Stephen Harris (MBA ’98) is driven by a desire to make the U.S. healthcare system more accessible and affordable.
“The healthcare space is ripe for change,” says Harris, a senior executive with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance and business process improvement. “We’re seeing an inordinate amount of increase in cost relative to inflation, particularly in the pharmacy space. There’s still opportunity to simplify the healthcare system, look for ways to better manage cost, remove waste and fraud from the system. That is what excites me.”
His career as a business leader and healthcare visionary, seeded with an MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, reached a new level in 2022 when he became president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the largest member-owned health insurer in the U.S.
“I feel privileged to lead an organization that is responsible for the provision of healthcare to approximately 9 million members,” he says.
People are at the heart of what matters most to him. Expanding coverage is a core aim, and Harris sees promise in technology renovating healthcare delivery.
“What matters most is making sure healthcare is affordable, which is a tremendous challenge, particularly given the current environment, dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic, inflation and labor challenges,” Harris says.
He also wants to make the process easier for the average consumer by leveraging new technology such as telehealth to get access to a clinical professional in a way they might not have been able to traditionally.
His experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler helped catalyze his understanding of business development, performance improvement and his role as a leader. “It was a great experience for me,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing looking back on it.”
“UNC Kenan-Flagler gave me the opportunity to explore other career opportunities and build my general management skills,” says Harris. He studied accounting at Michigan State University and worked at accounting firm Deloitte before business school. “I was not interested in pursuing a long-term career in public accounting.”
He enrolled in the MBA program through the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, the largest diversity network in the U.S. aiming to increase the presence of underrepresented populations at universities by connecting top students to MBA programs and corporate partners.
“UNC Kenan-Flagler was one of the early schools to participate in the Consortium, which provided opportunities for disadvantaged students to attend top tier business schools with scholarships,” he says.
With racial justice now at the forefront of the conversation on business and education, Harris is passionate about improving access for minority groups. “I have been an active participant in the Consortium, helping with recruiting new students and with its annual orientation program, where I give career advice,” he says.
His was part of the first MBA cohort to attend classes in the McColl Building, named after the retired CEO of Bank of America, Hugh McColl (BSBA ’57), when it opened in 1997. “It enabled the School to be transformative and to be global in scope and scale,” Harris says.
As an MBA candidate at UNC Kenan-Flagler, he had access to many learning opportunities that provide valuable, first-hand experience. “I always had a desire to travel globally, to explore and deepen my knowledge. UNC Kenan-Flagler allowed me to do that,” he recalls.
That included a 10-day Global Immersion Elective to Mexico City with MBA classmates, visiting leading companies in the banking, utilities, food processing and tourism sectors.
“It was a phenomenal experience not only to understand the culture and some of the economic dynamics that faced the country at the time, but also getting exposure to specific industries,” says Harris.
He also took part in a Deloitte-sponsored Duke vs. UNC Kenan-Flagler case competition, which led to him securing a new role at Deloitte after graduation, as a senior consultant. “That was a great opportunity to display my skills,” Harris says.
He learned practical skills and knowledge at UNC Kenan-Flagler that acted as a catalyst for his career in the business world. “If I reflect back on one course in particular, organizational behavior, I didn’t realize the value that course would have in my future career,” he says. “Given my accounting background, some of those key learnings from my organizational behavior course really helped shape my framework for leadership, identifying talent, working effectively and leading teams.”
Prior to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Harris held several leadership positions at its corporate parent Health Care Service Corporation and at Molina Healthcare, a Fortune 500 company delivering government-sponsored healthcare. He led Molina’s Michigan operation through a significant period of growth, which resulted in a membership increase of 95% and revenue increase of 185% while he consistently exceeded annual profitability targets.
Between 2002 and 2009, he served as executive vice president and CFO of United American Healthcare Corporation, which provides management and consulting services to healthcare organizations.
Thinking about his career trajectory, he cites the importance of a growth mindset. “In my career journey, I have been able to understand my experience and what I can deliver, and what my needs were at that juncture, and use that information to find the best opportunity for me to advance,” he says.
That has meant taking some calculated risks, including taking the CFO job at United American Healthcare even though it faced financial problems. “I knew working with their CEO would give me the opportunity to broaden my experiences, knowledge and perspective,” Harris says. “It was a calculated risk and I had to understand what the true upside could be. I was willing to bet on myself to take that opportunity.”
Committed to giving back to his alma mater, Harris has taken part in several UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni events since joining Blue Cross and Blue Shield and relocating to Chicago in 2018. Most recently, he was a panelist in a discussion hosted by the UNC Center for the Business of Health about careers in this important economic sector. What is his advice for those who want to follow in his footsteps and help transform care?
“What has really driven me is the ability to align my work with my personal values: to make an impact particularly with communities where people don’t have the opportunity to make healthcare a priority – it tends to be an afterthought,” says Harris. “My role at Blue Cross and Blue Shield has really allowed me to feel as though I can pursue my passion and leverage my skills to have an impact. I think that is what will lead to long-term success for the next generation of leaders.”