Right where she belongs: How Lisette Martinez creates an inclusive culture and a world of opportunity as Jefferson Health's executive vice president and chief diversity officer

The innate desire to belong

The year was 1984 in Ypsilanti, Michigan when the world fractured in front of Lisette Martinez, leaving her caught in the middle, unable to process the divide, let alone choose a side.  She had looked forward to her sixth-grade camping trip for months because it was a chance for all the classes to travel together.

 But the anticipation of a unified experience that held the promise of new friendships and fun adventures was replaced with shock when Martinez entered the campground cafeteria for lunch on the first day.  She was stunned to see all of the Black students on one side of the room and all of the white students on the other, and she had no idea where to sit in this segregated environment.  The situation rendered her immobile, her feet frozen in place and her mind suddenly aware of a social construct that left her completely unaccounted for. 

A mission takes shape

Martinez went on to graduate from college and forge a career in procurement.  Fresh out of school, she became a buyer and a purchasing manager in the retail industry for companies like Toys ‘R Us, Chiquita Brands and Luxottica (the parent company of LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut), though the memory of that cafeteria stayed with her.  

While employed as a buyer at Luxottica, Martinez became aware of the company’s plans to form a new division.  As she described, “They were looking for diversity and inclusion managers, and my first thought was ‘This Italian company is starting a diversity department?  What’s going on here?’” But the word inclusion sparked her interest.  “It took me right back to that cafeteria,” Martinez explained.  “I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. I was born in ‘73. And back in those days, Detroit was just Black and white. I'm from a Hispanic family, and we were the only Puerto Ricans in my neighborhood.  There were no Puerto Ricans at my school, and people would always ask me, ‘What are you?’  They would mistake me for Indian or Black or mixed, and I struggled to explain my ethnicity.  I never heard people speak the language that we spoke at home, and no one knew the types of food we ate.  And so I never really saw myself.  All of the cultural aspects of my family didn’t exist outside of my home.  That sixth-grade camping trip made me come face-to-face with some tough questions about my ethnicity, my race and my sense of belonging.”

Martinez recounts that decades-old memory as though it were yesterday.  She explained how an empathetic counselor took note of the scene and stepped in.  She ordered the kids to mingle for the rest of the trip.  As Martinez described, “That changed my perspective of where I fit in.  I felt like I was part of something.  I felt like I belonged.  So, when I saw the word inclusion in the Luxottica job description years later, I remembered this experience so vividly, and I knew I wanted everyone to feel the way I felt on that trip.  I wanted everyone to feel a sense of belonging, and I wanted to be part of that mission.”

Going all in on diversity, equity and inclusion

Despite having no experience in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Martinez decided to act on her feelings.  She explained, “I wanted to make this happen.  And Cincinnati was a great place for me to be when all of this took place because there are so many Fortune 500 companies there with great DEI leaders - Procter and Gamble, Kroger, Toyota and Johnson & Johnson. I met with all their leaders to learn how to create operational plans, to learn how to make DEI part of the institution's fabric and to learn how to create real impact. I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do, and Luxottica gave me the job.”  

This was in 2007, and the career pivot certainly paid off. In the ensuing years, Martinez made her way to Jefferson Health and Thomas Jefferson University and now serves as their Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer.  In this role, she is responsible for the DEI strategy for both the university and the health system.  She and her team build anti-racism curricula within the university, and they help students learn how to address stereotypes, microaggressions and unconscious bias. By applying solid business strategy, Martinez has created a sustainable way of planning, implementing and optimizing DEI across the entire enterprise.  

Weaving DEI into the fabric of an organization

Martinez continuously looks for ways to be accountable for the work by creating specific goals and metrics centered around making a real impact. “I'm a strategist,” she explained.  “I started my career as a buyer in corporate America, being able to see things and learn things from a global perspective. I learned that if you don't embed something into the fabric of the organization, if you don’t build something that’s perceived as integral to success, then it's never gonna get done.”

Among Martinez’s long list of accomplishments, she has created and implemented the first board-approved, comprehensive DEI plan, created DEI councils, implemented an initiative to reduce disparities in patient care, convened an annual summit, established mentorship programs, established “Supply Chain Connect” (a program that prepares local and minority-led businesses for contracting opportunities with Jefferson) and established the first dashboard to track and improve diverse hiring across the enterprise.  For these reasons and more, Martinez was named one of 2022’s Top Diversity Leaders by Modern Healthcare.  

Words of wisdom from an award-winning DEI executive
When asked to share the work she’s most proud of, Martinez replied, “I’ve really stuck to my gut about forming councils and committees to be part of an organizational structure and strategy.  I've created an operational plan for leader-led councils that have action plans that are scored on an annual basis. And I’ve built sustainability into the work.  Let me give you an example of something that was a huge success here at Thomas Jefferson University.  Universities are made up of different colleges, and each of those colleges tends to have a different diversity need and a different diversity committee, but they’re typically not structured within the governance of the university. I wanted to make sure that each DEI committee was written into the bylaws as a standing committee, and I wanted each dean to be held responsible for the effectiveness of that committee. So we worked with the provost, and the president of the university worked with the bylaws committee so that each of those deans is the executive sponsor and holds a seat on the governance committee.  People say that everything that gets measured gets done, but that’s not true.  Everything that's connected to a KPI, an incentive or a performance review is what gets done.”

Martinez continued, “The other big thing is to operationally place your diversity councils and teams across the enterprise, and then the members of those teams also become your extended team. I meet with everybody once a month, and they report on how things are going. But I also keep track of my own commitments. I report directly to the CEO, and we meet monthly.  I also routinely meet with the CHRO, the CRO, the CMO, the president of the university and the president of the health system. My business plan revolves around making sure I’m working to meet their needs.”

How DEI helps fulfill the mission of health care providers

Another arrow in Martinez’s quiver is DEI training to raise awareness about unconscious bias, microaggressions and stereotypes and to give staff members tools with which to practice.  In Martinez’s view, DEI is particularly important when it comes to health care.  She explained, “I noticed that clinicians sincerely wanted to connect with patients who were different from them. I would get nurses and physicians wanting to get the cultural backgrounds of their patients, and I had to talk to a lot of folks to better understand how to incorporate cultural competence without creating stereotypes. I also wanted to capitalize on my belief that we all share a common humanity despite our differences.  All things considered, I wanted to help clinicians communicate better and build trust with their patients because if patients don’t trust you, they will not adhere to their treatment plans.”

Martinez finds wisdom in the Cultural Sensitivity Pocket Guide, which was published by the Joint Commission, the nation's oldest and largest standards-setting and accrediting body in health care.  The guide promotes a communication method for clinicians to ask the patient specific questions. As explained in the guide:

“When it comes to health care, the United States might have great technology and dedicated, intelligent health care staff, but these advantages are lost if our patients can’t understand the why and what of their care.

If a patient, because of a cultural disconnect, can’t appreciate what we’re prescribing or why it’s necessary, or if the information is delivered in a way that inadvertently frightens or offends the patient, how can we fulfill our mission as health care providers?”

The guide is divided into four categories: 

  1. Call: What do you call your problem?
  2. Cause: What do you think caused your problem?
  3. Cope: How do you cope with your condition? 
  4. Concerns: What are your concerns regarding the condition and/or recommended treatment?

Martinez provided this example: “Among Asia’s Hmong population, epilepsy is seen as a spiritual gift. The spirit catches you, and you fall down. It’s believed to be a good thing.  But if a patient is having a seizure, and you ask the patient, ‘What do you think is happening?’ and they say that the spirit is catching them, that reveals a cultural belief.  That’s an educational opportunity for the doctor to explain that the cause of a seizure is an electrical disconnect that happens in the brain, and then the doctor can talk to the patient about why that’s occurring. The doctor can go on to ask the patient how they’re coping with their ailment.  And people from many cultures do things that they may be embarrassed to tell a doctor - like how my mom used to put tequila on my brother's gums when he was a baby. Those practices, however, may interfere with the medication that’s being prescribed.  Or you may have a patient who comes in with a bunch of marks that look like they resulted from a smack.  By asking the four questions, the doctor may learn that this patient rubs coins on their skin to release bad energy; it’s a cultural practice within their family.  By keeping those questions in mind, doctors can gain cultural understanding and build trust.”

Inclusion matters when it comes to patients’ treatment plans

When patients have faith in their doctors and in their treatment plans, better outcomes are likely.  And one way to make this happen is to include patients in decisions about their treatment plans.  As Martinez explained, “That’s a big thing that's going on with all health systems in this country and in the world.  Our clinical teams are understanding how important it is for the patient to be part of their medical treatment plan, and it's really helping to get patients to adhere to treatment.  You have to make them part of the team.  You have to listen when they say they don’t have money for certain treatments or when they can’t adhere to the plan for whatever reason.  Many people don’t have the convenience of having a grocery store nearby, and transportation may be an issue.  Many people don’t have green spaces to enjoy.  And, no, they can’t simply hop on a Peloton or afford a gym membership like some people.  So how do we really help build the resources needed to help our patients get the treatment they deserve?  And what is it that they need?  Is it mental health resources?  Is it a place to live?  There needs to be a well-rounded plan that takes into account the patient’s lived experience and their perspective. This can only be accomplished when patients are included in these decisions.”

DEI is neither about political correctness nor is it about changing people

As we wrapped up our conversation, Martinez shared some final thoughts.  She explained that she’s made a conscious decision to be a safe person with whom to talk.  As she described, “If you ask me a question, I want you to be curious. I'm not gonna shame you. I'm not gonna tell you I'm offended. I'm gonna make our conversation a teachable moment, whether it's something you're teaching me or I'm teaching you.  I'm not gonna be aggressive toward you. We’re gonna talk, and that's what has helped me move forward and change a lot of lives in senior leadership.  I've allowed people to talk to me and ask me questions that they always feared. I wish we could start a revolution around helping people to be more accepting and allowing them to be curious and genuine and allowing them to say how they feel.  DEI is not about political correctness; it’s about caring for one another.”

Martinez also recognizes that DEI is not about changing people.  As she explained, “When I first started working in DEI, I was very young, and I thought, ‘If I can just change people, everything will be rainbows and butterflies, and we can all live and coexist peacefully in the same world.’ That was my big mistake. I thought I’d simply teach people these skills and then they’d apply them. When that didn’t happen, I’d get frustrated and anxious. Eventually, I learned that I can't change people, but I can change the environment. I can't change the world, but I can start at Jefferson.  That realization changed my whole perspective, and I became a better DEI leader as a result.”


A native New Yorker who married into a Gullah family in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Gina Miller evolved her natural interest in culture, community and social justice into a deep commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace and beyond.  As an avid reader, prolific writer and community volunteer, she channels her thoughts and emotions into various forms of storytelling.  This includes writing articles for SunShower Learning, which offers specialized, best-in-class diversity, equity and inclusion training to help organizations evolve.

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