Fearlessly Curious Voices: Embracing empathy & sparking change with Weill Cornell Medicine’s Elena Wu

Partner & Chief Strategy Officer Nicole Ferry sits down with Weill Cornell Medicine’s Executive Director of Marketing, Elena Wu, to talk about how what scares us most can bring about the most positive change, women’s health, and breaking out of ruts. Elena began her career in financial services marketing at Chase Manhattan Bank, MasterCard, MetLife, and Guardian Life before pivoting to healthcare and higher education marketing at Weill Cornell Medicine. 

Listen to their conversation below.


Elena Wu: It was absolutely positively frightening at the time. You’re a high achiever, you wear your badge by being busy and by being engaged in a lot of different initiatives – and then all of a sudden it gets really quiet. I really focused on limiting the noise and spending time on a little self-inquiry. I knew more about what my dislikes were, but not really my likes. I started by saying yoga and meditation is my passion, but a lot of times I felt it was like a very separate world for me. That gap gave me the time to really reflect on me as a whole person. And how do I move forward in a leadership style that’s much more natural for me and still be highly regarded and highly successful? 

Nicole Ferry: This year’s Women’s History Month theme recognizes women who speak up and are leading change in their fields. As a woman-owned business, and primarily a woman-led business, we’ve always said that the attribute of fearless curiosity is a characteristic that really sets us apart and helps us to be successful. And we’re here today because we’re exploring other women in our community who also live those values. So, we’re thrilled to have Elena Wu with us today.  

EW: Hi, Nicole. Glad to be here.  

NF: We’ve worked with you for a long time, once at Guardian Life and now for over five years at Weill Cornell Medicine. While we know you well, we would love for you to share a little bit about yourself and your story for the listening audience. 

EW: Sure, glad to. I live in Nyack, New York with my family. And I am an avid yoga practitioner and meditator. Career-wise, I describe myself as truly a marketer at heart. I got my start at Chase Manhattan Bank in credit cards – the best way to start learning direct marketing, segmentation, pricing, acquisition, retention – and then moved to another great brand, MasterCard International.  

Then I moved on to MetLife. At that time, they moved from a mutual company to a publicly traded company and [I was] really seeing the increased discipline to running a publicly traded company and the different cultural changes that had to take place. That was a great time because I joined a team where marketing was first established and built. You really had a lot of defining and proving of what marketing can do when working with a sales force.  

And then I moved on to Guardian. An old boss of mine called me up and said, “Hey, have I got a job for you.” I got to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It was my turn then to define marketing and really build the competencies and a team for their group and work site business.  

One of the executives moved to the COO position and then asked me to come and try my hand at corporate communications. I was able to build on marketing but in a business-driven environment and all throughout financial services.  

Most recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a pause. At the time, it was very difficult, but I certainly look at that as a gift. So, I had a little bit of a gap, which gave me time to really think about what really excites me. What would I love to do and what would the perfect environment be? And I realized I wasn’t as excited or didn’t think I could get as excited moving to another insurance company or moving to another organization within the same industry.  

I was able to meet a lot of people and during that time, healthcare was one of the few industries that was consistently growing. I was also looking at education and I was fortunate enough to, through the networking, come across Weill Cornell Medicine. I’ve been here for a little bit over five years already. I joined just before the pandemic, and I’m just really enjoying my time working with such incredible leaders in their field. 

NF: That’s great. I love what you just said. I didn’t know about this, but the idea that sometimes it takes having a gap to really do the soul searching and reflection to be able to figure out, well, what do I do next? How did you approach that? 

EW: It was absolutely positively frightening at the time. You’re a high achiever, you wear your badge by being busy and by being engaged in a lot of different initiatives – and then all of a sudden it gets really quiet. I really focused on limiting the noise and spending time on a little self-inquiry. I knew more about what my dislikes were, but not really my likes. I started by saying yoga and meditation is my passion, but a lot of times I felt it was like a very separate world for me. That gap gave me the time to really reflect on me as a whole person. And how do I move forward in a leadership style that’s much more natural for me and still be highly regarded and highly successful? 

NF: Absolutely. I love the fact that, since we’re talking about fearlessness, the one thing that probably made you the most fearful ended up being the time that you needed to really put you on your right path. And I think that happens a lot, doesn’t it? Where something that scares us often is the most fruitful in our lives. 

I’d love to talk a little bit about the pivot from financial services to healthcare. It sounds like going to healthcare was a little bit of following your heart. It also felt like you were moving towards a different kind of culture. I would love to hear you kind of compare and contrast. We actually work in both areas too. And it’s interesting to hear you on the inside talking about some of the differences. 

EW: I will say there were a lot more commonalities that enabled me to make the bridge. So, I really made sure I articulated that – working with providers, having very similar experiences in terms of understanding the patient experience or the consumer experience. At Weill Cornell Medicine, they have so many brilliant people in their field, but what they didn’t have is marketers. In terms of some of the differences, the experiences from being in a more corporate or publicly traded environment has been extremely helpful here at Weill Cornell Medicine in terms of the notion of what things could be done better, more efficiently from a centralized standpoint. How you can build some simple processes that will serve many so that things didn’t have to be repeated again and again. And then, of course, what the value of the brand can do. I do believe that healthcare is a little slower on that front, in terms of the power of the brand. 

NF: You had talked earlier about noticing your style of leadership. I think you called it being an empathetic leader and how it didn’t necessarily fit with some of the cultures you had worked in prior.  

How do you screen for that once you define “this is my style of leadership and I’m proud of it and I think it’s effective.” How do you figure out when you’re looking at a new opportunity, how that’s going to work in the new company? 

EW: Yeah, that’s a great question. The things that are important to understand about the culture is how much listening is done. Listening is such a core component of any kind of successful leader. Do you have a good understanding of your constituents? And what may be the motivators, and what may be the blockers? And how is it that you can help or use that in your leadership? As marketers, you’re so focused on knowing the target. Well, how is it that you really understand the people that you’re working with and how do you drive the best outcome? 

NF: One of the reasons that we were excited to include you in the series is that in our work with Weill Cornell Medicine, we’ve noticed that there’s an emphasis on equity and inclusion. And you can see this in a lot of different ways. Some of the work on the Women’s Health Initiative, your expansion into more diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn and in Queens and when we look at Weill Cornell Medicine, we also see a lot of women in leadership and we’re wondering, is there a correlation? 

EW: I would definitely think so. There’s an incredible amount of diversity, whether it’s male, female, different backgrounds, different countries of origin. It’s incredibly diverse and getting all the brightest minds together with that different perspective.  

And I think, again, it’s connected to that listening because the culture of Weill Cornell [Medicine]. We’re very inquisitive around why things are not working as they should be or how they could be better. So, the investigators, they ask the right questions; and they really did dig deep to understand why is it so or not so in certain segments. 

It’s absolutely thrilling right now that there’s such an emphasis on women’s health. We were able to identify that although women make up half the population, they make the most influential decisions within the family and themselves about health care. Yet, when you look at all the historical clinical trials, women are underrepresented, as well as people of color and other different backgrounds. There’s such a concerted effort to change that and to recognize that health presents itself differently in different types of people. It’s thrilling that we’re investigating it and taking our curiosity to the next step. 

NF: I love that. That’s one of the reasons it’s so inspiring to work with you all is to see all of that great work. You just mentioned curiosity, and I’d love to spend a little bit of time talking about what are you curious about right now? That could be within healthcare, it could be professionally in marketing, or it could be personally too. 

EW: We are preparing for what’s called a salon. We’re inviting a diverse group from different points in our life – some are old friends, some are work friends, some are neighbors, all different backgrounds. And we’re all throwing in these discussion questions, stimulating a conversation and getting different points of view and things that you would probably never imagine. Connecting with another individual in a whole new way, even though you might have known them forever. This will be our first go at it, but I’m curious to see how that pans out. This is one of the ways I try to feed that continuous inquiry.  

NF: Well, now I’m curious. I want to be a fly on that wall. That sounds exciting. 

EW: We felt like we were getting in a rut a little bit. So, if it’s not coming to you, how do you bring it to you? 

NF: I think so many of us can get caught up in life and just getting through it that we all can kind of get caught in a rut. What are other ways that you kind of pull yourself out of ruts, whether at work or in life?  

EW: I really realized this, especially through COVID, like the whole notion of socialization. People do complain; they get used to working at home, but at the same time, they are starving for interaction. There’s this great big debate: how do you get people back into the office? I try to come up with ways to make it work for people and give them a reason. And frankly, I enjoy the interaction as well. So yes, how do I get out of a rut is definitely engagement with other people.  

And yet I’m not an extrovert. I’m one of those introvert-extroverts, where I do get energy mostly from reading, meditation, et cetera. Most of it is, recognizing first what really gives you energy and concentrating on that and not forcing yourself, oh, I have to network. So [that] it’s easier to take that step forward towards the things that you love and remove the things that are getting in the way. Like too much screen time and scrolling. 

NF: I hear that. As a fellow introvert-extrovert, how do you think about networking and what has worked for you that might work for others of us? 

EW: What really has helped is for you yourself to help others. And that way when you need to then ask of others, it becomes very easy because it’s like, “Oh, of course, I will ingratiate myself to someone else.”  

I really was not very good at all about networking over the years. But you’d be really surprised once you start making that first step and starting easy and just making sure you don’t limit yourself to a small circle. You will certainly be surprised when you make the ask that others are glad to reciprocate. 

NF: That’s great advice. What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self? 

EW: I say this now to different people. I say that your strength is your weakness, and your weakness is your strength. So have a very good understanding of that and how do you always put it towards your strength or utilize one or the other. And the other thing I would say is – that I’ve learned over the years – you have perfect imperfections. It’s your imperfections that make you so special and so unique and that really is your superpower.  

Nicole Ferry: That is very provocative. I’m starting to think about my strength and what kind of weakness it is and vice versa. Not necessarily for you, but could you give an example. I’d love to hear how you how you think about it. 

EW: Less so now, but maybe earlier in my career, it [was] fear of failure. So a lot of energy around what I thought was perceived success was spent in a mode of fear of failure. But the times later in my career when I took steps forward because I knew it was the right answer for me and being proactive about it – being offensive as opposed to working on the defense – things came a lot easier than the stress of muscling through. 

NF: That’s a great example. As you’re thinking about the next generation of female leaders, is there anything that we haven’t talked about? Any advice that you would like to impart? 

EW: I would say really be open. There seems to be a greater divide or an association with “I am this, but I am not that.” I think really having that openness, not just understanding who you are, “yes, these are my qualities,” or “these are the things that I like,” but you do want to have diverse and inclusive and different discussions. There are ways to have constructive conflict or constructive conversations, you all don’t have to be sort of the same. Otherwise, I think that dampens creativity. So sometimes there’s not always a right and a wrong, but I would just want to make sure that folks aren’t so rigid on whatever the scale of the continuum is. 

NF: Great. Well, thank you. This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for speaking with us. We really appreciate it. 

EW: Thank you. Thank you so much, Nicole.