From Adversity to Opportunity
WBA’s Strategy and Transformation Officer of Technology Maria Lensing shares wisdom she’s learned from her career and her heritage.
By Elyse Russo
When Maria Lensing was 14 years old, she moved to the U.S. from Peru to support her youngest brother who was fighting for his life.
Juan Diego was 8 years old and battling leukemia when doctors in Peru gave him the wrong treatment.
"They told my parents he was going to die," she says.
On the recommendation of a family friend, Lensing's parents called St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Lensing says the hospital didn't take patients who have already been treated, but Juan Diego was an exception because of his unique circumstances: He had cancer and a brain injury, which was the result of the faulty treatment he received.
Lensing's parents took Juan Diego to the U.S, first, and then she and her other brother followed six months later. As a result of the faulty treatment, Juan Diego is partially paralyzed.
Lensing says her brother who centers her and is the inspiration and motivation for her work as a change agent—a role she's embracing at Walgreens Boots Alliance as the Strategy and Transformation Officer of Technology. Her mission is personal: to help transform WBA into a healthcare company that fixes what traditional healthcare gets wrong.
"I take care of a brother who cannot talk, cannot walk, cannot take care of himself," she says. "So, if I'm going to walk, I better walk with purpose. If I'm going to talk, then I better speak truth. When you have that daily reminder of how lucky you are, it's hard not to have a passion for change, a passion for disrupting the status quo."
To fulfill her purpose, Lensing has relied on wisdom she's gleaned over many years from family, mentors and others. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, she's sharing some of that advice and how it has shaped her personally and professionally.
'Competency is the greatest equalizer'
When Lensing speaks, confidence pours out of her and fills the room. She attributes this confidence to knowledge, and she says she learned to prioritize education at an early age: her father had two PhDs and her mother had an MBA. Her mother wanted to be a lawyer, but her family didn't allow women to pursue law degrees.
"My parents both went through a lot of adversity and always told me, 'Invest in your brain,'" she says.
After spending so much time in hospital settings with Juan Diego, Lensing initially wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Her unease around blood, however, led to an eventual pivot to electrical engineering.
"Engineering teaches you to think logically, to solve problems methodically, and that's one of the greatest skills you can develop," she says. "It also gave me the ability to understand that competence is the greatest equalizer in any situation. No matter the adversities I faced, having an accent or being the only woman in my class, my competency allowed me to rise above any obstacle and gained me the respect of my peers."
'Being who you are to the world will inspire somebody else'
Before Lensing says something truly important, she takes a brief pause, collects herself and speaks slowly.
"An admission I'm not proud of is that for many years, I thought in order to be successful, I needed to distance myself from my Latino identity, and I own that," she says.
Lensing says the shift in her thinking came when she saw other Latino business executives leading the way. She named two role models she met during her tenure at AT&T: F. Thaddeus Arroyo and Ralph de la Vega. She credits them with getting her involved in the Hispanic IT Executive Council (HITEC). She's now been on the board of directors for five years.
"It was my first time seeing so many executives, from so many different levels—even successful CEOs—who were Hispanic," Lensing says.
Since that time, Lensing says she has been very intentional about being a different kind of leader, one who embraces her heritage and continues her work through HITEC to expose Latinos to careers in technology and raise the next generation of technology leaders at every level.
Lensing says she appreciates the openness of fellow Latino executives in leadership roles at WBA, like Walgreens Chief Pharmacy Officer Rick Gates. Gates has spoken about how the values instilled in him by his Latina mother, like working hard and investing in education, have helped him get where he is today.
"It's inspiring to see the executive team being open and vulnerable about their paths to success, and the stories of all that they have overcome, because it aligns so closely with the spirit and vision of Walgreens," Lensing says.
Another reason why sharing your story is important, according to Lensing, is that "being who you are to the world will inspire somebody else."
'Know your crystal balls and relentlessly prioritize them'
Lensing speaks with passion about so many issues and topics. In addition to the value of education and her Hispanic heritage, she is proud of her deep Catholic faith, her community involvement and helping foster interest in STEM in children. But of all these things, family is priority No. 1.
Her parents have passed away, but Lensing remains close to both of her brothers, and she currently resides with a family of her own in Dallas, Texas. Her husband retired early from his career as a nuclear engineer so that he could take care of their two sons, ages 14 and 10, while Lensing pursued her professional goals.
When she talks about balance, she refers to advice given to her by Cynt Marshall, who is now the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks.
"She said to me, 'Balance is about knowing your rubber balls and your crystal balls," Lensing says. "If you drop one of your rubber balls, it's going to bounce back up. If you drop one of your crystal balls, you'll never get it back. So, you need to know your crystal balls and relentlessly prioritize them."
Lensing's chief crystal ball in her personal life is her family, but she's spent her first five months on the job at WBA zeroing in on some crystal balls for the company and its team members.
"As Walgreens looks to transform itself, our goal is to create an environment where you can be all that you want to be, personally and professionally," Lensing says. "We're evolving at a pace that's reacting to a marketplace that's moving faster than ever before, and in times like these, our passion, desire to grow, discipline and resiliency will make all the difference."
As an agent of change, Lensing knows that change is constant. And with change comes adversity.
"We will turn our adversities into opportunities, and that will determine how Walgreens transforms into the healthcare company we know it will be," she says.