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Mar 21, 2014 | Carol E. Barnwell

All the Pieces Fell into Place

[Diolog Magazine]  Elena Marks was recently named CEO and President of the new Episcopal Health Foundation. The $1 billion foundation was formed from the proceeds of the sale of St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System and will support research and health initiatives throughout the Diocese of Texas’ 57 counties. Marks, an attorney, is a former health advisor to the Mayor of Houston’s office and a health policy expert. Marks spoke with diocesan communication director, Carol E. Barnwell, recently:


CEB: Who is the person in your family who was the “faith bearer”? 
EM: My mother, most definitely. She was and is the person who anchors all four of her children, even now that we all have young adult children of our own. She set high ethical standards and lived by them. Her example spoke volumes. 


CEB: What guided you in your career choices? 
EM: Again, my mother. She was the valedictorian of her high school, but could not afford college so she became a legal secretary. Without ever directing me toward law school, I can’t help but think that at least subconsciously I became a lawyer to complete what she had started. 

My career path has been one of zigs and zags—some dictated by family considerations, some by coincidence, some by intentional design. I left the practice of law after seven years to start my own business. I had married a lawyer who worked long hours and traveled a lot, and when we had our first son, Andy, I wanted some more control over my life. After our second son, Elliot, was born, I sold my business to stay home with my children. Then I had my third son, Evan. 

After several years, I was ready to reenter the work force, but in a different capacity. I had become interested in health, particularly women’s health, and enrolled in the University of Texas School of Public Health to obtain a master’s degree. Fortuitously, my advisor and mentor was a senior executive at St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System, and he hired me to work at St. Luke’s. Then, in 2003, my husband’s former law partner, Bill White, was elected mayor of Houston, and he hired me to direct health policy for the city. It was a unique opportunity to serve the public and have a broad impact on the health of Houstonians. When Mayor White left office at the end of 2009, I joined the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, where I focused on health policy relating to underserved and low-income populations. Then the Foundation opportunity came along, and the rest is beginning to become history.


CEB: Since Episcopal Health Foundation is a faith-based organization, can you speak a bit about how that might be different from working for the mayor’s office or the Baker Institute?   
EM: There are similarities and differences between working in public service and working for a faith-based organization like the Foundation. For me, the desire to serve others and to make a difference in the life of my community is based in the belief that we are our brother’s keepers and we have a sacred responsibility to care for others. I am Jewish, and in my faith we often talk about “tikkun olam,” which means “to heal the world.”  The great bounties of my life are God-given and I feel compelled to help others have the same gifts and opportunities I have received.


CEB: You mentioned you felt different pieces of your experience came together in this foundation position. Can you explain that?
EM: I take pieces from each of my earlier experiences, including parenting, to guide my actions and decision-making. My legal training gave me an analytical framework for problem-solving that I still use. Starting and running my own business taught me to take chances and not be held back by the unknown. From working for the City, I learned how to build consensus to solve problems. The City is so diverse, in every respect, and reaching out to all communities, soliciting input, having conversations—these are essential to reaching the right decisions. My policy work at Rice has given me a broad overview of health in Texas and an understanding of the many different needs.


CEB: How/when did you first learn of the new foundation? What drew you to this job?
EM: I had been following the much-talked-about St. Luke’s sale for quite some time, and, of course, part of that transaction involved the creation of the Foundation. Initially I didn’t think about the Foundation as an opportunity for me—I was happy at Rice and not looking for something else. Last fall, Mayor White introduced me to the Foundation’s Executive Chair, Linnet Deily, and we talked about the dreams of the Diocese, Bishop Doyle and the Board for the Foundation, and I was hooked. 


CEB: During the interview process, did anything surprise you or stand out?
EM: The interview process was thorough and rigorous, and the board members and the Bishop were deeply involved and put a lot of time into the process. I was, of course, delighted to know that they were thinking broadly about the skill set of the person they would select, because my background is broad. Their willingness to consider, and ultimately select, someone who had not worked in the foundation world previously, and someone from a different faith is not surprising in hindsight, but it pleasantly surprised me at the outset.


CEB: What are your personal feelings about being able to create this new entity literally from the ground up?
EM: This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only do I get to follow my passion—service—but I get to do it in the most creative of ways: working with the community, Bishop and board to determine how best to use our resources to improve health within the Diocese and then building an organization that delivers results. There is a lot of innovation going on in the world of philanthropy today and we have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge.