Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Julie Hill

A professional head shot of Julie Hill smiling at the camera
A professional head shot of Julie Hill smiling at the camera

In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at UCI, interviews Julie Hill, corporate director of Anthem and chair of UCI’s Foundation Trustee Board.

Tyrus Miller (0:07–1:30): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, coffee cup in hand. And I’m pleased to be with Julie Hill, chair of the UCI Foundation Board of Trustees. Julie has a B.A. in English from UCLA and a master’s in marketing from the University of Georgia.

She started her career as an entrepreneur in marketing and land development, becoming CEO of Costain, a land development company based in London. She’s a member of several corporate boards, notably Anthem and a long time philanthropist in the community actively serving on several nonprofit boards including Human Options, a shelter for abused women; Orange County Community Foundation; the Paul Merage School at UCI; and now as chair of UCI’s Foundation.

She’s been a passionate advocate of women, having supported several international women’s rights and refugee nonprofits and she’s a prominent speaker on women in leadership. She’s been recognized with multiple awards for her leadership and for her advocacy for women’s rights.

Welcome Julie, and I’m so pleased that you’ve joined us today for our “Over Coffee” series.

Julie Hill (1:30–1:32): Thanks, Tyrus. It’s fun to be here.

Miller (1:32–2:03): Glad to have you. So I wanted to start out by kind of saying, asking a little bit about your career. You started out as an entrepreneur and you’ve had a very, very successful career really during a time when it was less common and unfortunately still less common to find women as leaders in business. What lessons have you learned that you could share with young women who are thinking about careers in leadership particularly in fields that still have fewer women in leadership positions?

Hill (2:04–2:58): I’m happy to talk to that. I didn’t start out as an entrepreneur. That’s when my career took off. But going back, I can tell you when I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be in business and I went to my high school guidance counselor for advice. I was going to UCLA on some scholarships and I went to him about the questions I had about my major. And I said I wanted to be in business and he literally said to me, “No, pretty little girls like you become bitches on wheels and you don’t wanna go into business.” And I was 16 and I was shocked. And I became an English lit major and I taught school for two years. Because at that time, that’s what you could do with an English lit major only, you know, undergrad major. And it’s interesting, I think you might’ve had Bruce Hallett speak to you as well.

Miller (2:58–2:59): We do.

Hill (2:59–5:07): And I don’t know if he said anything, but it turns out, we went to the same high school and we had the same guidance counselor, who told him he should be a limousine driver. So not good guidance. So, I did. I taught junior high school for two years and I loved those kids and I have the greatest respect for the teaching profession, but I had been misdirected. I really did know I wanted to be in business.

So that’s when I went back and got the graduate degree. And that’s when the entrepreneurial thing started. I was living in Atlanta at the time. The Atlanta real estate market was in the tank. I was at a cocktail party and was chatting with a banker who had repossessed a lot of high-rise condominiums in Atlanta, and he was lamenting the fact that they didn’t have any in house marketing capability. And I just had my newly minted degree in market analysis and communication strategies and understanding markets. So, I said to him, “Well, I have a marketing consulting business that I think might be able to help you.” And he was like, I guess desperate enough. He said, “Yes, come in on Monday.”

So, over the weekend I went home and printed up business cards and formed a marketing consulting business. So one of the things I say to young women is, when there’s an opportunity say yes at the door, because it’s often not rocket science and you can often figure it out as you go. So, basically, I taught myself the land development business and I did it for five years. I had some really good clients. They were doing things like building high rise condominiums in an area where there were a lot of retirees or two or three story condominium units. And I said, that’s just kind of a basic thing. Your age demographic will indicate it, you’ve got to do single stories. And then I realized that California was doing what I was doing on a small scale, on a much larger scale. The Irvine Company had multiple billion dollars of marketing cost. So, I moved back to California and started working there and that’s really started my real estate career.

Miller (5:07–5:18): Well, it sounds like you also might give the advice not to give in to the prejudices of others reflected back to you as well.

Hill (5:18–6:02): When I speak to young women what I say is, use your frustration if you’ve been told no to fuel you. Use that little bit of anger as energy to fuel you. And what’s true, headhunters will tell you this, executive recruiters will tell you that, let’s say they have a job description that has 10 requirements. Men will apply if they really only have three or four of the requirements, women will not apply if they don’t have eight, nine or 10. Part of it is confidence, part of it is to understand that there’s a game and to have confidence. It doesn’t mean you can fake it once you get there. But what it does say is, you can’t get there if you don’t say yes.

Miller (6:03–6:28): Well, it sounds like a very good advice for people to follow. I wanted to ask you a bit about your activity in nonprofits. You’ve been active in nonprofits, benefiting women from international aid organizations to a local shelter for abused women, to your involvement with UCI. What led you in this direction as a philanthropist and as a leader in the community?

Hill (6:30–9:59): I think the fundamental thing is that that was something that was instilled in me as a child. I didn’t grow up with a whole lot of money but there were people who were a lot worse off than we were. And I have memories of my mother doing wonderful things in the community. So, it was just something that I thought you did.

And then as I got older, I started to understand that we actually have a responsibility for the privileges that we’ve been given. And it occurred to me that there were people who might listen to what I said because I had achieved some things in my career. And I wanted to use that influence for good, rather than not.

With Human Options, I was introduced to that by a friend. It was a small house in Laguna Beach at the time. It had been given to the agency and all the families that were fleeing domestic violence lived there in that house, but the neighbors complained about the sound of the children playing, which just made me crazy. And when I went to visit them, it was little league season. And I walked into this house and my eyes adjusted to the light inside. I realized I’d walked into a family situation and there were three little boys sitting on a sofa and they couldn’t go outside because the neighbors were complaining. And I realized how fortunate my son was, I was busy getting his uniform together and getting him out to play little league baseball and these kids didn’t have that.

So what we realized was they needed a new shelter and I thought I can help put a coalition of builders together. We did it through Habitat Through Humanity, and we, we all pooled things and we built a shelter, which won an award for the Urban Land Institute because we planned it around a therapeutic model. Meaning there were observation centers where the women’s parenting skills could be observed and they could learn to help parent their kids because they’ve been so traumatized in their families. So, it just, it basically just came from, there was something I could do and so I wanted to do that. And then Vivian Clecak who was the founder and executive director of Human Options, which was the shelter, said it turned out to be the house that love built. And it was because it was infectious; there were so many people.

For example, we had a landscape contractor that we used a lot with the tracts of homes that we built and he’d retired. And I called him and said, “We need a landscaping contractor, could you bring some of your crew? And how would you feel about doing this?” And he said, “Well, I’m retired, and I live in Victorville.” And I said, “Well, just could you just come and meet.” It turned out he drove every day from Victorville for nine weeks. He brought his suppliers, he brought his contractors and that happened all the way through the framers, the plumbers and everything.

So there was something incredibly rewarding to me about the camaraderie. I still, excuse me, I still get a lump in my throat about this because it was such a special thing for us to be able to do, that literally change people’s lives. And Peter Drucker, who was an older, but one of the first business management gurus said that the product of philanthropy is a changed life and we changed those lives. So there was no payment needed. It was a joy to do.

Miller (9:59–11:23): It’s an extraordinary story and an extraordinary accomplishment. I’d like to ask you also, another area that you’ve been involved in is in health and health care. And in your role as a corporate director at Anthem, you have a vantage point on seeing the big picture of healthcare in our country. As you know at UCI, we have a Center for Medical Humanities, which is a partnership of the humanities, the medical school and the arts, where we explore human dimensions of medicine. That includes the history, literature, ethics of medicine and also the cultural encounter, the cultural fluency that’s involved in healthcare and medicine, to try to understand various cultural factors that are figuring into health and wellbeing.

