Sponsored by the Stanford GSB Alumni Association and named for the fourth Stanford GSB dean, the Arbuckle Award is given annually to a Stanford GSB graduate or other person closely associated with the school.
“We are educating change agents who can make a meaningful difference in the world,” said Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner at the March 3 award ceremony.
This year’s recipient, Laura Esserman, MD ’83, MBA ’93, is an internationally recognized breast surgeon, breast oncology specialist, and visionary in personalized medicine. She is the founder and innovator of the Chief I-SPY TRIALs Program, Athena Breast Health Network, and WISDOM Study; founder of QuantumLeap Healthcare Collaborative; professor of surgery and radiology at the University of California, San Francisco; and director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center.
This year’s dinner included more than 76 Stanford GSB fellowship donors and 85 fellowship recipients. Saloner acknowledged a number of previous awardees in attendance, including Dean Emeritus Arjay Miller who turned 100 the day after the dinner.
Saloner recalled how Esserman balanced being a Stanford GSB student with her medical career. When she was taking his strategic management class, she warned him that she might have to leave in the middle of class and gave what Saloner called “the most compelling reason I’ve heard for skipping class before or since”: She had performed surgery the night before and might be paged if her patient needed care.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior, introduced Esserman by citing the qualities that define her: energy, patience, persistence and resilience; not accepting excuses; and the ability to learn, grow, and change.
“If one is going to change lives, change organizations, and change the world, one needs to be like Laura: a force of nature,” Pfeffer said, describing her “openness to personal transformation.” “Success often brings complacency, and even though she had a successful clinical practice, Laura Esserman wanted to do more.”
Esserman “is in the process of making profound changes in the world of medicine,” Pfeffer said. Her work has changed how other physicians practice, including how they use mammography and radiation, and how they recruit patients for clinical trials.
Esserman herself told the group that the list of Arbuckle Award winners “is actually a list of change makers, people that challenge the reigning paradigm in their field.”
The ingredients for change, she said, are “imagination, inspiration, courage, and – perhaps most important – a true sense of urgency.”
She reflected on how what she learned at Stanford GSB has allowed her to push for change more effectively: “I learned about systems. I learned about other industries. I learned that medicine was just another industry. There was no reason why we couldn’t learn to innovate the way the most progressive industries had innovated. I learned that you have to think about organizational behavior. I even learned accounting.”
Esserman has used these lessons to help her decide how to focus her career – and how to be most effective. She decided she should focus on one disease, breast cancer, to try to create change across the spectrum, from prevention to metastatic care.
“I thought a lot about the model of trying to learn faster and realized that these industries that were moving fast recognized that the risk was in standing still and accepting the status quo,” Esserman said. “Forty thousand women a year are still dying of breast cancer; we are clearly not moving fast enough.”
Esserman talked about some of the ways she is working to advance breast cancer care.
“One of the reasons I’m a champion of the concept of overdiagnosis is not because I don’t think breast cancer is a serious disease,” Esserman said. “In fact, it’s because I think it is such a serious disease.” Still, overtreating people who do have real disease, or whose disease is not a threat, does not help anyone.
Personalized medicine, Esserman said, “means doing more for some and less for others.”
A “data-driven model of medicine,” Esserman said, will allow innovation in health care, with faster cures and less toxic therapies. “In the next 10 years I’m going to devote all my time to making this possible,” she said.
Esserman – who is known for singing show tunes to her patients as they go under anesthesia – closed with part of a song, “For Good,” from “Wicked.”
“She has a very good voice!” said Larry Peiros. He and his wife, Carole, sponsor fellow Isabelle Chafkin, and they were among the fellowship donors at the dinner.
“I was really impressed by the fact that Laura got her MBA well into her medical career and while maintaining a busy medical practice,” said Carole Peiros. “Laura credits her MBA for helping her to ‘pull it all together.’ She learned about modern management techniques and the importance of teamwork.”
The dinner also gave them a chance to meet current Stanford GSB students.
“The Arbuckle dinner was a wonderful opportunity that, for me, personalized and illustrated what it means to be a part of the GSB community,” said Isabelle Chafkin. “Meeting Larry and Carole, and hearing Laura Esserman speak, reminded me that the GSB community is very real, and comprised of these deeply kind and impressive people."
“The best part of the evening was getting to know the young women at our table. They are clearly very bright and accomplished but also delightful, charming, positive, and fun,” Larry Peiros said. “The future is in good hands!”
By Margaret Steen