Community Focus

Bold moves, breakthroughs, and career insights from Providence Health Plan leaders

23 May 2024

Candace Beeke, Publisher and President of the Portland Business Journal, recently sat down for a conversation with two leaders from Providence Health Plan: Laurel Soot, MD, Chief Medical Officer, and Karen Williamson-Gracey, Director of Account Services. They discussed pivotal moments and bold moves that advanced their careers, their leadership styles, and the unique challenges faced by women in their fields.

Candace Beeke: Tell us about your career and how you got there.

Dr. Laurel Soot:
As the Chief Medical Officer for Providence Health Plan, my career path was influenced by a family immersed in the medical field, although initially, I resisted following that path. My passion for biology, anatomy, and physiology eventually led me to surgery despite my initial reluctance. I loved the tactile, intense, and team-oriented nature of surgery. I transitioned from being the regional director of breast health at Providence to focusing on population health, driven by the goal of transforming the healthcare industry to be more proactive in disease prevention and early identification.

Karen Williamson-Gracey: My journey to becoming the Director of Account Services at Providence Health Plan began with a background in classical music, holding both undergraduate and master's degrees in performance. My entry into the insurance industry was serendipitous, sparked by a meaningful conversation. This led to a series of intentional decisions and continuous self-challenge, embracing scrappiness and tenacity and fostering a lifelong learning mindset.

Beeke: What have been the key leadership qualities and skills that helped you excel and earn respect?

Authenticity and integrity have been crucial in my leadership journey. Staying true to myself and understanding the diverse ways people show up impacts every interaction I have. This authenticity fosters integrity and influences how we function as a cohesive team, leading and supporting one another.

Soot: In medicine, acronyms help us remember everything, but three key qualities—competence, compassion, and calmness—have guided me. In surgery, which often resembles controlled chaos, the surgeon's role is to remain calm, confident, and compassionate. These qualities have been instrumental in my leadership approach, fostering an environment of noble intent and maximum competence.

Beeke: What was a breakthrough moment where you took a risk or made a bold move that propelled your professional growth? What was the outcome and lessons learned?

Embracing discomfort was a pivotal moment in my career. Bold moves and risks are inherently uncomfortable, but they are necessary for growth. Venturing into a startup environment within the insurance space, despite the discomfort, provided invaluable experiences and growth opportunities. When faced with the choice of staying comfortable or stepping into new challenges, choosing the latter has consistently driven my professional development.

Beeke: How have you adapted your leadership style to thrive in times of change and uncertainty?

Medicine is often resistant to change due to its critical nature. Embracing change as the only constant allows for better management of uncertainty. People often fear the unknown, especially in healthcare. By staying mindful of the present, change becomes less intimidating and more manageable.

Beeke: Women face unique challenges and biases. How have you overcome this?

Beyond gender, biases related to age, race, and other factors have been hurdles in my career. As an African American violist, I faced lower expectations and had to consistently prove myself. Embracing these challenges, I overachieved to break stereotypes and inspire others. My career achievements aim to lead by example and encourage others to rise above biases.

Soot: Throughout my career, I was frequently told I didn't fit the stereotypical image of a surgeon. This fueled my determination to challenge and change societal perceptions. I advise women to channel their frustration with biases into constructive actions that demonstrate their capabilities, thereby overcoming prejudice.

Beeke: How have you mentored and supported the development of other women leaders?

Mentorship has been a rewarding aspect of my career, and I've been shaped by the wonderful mentors I've had. My advice is to actively seek out mentors and engage in conversations with people you admire. Mentorship can significantly influence personal and professional growth, shaping one's path forward.

Both Dr. Laurel Soot and Karen Williamson-Gracey are examples of the power of resilience, authenticity, and proactive leadership. Their experiences and insights provide valuable lessons for aspiring leaders, particularly women navigating the complexities of professional advancement in healthcare and beyond.

You can read the entire conversation at or by visiting

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