So I’d like to ask, in what ways you believe that that human focus that we have at the Center for Medical Humanities can influence conversations and understandings about health, welfare, wellbeing, suffering, living and dying, all those very consequential things that we experience through our medical providers and through our healthcare. And also I mean, this is obviously a time where we’re all thinking about this more because of the situation of the pandemic.

Hill (11:24–13:00): Well, if the world was according to me, I would make those courses mandatory. I think it’s incredibly important to people, who don’t read history, don’t understand the humanities, are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

And I also think there’s an intangible, literally intangible benefit to someone who is a healer, not just a doctor. And I think the humanities makes you a more rounded human being, someone who understands the whole human condition and that they’ve actually started to study this now. I think there is an intangible benefit that passes between one human being and another when you believe in your care; you believe that the person sees you and understands you; and that kind of seeing and understanding doesn’t come without some grounding, some cultural grounding, some understanding.

So, to think that a doctor could be a technician, could be highly skilled and trained is necessary but not sufficient. You have to also have this capacity to understand as you said, the human condition. And I’ve been known, most of my doctors would say to you that one of the first questions I’d say to them is, I make a judgment on whether you’re a good doctor or whether you’re a healer and those criteria for thinking you’re a healer is much less verbal but it’s something I know.

And I think what you’re talking about is the capacity to broaden an understanding and to get people to truly have greater empathy and compassion. To say nothing of just the technical ability and knowledge they have to have.

Miller (13:00–13:15): We have, you know, we have extraordinary breakthroughs in medical science and technology, but I’m afraid that we’ve often lagged in that area of the arts of healing and the culture and humanity involved in that.

Hill (13:16–14:51): Well one of the things I can tell you that is, I’m really proud of Anthem for doing this. They were one of the first to understand the cultural determinants of health. And this has so much more to do with people’s lifestyle, their access to healthcare, their diet, their understanding of the medications that they’re taking, whether or not they can drive.

There are so many things that contribute to whether or not someone is fully healthy. And now in the midst of what’s going on with COVID-19, there’s a much greater focus on people’s mental health and the stress. Somebody said to me the other day, “We’re all gonna come out of this with PTSD, you know, and who’s gonna help us?” And to me, the humanities have, I guess, because I was an English lit major and that’s kind of what I gravitated to, but the humanities have always been a stabilizing force for me, getting me back to the center, taking me out of the madding crowd and trying to get me to focus again on the goodness of humanity.

So, to me, I believe in synchronicity, Jung’s concept of, of meaningful coincidences. And I’ve looked back over this and I’ve said this to a number of women when I speak to them, that if it hadn’t been for that guidance counselor, I might not have been an English lit major. I might’ve been business undergrad and my life would have been much less rich. So, in many ways, I thank him for what seemed like ignorance at the time. But it, it gave me the opportunity to explore being an English major.

Miller (14:51–14:55): I think it was ignorance at the time, but maybe a fortuitous one.

Hill (14:55–14:57): I think it was. And I’m grateful for it.

Miller (14:57–15:11): I’d like to ask you about your role as at UCI, as chair of the Foundation Board of Trustees. What are you most proud of at UCI? And what do you see as the opportunities for UCI in the years ahead?

Hill (15:11–17:35): Well, there’s a lot at UCI to be proud of. And as you said, I went to UCLA. So my initial, probably 25, 30 years ago, my initial interest in UCI was simply because I was tired of hearing about USC all the time in my backyard.

And it started out, I first affiliated with the business school and really had an opportunity to be involved in a number of the schools on campus. I’m incredibly proud of the, if I say international rankings and standings, I mean, rankings are kind of a double-edged sword but let me give you a little story about what I mean. When I took over as chair, I realized that there had never been a venue or an event, where all of the trustees much of the advancement staff, but all of the deans and heads of centers could be in one room at one time. And I thought that that was a loss.

