People & Perspectives

BUSINESS CASUAL: Vish Sankaran

A series getting to know the real people whose passions are shaping the future of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

By Josh Gaby

Vish Sankaran
THE BASICS

Name: Vish Sankaran
Role: Senior vice president and global chief innovation officer, WBA
Been with WBA since: July 2017
Born in: South India; relocated to Oman in his early 20s before moving to the U.S. in 1997
Office in: Deerfield, Ill.
Family: Wife Brinda; sons Eshan, 13, and Rehan, 11

BITS OF BACKGROUND
  • Before coming to WBA, Sankaran spent more than seven years with the U.S. government in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, finding ways to make healthcare programs more accessible and efficient for the patients who depend on them. This included two years as a senior advisor to the administrator in business and technology transformation for the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services within HHS.
  • Also worked in the private sector as a chief operating officer and chief technology officer for healthcare payor, provider and technology companies.
  • One of the leaders involved in last year’s launch of a trial drone delivery service by Walgreens and Wing in Christiansburg, Va., in which Walgreens customers can order select health and wellness, grocery and convenience items to be flown by drone to their homes. This drone delivery pilot is one of many new innovations introduced recently as part of WBA’s “Horizon” transformation – a three-phase effort that’s not just about changing customer experiences, but also modernizing WBA’s technology and infrastructure and further establishing WBA as a healthcare company.
     
What did you want to be when you grew up, Vish?

I really wanted to be a fashion designer. Back when I was growing up, fashion designing was not big in India, and there weren’t many big design schools like there are now. Creativity, fine arts and fashion have always intrigued me a lot. I didn’t have a lot of access to materials and so on growing up, but I used to design my own clothes. That was my dream. There were two dreams, actually – one was fashion designing, and the second was dancing.

Did you pursue the dancing?

Yes, I did, after coming to the U.S. in 1997. I had close to seven years of training, starting with ballroom dancing. I was this grownup guy standing next to kids, doing pliés, at the school where I started. I went on to learn all types of dances – West Coast swing, salsa, tango, a little flamenco. And I did some shows, but eventually I stopped when work and family took over.

Explain your role for those who are just meeting you – what do you do at WBA, and how does that affect customers’ lives?

The complex answer is “driving business and technology transformation and positioning WBA to be ‘where the puck will be’ in terms of our business model, technology and consumer experiences.” In simpler terms, my current focus is to help transform Walgreens to be a healthcare company that puts the customer in the center of everything we do, embraces technology and delivers seamless experiences no matter how our customers shop with us – whether that’s through their phones and other devices or in person in our brick-and-mortar stores. Our industry has long been supplier-driven, but we want to switch to be more consumer-driven. That includes finding and designing solutions for consumers – how they want, when they want and where they want.

Vish Sankaran

How did your past experience in healthcare, especially with the government, prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

I started in the private sector in health technology, followed by working for the government, then joined a health plan as their chief operating officer, focused on the senior Medicare Advantage population. After that, I consulted with multiple technology firms in California before moving to WBA. The many years I spent in government shaped me greatly. It was a big thing for me, having come as an immigrant. Yes, I grew up in India, but the majority of my adult life was spent in the U.S., and I thought, “Working for the government is my way of giving back to the country that had given me a lot in life.” It turned out to be an amazing learning experience – seeing how you introduce an idea in U.S. healthcare, translate that into policy and law, and then implement and operationalize the law. But I think the biggest lesson is the human impact of what you do in government. It’s the betterment of communities, of human lives, the citizens of the country. This led me to keep working in government much longer than I had planned, because I could affect many more lives.

Everything you do in government is at scale – and that’s a big part of what brought me to WBA: more than 90 million Balance® Rewards members at Walgreens, millions of people touching our stores around the world each day, brands built on caring for and connecting to the consumer, and the opportunity to continue what I experienced in the government. This company attracted me to do a similar kind of work.

So in both settings, it’s really about helping people.

Yes. It’s important to understand the diverse healthcare needs and challenges of average Americans. Imagine, for example, a 45-year-old father of two who’s just been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and is unsure of his next steps. Or a mother of three who works full-time while also caring for her elderly father, who has chronic conditions, takes multiple daily medications, is actively supported by a home health aide and is showing signs of dementia. Or an amputee veteran who suffers from debilitating chronic pain and PTSD and is struggling to integrate back into civilian life while his wife, who has a full-time job, functions as his caregiver. 

