Fawn Lopez fled South Vietnam with her parents, grandfather and five siblings when she was 15 — a week before North Vietnamese soldiers captured the capital city of Saigon.

Lopez left behind a life of privilege — a beautiful home and servants — to come to America, where she taught herself English and eventually worked her way into the competitive world of advertising sales. Her father had been an Army colonel; her mother was born into a wealthy family.

Lopez is now vice president and publisher of Chicago-based Modern Healthcare, a weekly magazine with a circulation of about 70,000 plus related online content, and the daily electronic newsletter, Modern Physician. The combined publications and websites have about 800,000 regular users and subscribers.

Lopez came to Minneapolis recently for the annual Women’s Health Leadership Trust forum, where she spoke to about 700 people about the future of health care and why women leaders matter. She sat down with the Star Tribune after her speech.


Q: You put a high value on the mentors in your life. Why is that so important for future leaders?

A: Any young man or woman, fresh out of college or otherwise, who wants to talk career, health care or publishing, I will make time for them. I learned how to navigate the unknown on my own when I first started out, so I want to help others. Mentors — men and women — have been there all along my career to give me insight or share their talent, knowledge, skills and compassion. The lessons I learned will always be with me.


Q: Health care is on the cusp of a revolution, as you put it in your speech, yet there still are few women in top leadership positions, where critical decisions are being made. What are the barriers?

A: Since women aren’t well-represented in the highest ranks of organizations, most decisions are still being made by men. Part of the problem is that we don’t promote ourselves enough. Men are really good at promoting themselves. We need to be much more assertive, we need to be more confident. We need to insist on having a seat at that table.

Q: How does that get put into action?

A: Know your worth and learn to negotiate better. The tendency is, “I don’t want to boast.” But you have to. Whenever I was presented with an opportunity, I was always thinking: “What’s the potential? How can I grow with that?” And when I thought that I should have something or that I deserved a promotion, I would say, “This is what I want to do. This is my aspiration. How do I make that a reality?” You have to let people know. I tell my staff all the time, “I don’t know some of your accomplishments unless you tell me.” Women don’t talk about it. We just hope someone will notice.

When I became publisher of Modern Healthcare, we started recognizing women and their innovations, and putting a spotlight on their accomplishments. That has been very rewarding. Some of the women now tell me they wouldn’t have gotten that promotion if they hadn’t been recognized by Modern Healthcare.


Q: What qualities do women bring to leadership positions, and why is it important particularly in the field of health care?

A: Women make the majority of health care decisions. We can’t create and develop programs and policies if we don’t know what our patients need or what they’re thinking about as caregivers. The industry needs to have leadership that mirrors its customer mix. Health care demands the ability to plan, develop strategies, analyze and evaluate. But it also calls for self-awareness, empathy and humility. That’s what women bring to the table.


Q: When you speak to a group this big and this diverse — there are CEOs here, clinicians, business owners, people involved in health care policy — what do you hope people take away?

A: I hope that people walk away with concrete ideas as individuals or ideas as leaders. One of the things most important for me personally is that you can’t be effective as a leader if you don’t have a sound mind or healthy spirit. That’s personal for me. As leaders, we can set the agenda within our own organizations, create formal processes and programs to help women advance, to climb the ranks, to develop. We can create policies that can be helpful to women at all levels. It can’t be a one-size-fits-all. Women at the middle-income level or lower level, their agenda is different from those at the top.


Q: You came to America as a frightened teenage girl, as you described it, with a family that arrived “with little but ourselves, our gratitude and our memories.” How has that experience helped you be more resilient to inevitable rejections in your career?

A: I tell my story because it represents hope. The opportunities are enormous here. But nothing comes easy. You have to work at it. In my first job in advertising sales, I told a top publishing executive, “With all that I have been through, hearing ‘No’ from a potential customer would hardly break me.”