Scars heal, then a champion emerges

March 21, 2019
Assistant chief information officer for applications Jes Cornelius
Jes Cornelius serves as the assistant chief information officer for applications at MUSC. Photo by Sarah Pack

Jes Cornelius says the words aloud: “My scars have given me the courage to find the strength in my own voice.” She repeats them — this time, slowly. This time she tears up. They are meaningful to her. Neither a proverb nor a Maya Angelou quote, these words weren’t penned by a stranger. No. She wrote them, forged by adversity, and they remain close to her at all times — a constant reminder to speak up in the face of injustice, discrimination or inequity and help others find their voices.

MUSC recruited Cornelius to Charleston last April to assume the position of assistant chief information officer for applications, reporting to CIO Mike Caputo. A respected name in the health care IT field for the past two decades, she’s held top leadership positions — from director of operations at Indiana University Health system to CIO of Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, Indiana, all the while making her way in an industry that is still referred to by some as a man’s world. And, bringing other women up the ranks with her.

IT. Information technology. Is it really man’s world? Cornelius has mixed emotions. “Probably,” she says.

She’s certainly earned top titles in her industry. And yes, women today are more frequently seen in leadership positions. But have they actually achieved full equality in the IT space? Not really, she says. In the IT world, “male-dominated” is still the reality.

For one, with 90 percent of Silicon Valley jobs being held by men, and much of the nation having followed suit, the tech industry remains largely a boy’s club. But, she said, MUSC is working to correct that disparity. 

“MUSC has an overarching commitment to diversity,” she says. “Right now, it’s very limited in some ways. When I came to MUSC, there were only two other female IT leaders in the entire enterprise. So, yes, the unspoken boy’s club still exists — especially as it relates to inclusion in certain things or events and in terms of assumptions that are made. It’s not that it’s ‘bad,’ per se; perhaps as women, we’re just used to it.”

She says women have to work harder to engage in the conversation and prove to colleagues that they have the knowledge. “That is something I work very hard at every day, and I’ve done that my whole career.”

Some of the unconscious bias is simply ingrained, she says, but she feels like she can help move things in the right direction. She is in the MUSC Center for Transformation and Change Diversity and Inclusion Program — a yearlong course that has changed the way she sees things. It’s meant to open people’s eyes to biases and practices that can inadvertently cause misunderstandings and provide the means to create a more inclusive and socially just organization.

“In situations, as a leader, you have to speak up for people. If I see something, I can’t not say something. That’s why I’m taking this course — to learn how to have some of those crucial conversations. If I’m in a meeting and someone says something offensive or off–color, it’s important to be able to say, ‘Hey, did you catch that? I don’t think you meant that, and, if not, what were your intentions?’ We don’t want to tell people they’re wrong. That’s not how we do it. It’s important to be respectful.”

While many women in leadership often feel they have to measure their words and the way they conduct themselves in daily interactions with their male counterparts, Cornelius doesn’t feel pressured by stereotypes to be anyone other than herself. And according to people who work for her, that’s a warm, caring and open person.

Even with 200 employees on her team, she offers an open-door policy so they have an outlet for the stress and emotion they deal with every day. She smiles as she remembers her first few weeks on the job after leaving the Midwest.

Jes Cornelius leads a meeting
Jes Cornelius leads a meeting with members of her team. Photo by Sarah Pack

“When I came to MUSC, I thought people were going to ask me about strategy and what I would do in my first 30 days. But it was more like the ‘Dating Game,’” she laughed. “‘Where do you live?’ ‘What’s your daughter like?’ ‘Are you in a relationship?’ ‘Do you have any pets?’ I realized they wanted to know me personally.”

So she shares a bit of herself in her “Tee It Up Tuesday” messages that highlight things that happened during the week that she ties to what’s going on at work. Recently, for instance, she attended the Black History Month’s “Still I Rise” ceremony. She left particularly moved by the concept of “you will never know.”

“At the beginning of the presentation,” she recounted to the team on a recent Tuesday, “they emphasized that we all have challenges, life stories and experiences that shape who we are. They had us turn to each other and say, ‘You will never know.’ This was harder than you think to admit to strangers. Most of us keep these life challenges locked in. If we pass each other on the street, in the hospital or in our own department, we have no idea what each person passing us by is really going through.” 

