Lois Quam is no stranger to harsh environments. Quam's final year at UnitedHealth Group, where she oversaw the health insurer's Medicare and Medicaid businesses, was marred by a stock-options scandal from which the Minnetonka-based company is still struggling to recover.
But frolicking with polar bears in the tundra? That's where Quam found herself recently: in Manitoba seeing how climate change is threatening the bears' health and habitat.
Today she flies to Norway where she will join famed Minnesota explorer Will Steger to study the country's oil industry and its carbon offset program. China is next.
Quam, 46, talked recently about her new job spearheading environmental and health care investments at Piper Jaffray while evading questions on her political ambitions.
Q You left UnitedHealth in August during a time of tumult. How much was push and how much pull?
A I began at United 18 years ago. I started as director of research and they put me in the office next to the CEO because it was open. It was very casual. What I really enjoyed was finding ways to take good ideas and services and bring them to scale. I especially liked the opportunity to work with AARP and the government. Part of my family lives way above the Arctic circle in Tromsø, Norway. I've always been interested in northern places. Last winter, I read a story in the Star Tribune about Will Steger [and his campaign to stop climate change] and called him. He came over and sat down with me and my sons and talked. I went from thinking about helping out to thinking I could play a role.
Q How did that happen?
A [Steger] seemed so hopeful. He said he believed that financial markets and governments would begin to take action. As I read more, I saw that what has to happen is [to take] a lot of small, good ideas -- biofuels to wind energy to sequestering carbon -- and to evaluate them and take them to scale. That's what I do. I thought: Maybe I have an obligation to do this.
Q Why Piper Jaffray?
A Piper took United public. I knew [Piper chief executive] Andrew Duff. What I didn't know was how Piper was in this space. At a Fortune women's conference in Los Angeles, someone told me Piper was the only company interested when they were trying to raise money for a solar firm in the early 1970s. They are the most active firm in clean technology. They have a strong geographic focus in the Upper Midwest and in China. And they happen to be based in Minneapolis. It was a lucky coincidence.
Q Tell me about you and the polar bears.
A I hadn't had a break since I started working, except for maternity leave. After I left United, Will [Steger] arranged for me to go to Hudson Bay with John Stetson, who lives outside Duluth and is one of the top dog mushers. I took a train and met him in Churchill [Manitoba]. We flew in a small plane to Seal River. It was the Arctic tundra and it was very flat -- rock and brush. The polar bears come out of the woods to go out on the ice and eat. One of the challenges is [that] the ice is freezing later and thawing earlier and the polar bears lose that time to eat. The female polar bears only give birth to as many cubs as they have the fat to support. There are now very few triplets and the number of twins has dropped. It was very motivating to see how much is at stake. Those are the parts of the world that see the challenges earlier. It made me feel different about Minnesota. We are an extension of that, our winters, our forest.
Q Do you miss anything at UnitedHealth?
A The first month here, I've focused more on renewable energy. After Hudson Bay, I had dinner that weekend in Marshall [Minn.], where I grew up. I was talking to parents of my friends there on Medicare. These people with the most security still feel so insecure. I'm very interested in seeing how, from this vantage point, I can make a difference there. I had a group of people at United I loved working with. But it's very important to be sure you're doing things where you make the most impact. Not simply stay the course.
Q When you announced your departure from UnitedHealth last summer, the theories started swirling -- that you might be preparing for a career in Minnesota politics or in a possible Clinton administration, or that you were paving the way for a comeback for your husband, former state Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.
A The reality is what I told you. I'm really interested in working internationally. While I founded UnitedHealth Europe, United is still a very domestic business. I've been involved in the DFL my whole life. Matt has his think tank now, Minnesota 2020. I worked for Bill Clinton in the first administration. When I got the call to work for the First Lady [on her health care reform plan] in 1993, it was really hard. The boys were young. But I felt I had to do it.
Q So have any presidential candidates called this time?
A I've talked to a number of candidates. I support Hillary Clinton.
Q Sorry to keep asking you the same question in different ways, but has Clinton asked you to join her?
A I'm going to keep not answering you. I'm focused on this.
Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434