Lesleigh Irish-Underwood: 'Affordable Health Care needs to be seen as a right.'

CRISTINA JOHN | 3/25/2021, midnight
Lesleigh Irish-Underwood becomes the Chief Brand and External Relations Officer of MetroPlus Health. She continues to do her work as ...
Lesleigh Irish-Underwood Contributed

Lesleigh Irish-Underwood becomes the Chief Brand and External Relations Officer of MetroPlus Health. She continues to do her work as a marketing strategist in hopes of being a voice for Black Americans to gain access to affordable health care.

“Affordable Health Care needs to be seen as a right,” says Irish-Underwood. “This is not if you can afford it or when you can afford it. Access to affordable equitable health care is a right, and that’s the perspective that MetroPlus Health has.”

Before Irish-Underwood became the chief brand of MetroPlus Health, she was the executive assistant at Random House Publishing. This was her first job after she graduated from Stony Brook. “I was very fortunate to be one of the few women of color to move from education directly into consumer publishing, which sadly is really not that diverse of an industry.”

Irish-Underwood found herself taking notes in every meeting she attended and getting lunch for Jane Friedman, the publisher for Alfred Knopf at the time and the person Irish-Underwood worked under. However, those tasks did not stop her from thinking she could be doing something better. She took her job as an executive assistant as an experience. She was at the forefront of all the meetings Jane Friedman was involved in with bestselling authors and negotiations. She worked closely with her and learned a lot. “[Friedman] was my sponsor before I even knew what that was,” says Irish-Underwood. “I’m sure she was observing some of my skills and talents as opportunities became available in the marketing track. She moved me right into it, and I fell into the creative and operational and you know that is the very interactive nature of marketing.”

For Irish-Underwood, she has a bigger picture in mind in terms of marketing. As she was getting acquainted with her new position at Random House Publishing, she realized that there was a connection between marketing and publishing. The writing aspect of publishing is not always important.

“Most people don’t even realize that there is sales and marketing in publishing,” says Irish-Underwood. “There are so many other areas to be connected to books that aren’t necessarily about the writing part.”

Irish-Underwood mentions that this is intersectional because in publishing you are trying to make sure that the story you are offering and promoting connects with an audience you are trying to write for. She further goes on to say that this is hard especially when there isn’t a Black representative at the table to be a voice for the Black boys and girls and men and women within the Black community. Irish-Underwood believes that there is a need for those diverse voices even in marketing. This is her area of expertise.

“You do need those diverse voices at the table, even from the not all creative but the marketing and business side to make sure that we’re reaching the audiences for who that product is appropriate.”

Irish-Underwood wants to be a voice for her community, for the Black individuals who do not have the opportunity to speak for themselves. In this form of thinking and one of her goals, Irish-Underwood found herself with the strength to leave her position in the publishing industry where she stayed for 25 years. She was able to move from Random House Publishing to Pearson and Kensington. She realized that she grew with her experience, but she thought about what success looked like for her and what she saw herself doing.

“I’m definitely not the kind of person I think who would be comfortable in a role where I am doing the same repetitive thing over and over again,” says Irish Underwood. “And so, I think sometimes you do have to really make that sort of determination for yourself so that you’ll know when you see [success].”

Irish-Underwood thought about where she would be able to add value. She was able to think about the places she thought she would bring a unique lens, who she was and her lived experience. Her questions were all about what she could do to make a difference.

“What do I have to offer that’s unique here, and how can I make a difference and what will those difference-making areas be and then when I accomplish them, how will I know?” was some of the questions Irish-Underwood asked herself.

This goes beyond her job in the publishing industry because with this way of thinking, she found herself working at United Way, a nonprofit organization trying to improve the lives of every living person for better opportunities for health care and education. She was able to open herself up to opportunities, which led her to move to different publishing houses. She wanted the opportunity to be able to help and be someone who understands the value of a story.

Now, she is able to tell the story of MetroPlus Health, the health insurance plan that is built and created for New Yorkers as Chief Brand. Irish-Underwood speaks lively about her position and what MetroPlus Health is all about.

“There’s a sort of unique space that MetroPlus Health really maintains in the nexus of being immersed in everything that New York City has to offer and all of the key areas and key stakeholder audiences that New York City serves,” says Irish-Underwood.

Irish-Underwood is not new to the health industry as she worked for United Way in the past. Her familiarity with the health industry and having that drive to be someone who represents the Black community is paramount to the work she wants to accomplish.

“MetroPlus Health has over six hundred and eight thousand members,” says Irish-Underwood. “That’s six hundred and eight thousand New Yorkers who count on us for their daily health care needs and to connect them to their providers, hospitals, or the health center where they can get services for themselves, for their elderly mothers, for their children.”

Irish-Underwood believes that these are the stories we have to amplify much louder. She mentions that it is a wonderful story to tell especially in an environment where the inequity and disparity in health care has been significant. She raises the question of what equitable health care looks like across all of New York City and marvels at the fact that securing this position at MetroPlus Health couldn’t be more perfect for her to take her experience as being a storyteller and bring it to MetroPlus Health where there is a great story to tell.

Irish-Underwood means to tell the story of Black individuals through MetroPlus Health and her experience as a Black person. “It’s about bringing quality and exceptional health care to neighborhoods that, frankly, unfortunately aren’t always used to feeling like quality and exceptional should be attached to it,” says Irish-Underwood. “And so that’s the philosophy here.”

As a native New Yorker, Irish-Underwoord finds that being the chief brand of MetroPlus Health was the right role for her. She continues to learn what MetroPlus Health is all about and she believes that everyone else should know the story as well.

“These are the communities that [MetroPlus Health] has been serving for thirty years, but this is not new for us,” says Irish-Underwood. “We are not new to the game. We’re not just getting into it because it’s popular or because it’s a buzzword right now.”

As a Black woman, Irish-Underwood is able to use her voice in a leadership position to help the Black community. “It’s critical to see women like myself in different roles of leadership,” says Irish-Underwood. “It’s critical to have our voices at the table. It’s critical for us to be able to inform and influence what people think, how policies and certain decisions are made, even down to some of the smallest insights that we can share.”

It’s exciting for her to see Black women who are moving into an entrepreneurial space where they are creating businesses and opportunities for themselves in a way that has never been seen before. Irish-Underwood mentions proudly that there is no shortage and that there are enough women flowing in every crack and crevice of the universe in business. However, she also states that though there is change the change is not fast enough.

“I think we’re at a time now where there are many more seats at the table for [Black women] with the ability to influence things in a way that will allow for the next generation of my daughter to be able to move in ways that I think will be extraordinary.”