And so we started out the first year with retreat, we had 16 presentations. I was told you couldn’t do that; people would max out. And I said, “No.” They went to the deans and said, “You just have to be really interesting and you have to consider this like ‘Shark Tank,’ because in many ways it’s an apt analogy.” And what happened out of that Tyrus was, the deans were brilliant; they were absolutely brilliant. And the trustees could understand where they rank in their own fields and the level of research that had been done and the kind of extraordinary excellence in scholarship that we have at UCI. So I’m incredibly proud of that. I’m also extremely proud of the stand that the UCs have taken and particularly on our campus, our Black thriving institution, our Hispanic thriving institution, the humanities studies, the Latinx initiatives. I think it’s the wave of the future, is what we ought to be doing.

When I try to describe UCI to my friends, who have gone to private universities on the East Coast they say, “Well, this is where it’s happening, this is United Colors of Benetton.” And we’re stronger for that. I also believe it’s incredibly important to our democracy that we have an educated populace and that we have people who understand that they have social mobility. So I’m proud of UCI for that. But I can give you a dozen lists of things that I’m proud of.

Miller (17:35–18:28): We’re glad that you’re, that you’ve taken on this role of leadership at UCI. I wanted to come back to your having been an English major and right now, there’s some downward pressure on English in terms of the number of undergraduates that are majoring in English. I think that students and their parents feel pressure to go into STEM fields. They think that they’ll have more options for high paying jobs if they go into these fields.

And as a consequence you know, they’re being directed away from some of the humanities fields or arts or social sciences or other related fields. But what would you say to students and parents about that question of what should you major in? How does that translate into your prospects for the future?

Hill (18:29–19:36): First thing I’d say is I understand, because the cost of education is so high. There’s such great student debt. There’s a lot of pressure from families who have struggled with the whole focus of the family is to get a student through college and it’s a disproportionate amount of money for that. So, I understand that economic pressure to be productive, to get a good job. You look at where the high paying jobs are in the world, they are in tech for the most part so you have to be conversant. But I don’t think we’ve gotten the balance right. I think we make it so difficult, especially for engineers where they have such huge workloads in the labs. They have to go to create any time within their school years to be able to experiment, to broadly experiment, to take a humanities course. Actually a basic, that would be a good idea.

Getting a job would be to learn how to write and there are so many people who cannot write clearly. When I was at UCLA we had a test called the subject A test. And if you flunked it, you took a basic writing course. And so I think, I don’t know what we do about that now do we make students go through basic communications?

Miller (19:37–19:52): We still have writing requirements. And a lot of that is actually done in the humanities. We have both our Composition Program and the Humanities Core Program and Academic English as ways of that students learn writing.

Hill (19:52–19:53): So it’s mandatory?

Miller (19:53–19:54): Yes.

Hill (19:54–20:50): I’m glad to hear that that’s still going. You know, writing is one thing, communicating is another. If you think about almost any job and if you aspire to a top position as a manager, you’re gonna have to have good communication skills. I think being able to communicate is a compilation of a lot of talents.

One of the talents is just basically understanding human nature. Human nature for me came from understanding what I do, it came from a lot of reading, a lot of storytelling. I think those are the softer skills that are not as easily identified as a direct line to making money. But what I would say is I understand but don’t shortchange your students’ opportunity in the same way that I fortunately wound up having the luxury of being an English lit major. I would wish some of that on everyone.

Miller (20:51–21:01): So for alumni and donors and friends of the university looking to make a positive impact in the world, in what ways do you think that supporting the humanities can make a difference?

Hill (21:02–21:08): As far as trying to have trustees and other donors understand the humanities?

Miller (21:08–21:18): Yeah. And kind of what the impact of either giving their time or opportunities or resources to supporting the humanities?