Throughout my career, my work has always been guided by consumer needs. I have met wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed Medical Center, differently abled people waiting for their checks from the Social Security Administration, single moms who had to put food on the table. Many had to rely on government programs like child welfare, food stamps, Medicaid. The question for me was, how do you help them? How do you make it easier for them? How do you put yourself in their shoes? Working for the government, knowing the programs, meeting so many people from different backgrounds and circumstances and putting myself in their shoes … the gaps in the system became obvious, and the solutions became clear. We need to become more consumer-oriented rather than system-, hospital- and function-oriented, making sure information is available for people and that it flows well between departments and agencies so people have easier access. That has been my mission for the last 20 years, and that’s what we’re also trying to do at WBA and Walgreens – to become a leading healthcare player in the industry with a customer-first focus, reducing costs, increasing access to care, creating better and more integrated experiences and improving outcomes for people.   

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The average age of a company in the Fortune 500 list today is 20 years versus 60 years in the mid-’80s. Six of today’s top 10 largest companies have reinvented themselves. The pace of change is massive right now. The customer expectations are rising, and the availability of technology to disrupt business models is accelerating. An organization’s willingness and commitment to reinvention is key.

Transformation today in any organization is an extremely difficult thing because you’re trying to fly and change the engine at the same time. And the basic business models that survived in the past aren’t going to survive in the future. Consumers have a lot more choice today, and information at their fingertips. Silicon Valley has made them think differently and changed the baseline for convenience. We have to imagine the future and churn things out at a much faster pace. We have to re-skill people. We want our employees to be empowered with more information about the products and services so they can be trusted advisors in communities. We want to be the consumer’s “quarterback” for healthcare management. The exciting part is that WBA has some of the most respected brands in the world. Walgreens, Boots, WBA Global Brands and Alliance Healthcare have loyal customers. We also have the assets, unique expertise, talent and global scale. The most important task at hand is to transform our business model – becoming the neighborhood health destination around a modern pharmacy. Our advantage there is that we have the proximity to the customers, which means healthcare will always be local.

Brittany Briscoe and family
Sankaran's "shrine" to the Ravens in his home.
 
Shifting to lighter topics, you mentioned “quarterback” earlier. Word is you’re a big Ravens fan.

Yeah, I used to live in Baltimore when I was working for the government. They were the local team and I started following them around 2000, when they won their first Super Bowl, and just stayed with them.

There was no temptation to switch to the Bears when you moved to the Chicago area?

No, no. It was too late. Team loyalty matters.

During the pandemic, most of us are wearing masks. What does your mask look like?

I’m using a standard blue surgical one or a black Walgreens mask. I saw Dr. Fauci wearing a Washington Nationals one, so I’m wondering where to get a Ravens one.

What’s your go-to comfort food? Anything special you like to snack on?

My comfort food is idli – you may have heard Kamala Harris talking about it recently. It’s steamed rice cakes, basically.

Is this something you make yourself?

Yes, I recently took up cooking. There’s another South Indian food called dosa, which is sourdough crepes, where I make the batter. I like to feed my family and friends, so before the pandemic, I loved to invite a lot of people to my home for South Indian food.

Any guilty pleasures?

I like political shows and movies. There was a joke when I was working for the government: What show does Vish like the most? C-SPAN. One reason is to understand policies better, but it also helps you understand how people process information and how they try to communicate what they think is the most important.

What is the last thing you read before this conversation?

I finished reading a book on AI, analytics and the new age of machines. My favorite political read is “Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” by Robert Caro.

What’s the last job in the world you think you would be suited for?

Maybe a CFO. Large Excel financial models make my head hurt. I’m also extremely bad with fixing things at home. My wife asked me to put up this railing. All it needed was one screw on the wall. It turned out to be a big hole that we had to get someone to take care of.

What are other things that have influenced you in your life and made you the person you are?              

The first is my son. My eldest, Eshan, is autistic. That taught me about the human mind – again, always put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think backwards. Don’t only consider your point of view.

The second is working with wounded soldiers – the commitment to a higher cause. There’s so much people can learn from them. So much. They’re so strong, and their purpose is much bigger.

And the third thing is that I’m a cancer survivor. That was 2008. I had renal cell carcinoma – kidney cancer. I was getting an MRI for back issues, and they spotted a size difference in my kidneys. Kidney cancer is usually very difficult to diagnose until Stage 4. Mine was Stage 1, so it was a stroke of luck to catch it early. At the time, I was with the government, and I did speaking events around prevention after that. It taught me to celebrate every day of my life, and not to take things for granted.

This has been a challenging year for a lot of reasons. What has made you happiest in 2020?

That we’re gaining speed at WBA. I see a lot more people here committed to transforming our business model and delivering special new healthcare experiences for our customers and patients. I hear our colleagues challenging and collaborating with each other. As one of my colleagues recently said: If not us, who else can do it? Big companies do big things. We are well positioned to be a leader in healthcare. That gives me energy every day.