Nicole Huff considers herself a natural-born leader.
As chief compliance and privacy officer for St. Luke’s Health University Network, she educates the entire St. Luke’s community about making ethical decisions in the delivery of health care.
Health care is a passion of Huff, who grew up poor in the projects of Chicago. Her family had to rely on Medicaid to treat Huff’s childhood asthma.
This left her with a determination to rise above her circumstances, and to do what she could to decrease disparities in health care access among the poor and those of color.
“I was sick all the time,” she said. “And I know what it’s like to have a mother that struggles. I promised myself that I would never live that life. I wanted to be a leader. A leader doesn’t give up.”
And give up she didn’t.
A single mom of two boys, she completed her doctorate in health care administration at Central Michigan University in 2013. In addition to her position at St. Luke’s, she moonlights as a college adjunct professor, teaching health care and economics, and volunteers, bringing much-needed health care to developing countries.
As an executive at St. Luke’s, Huff is in charge of compliance issues for more than 15,000 employees at campuses throughout the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
“I’m a resource for the organization to talk about making ethical decisions,” she said, “and I ensure that people are aware of our policies and find them easy to follow.”
Huff began her career at St. Luke’s in 2012. She moved from her hometown of Chicago to the Lehigh Valley to take the job, with her two young boys in tow. It wasn’t easy to adjust to a new life in a new state with no support system.
“I have no family in the area,” she said. “It’s hard. But I’m a survivor, I’m going to make things work. That doesn’t mean I haven’t spent nights where I cried, wondering if I did the right thing.”
However, in the end, Huff knew that she had.
“St. Luke’s is a good organization to work for,” she said. “My school district is good. I sacrifice for my kids and I am able to give them a better life. As long as my kids are getting what they need, that outweighs my need for personal assistance.”
Huff said she regularly makes it a point to have time with her sons, including date nights.
“I’ ve been lucky that the places I’ve worked have allowed me to take the time I needed to be a parent as long as I didn’t take advantage,” she continued. “You find ways to balance your schedule so that you can be at their sporting events and school activities, but sometimes you have to pick and choose. You can’t be at everything.”
Maintaining that balance has made her a role model for her children. They see her hard work, she said, but can also say, “My mom was there for me.”
“I used to hear my mom saying ‘I’m doing the best that I can,’” she said, “and now I hear myself saying that. Given the responsibilities of being a teacher, a mentor, a mom, an executive, you find ways to give of yourself without overextending.”
Outside of work, Huff enjoys advocating for an end to health care disparities, an increase in minorities in leadership, and fighting AIDS and hunger in children.
“I wanted to do more with my life in the health care arena,” she said. “I’ve traveled to other countries as a volunteer to learn about other health care systems and how they are able to provide medical access for all, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.”
When asked what the future of health care payment systems in the U.S. might be, she let out a frustrated sigh.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “There are so many different stakeholders who want a piece of the pie. There are places like Singapore, Taiwan and Switzerland who have been able to do it right in my opinion. They have been able to keep their health care admin costs low and no one goes bankrupt because of illness.”
In her travels, Huff has visited Belize, a country where diabetes is the second-leading cause of death. There, she helped provide diabetes treatment to those in need.
“I always knew I wanted to teach and to travel,” said Huff, who is currently an adjunct professor at both Moravian College and DeSales University. “I need to be able to be in a place where I can both influence and continue to learn. I can do that in the classroom. I am able to hear different perspectives and continue to grow.”
In her career as a corporate executive, Huff is in the minority as both an African-American and a female. Only one in 25 members of the C-Suite are women of color, according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company, a global analytics organization.
“Throughout my career, there have probably been some points where people have said no to me because of my race,” she said, “where I came into an interview and they did not realize from my resume that I am African-American.”
Huff said that while she may have been the only person of color in certain places she has worked, she has not received any resistance because of that or her gender.
“I make sure that I choose organizations that I think I can work for,” she said. “Health care is a male-dominated industry and women must work to find a seat at the table. I consider myself a change agent and if my ideas can’t be accepted, then that’s not the place for me. I make it look easy, even if it’s not easy.”
That persistence and conviction have made Huff a leader. And she prides herself on leading through teamwork, whether on the job or while volunteering with advocacy organizations.
“You can’t do anything alone,” she said. “I’ve learned that you need a team. I’ve learned so much and want to pass on that knowledge. I’ve grown from both my failures and my successes.”
Huff has advice for those who want more for their lives and who, like her, may have come from difficult backgrounds.
“Do not get discouraged,” she said. “Keep talking to people. Keep striving. People may say no to you, but it just takes one yes.”