Hill (21:19–22:01): Well again, what I mentioned to you before about Peter Drucker saying that the product of philanthropy is a changed life. Humanities has the power to change a life. It can change your understanding of the world, it can change what you aspire to, but what people are believing. I mean, I think if we had required a fundamental humanities course of an entire population we wouldn’t be where we are right now. We’d have critical thinking skills; we might have some common language.

So I think that level of understanding who we are as beings, and we get that so much through all of the different aspects of the study of humanities.

Miller (22:02–22:24): Well, we need that so much now as you, as you have pointed out. I want to conclude with just a couple of questions that are a little bit more personal. You know, you say that you’ve read a lot. What are you reading now in the current situation, either for pleasure or, you know, in connection with your work?

Hill (22:25–24:56): Well, I worked with Song Richardson from the law school and started this thing, we called BYOB and we have done it. We did it for the trustees, I’ve done it for the community foundation, I’ve done it for my mutual fund board with 800 people. And the BYOB is like, you know, bring your own booze, right? Bring your own glass of wine and we’re gonna have a conversation.

Well, the conversation, the way Song and I set this up, is I’m the white girl and I asked Song who is Black, and half Black and half Korean, to define some terms for me that are out in the common parlance now that not everybody in the groups that we’ve assembled might understand. What is white privilege? What do you mean by implicit bias? Why did we talk about reparations? What is white privilege? What’s white fragility? And what we get back in that dialogue, I think is kind of, I’m kind of every man. I’m the white girl who hasn’t walked in this walk and Song has had both the lived experience but also understands it from a scholarly perspective.

In organizing this, I was gathering so much reading material that I actually asked that UCI compile it for me. It came out to four typed pages and it was books and videos and movies and poetry and stories. And out of that list, I’m still, I’ll never read it all, it was just a mass. But out of that list, I’m working my way through. I’m currently reading Cast, which is difficult. I know that you are going to explore the 1619 Project. I think that’s vitally important. And I’m trying to understand what was published on that.

Pleasure reading I would say I do simple things. Like one of my favorite books was a book called Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership. And it was one of the first books this was…It was first published maybe 20 years ago, it brought together this thing that’s always been fascinating to me in my life and that is the power of synchronicity. And what does that, how does that serve you as a leader? And most of synchronicities for me has always been signposts that I’m on the right path, that things are in flow, that things are working. So, I tend to gravitate to that kind of reading, not necessarily leadership handbooks cause I’ve kind of exhausted that genre. I’m not that interested or nonfiction sometimes, but I love a good story, I love a good fiction book.

Miller (24:57–25:04): Any particular films or documentaries either on your list or that you’re watching now?

Hill (25:05–25:27): Well, the New Yorker just came out with a list of the 52 best documentaries ever filmed. So I’ve made a pledge to myself to try to watch one a week to get through it through the new year, which I think is their idea. I can send you that list, it’s a good list. But I will tell you the most entrancing movie that I’ve just watched. And maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called “My Octopus Teacher.” Have you heard of that?

Miller (25:27–25:30): I’ve heard of it; I haven’t seen it.

Hill (25:30–26:19): Well, everybody I’ve told about it, who has seen it has just said, “Oh my goodness.” It’s unlike really anything you will have ever seen. It’s filmed underwater, but it’s not a Jacques Cousteau. It is a human story of a man’s relationship with an aquatic being and it’s not science fiction, it’s not made up, it’s all actual filming. And talk about speaking to our humanity and what this brilliant organism, an octopus, taught this — he was originally a filmmaker — about our humanity was spectacular. Everybody I’ve talked to, who’s seen it was truly moved and it is a, it is a story of the humanities. It’s a story of who we are.

Miller (26:20–26:41): I look forward to watching that and thank you for that recommendation. I’d like to thank you again for taking your time to share your story and some of your thoughts with our viewers and thanks to our viewers for tuning in. I hope that you’ll join us, coffee cup in hand for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thank you, Julie.

Hill (26:41–26:42): Thank you.

Watch all episodes of “Over Coffee” here.

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