golden age of Television! There is so much out there to make us laugh, cry, or think. I have no shame in admitting my partner and I watch a lot of TV. If you need a recommendation, just drop me a DM and I will find the right show for you to binge. I’ve seen it all. But I will always come back to watching stand-up comedy. Whether comics from the past or present, there are so many incredible voices out there sharing their most honest and vulnerable parts to make us laugh. The power of giving those who have been silenced a microphone is hearing new takes on problems we all have. So, find what makes you laugh!

Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to discuss with us?

I have been talking a lot about “microaffirmations” in my trainings lately and I like to share that for me an inclusive workplace is one where I can talk about my partner and their work and our life together openly.

So, even though those Zooms are getting long and we are all so busy, try to take some time to find out what your LGBTQ+ employees home life is like. You don’t have to pry to learn a bit about what they do for fun or how  they volunteer their time.

And last but not least, where can the Onboard Health Community connect with you online?

I love connecting with online friends – Check out my website: and drop me a line. I keep my website updated with my latest offerings and press and other ways to learn more about LGBTQ+ health. And I am always up for connecting over a video call and seeing how we might work together. I am honored every time I get to partner with like minded teams and changemakers on our shared mission of health equity.

Jessica Halem (born Kent, Ohio) is an award-winning educator, advocate, and consultant with accolades from GLMA, Harvard, Howard Brown, and The Advocate. She works with Fortune 500 companies, medical centers, and public officials on LGBTQ+ issues, workplace inclusion, and healthcare equity.