But what if they did take the time to know, she asked them. What if people listened and when someone said they were just “OK,” someone on the team would stop and listen to see if that person needed an ear or a shoulder that day.

“When we are fielding calls from a hurried nurse or an angry physician, we must keep this in mind,” she said. “They may be on a double shift, have just lost a patient or are dealing with a surge of new babies. Or, personally, they may be dealing with an ill family member or have received a terminal diagnosis. While we may never know, we will strive to show compassion and kindness in all of the services we deliver. It’s hard some days, because we also have our own stories. When we stop to think and listen to others, we may find support and understanding in unexpected people and places.”   

Cornelius is one of five assistant chief information officers who report directly to Caputo. Colleagues say she has a gift for being able to humanize IT. That’s where she thinks she’s an asset.

“We’re taught this from an early age not to cry — it shows weakness — or that we need to be dedicated to our careers to the exclusion of all else. Well, I tell my team that their families, their faith and their health come first. Always put those first. I will always support you in that.”

People often ask her where her strength, resolve and candor come from. She’ll tell them — she wasn’t always this way. There was a time in her past when she sat silent. And she regrets it.

“I saw lots of very ‘in your face’ racism, genderism, sexism. I didn’t know how to address it. I was uncomfortable but never said anything. I didn’t have my voice.”

Jes Cornelius and her daughter Abby
Jes Cornelius and her daughter Abby. Photo provided

But then life changed, and so did she. When she was 30 she went through a divorce. Her whole world became about supporting her daughter, Abby, and being the best mom she could possibly be. “I always wanted to make sure she never felt like she came second,” she explained.

After the breakup, Cornelius went back to school, finished her bachelor’s degree and got her master’s. She began to advance in her career, always shooting for a better position and financial situation.

It was during this reboot of her life that Cornelius found her voice and become a champion for others. She chose to mentor single moms.

“I wanted to help women who had gotten out of bad relationships — newly single women with kids to care for, who didn’t have good jobs or any kind of career paths. I’d help them move up in their careers. Find better jobs. Move up to management. I’d tell them, ‘Call me. Text me. Let me know if you need support.’ It was then I came to see how important it is to speak up for people. ‘Hey, this person is qualified. She’s working on her degree. How can we get her into a new position?’ That was extremely important to me. That all feeds me, because I’ve been through it.”

Through it all, she’s tried to be a role model for Abby — her “mini–me” and love of her life. She beams when she tells you that her life revolves around Abby, a sophomore in college who’s headed for a STEM career. They share the same birthday and love spending time together traveling, snorkeling in calderas and kayaking in bioluminescent bays. They also like to watch scary movies on Netflix. Anything, really — as long as they’re together.

She’s especially proud Abby has already developed her voice. “She’s more comfortable having conversations when people try and put her in a box. I’ve always told her, ‘Do things at your own pace. I don’t care what you do. I’m proud of you, and I love you. Don’t worry about what other people think.’ I want her to always speak her mind. Never take the back seat. She’ll never hear me say, ‘Don’t say that.’” 

Expanded bandwidth

Mom, boss, mentor — Cornelius stays busy. She also loves to work out, and she’s a pretty stellar bingo player.

“I’m totally addicted to a few things. I recently started barre classes — it’s so much fun. I love spinning. I love Netflix. I love to win at bingo, and I’m addicted to Chick–A–Sticks — peanut butter candy rolled in toasted coconut. There’s nothing better than when Abby and I drive to Savannah and get them from the barrel.”

And she loves her job. Yes, she works a lot. Especially with her daughter away at school. “What would I do if I didn’t work?” she jokes. “Seriously, you do have to do something just to veg out and let it all go.”

She runs Applications, the area responsible for any software that MUSC uses to deliver care enterprisewide. Currently, there are 450 applications. She’d like to serve as the CIO for a large system — perhaps one day, MUSC. But today, she enjoys reporting to Caputo, calling him an outstanding leader who’s open to ideas and loves to debate the pros and cons.

With a lot to compare it to, she considers MUSC a premier organization. When she was hired, Caputo said, “We are in growth mode.” She said, “Good. I want to help you get there.

About the Author

Mikie Hayes

Keywords: Features