Gala Honoree Spotlight: Q&A with Ruth Salzman

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Few figures are as central to PCDC’s story as Ruth Salzman.

An established expert in providing capital to mission-oriented organizations, she was among a core group to gather in New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ office in 1993, when the concept of PCDC was first introduced to the lending community.

At issue was inequity in health access, with serious implications for thousands of New Yorkers’ lives.

Since then, the organization has achieved $1.1 billion in leveraged financing — directed exclusively toward underserved communities nationwide. This success was guided by motivated leaders such as Ms. Salzman, who served on the Board from 1997 to 2019, most recently as Treasurer.

Today, Ms. Salzman is CEO of The Russell Berrie Foundation,a private philanthropic foundation that provides financial and strategic support for visionaries, institutions, and unsung heroes doing groundbreaking work. The role follows her previous career as Senior Vice President in the Community Development Group of JPMorgan Chase, where she played a significant part in extending credit access to nonprofit organizations and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).

In recognition of her commitment to health equity, Ms. Salzman will receive the PCDC Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gala Reception on Tuesday, November 19.

She recently spoke about her path to PCDC, her hopes for primary care, and the best career advice she’s ever received.

What sparked your interest in primary care?

On my first day of class in the Wharton Graduate Health Care Administration program, the head of the program drew two triangles on the board.

The first was right-side up and showed primary care as the wide base and tertiary care perched at the top. It was labeled “The Need.” The other, an inverted triangle, showed allocation of resources. I’ve been hooked ever since.

My career in community development stemmed from this sense of helping flip things right side up. And one of my great passions and interests has been the opportunity work on melding community development and community health.

It seems so obvious that these two sectors have incredible synergy; we can accomplish so much more within low-wealth and low-access communities if we can break out of the silos.


What led you to PCDC?

I was invited to Mayor Dinkins’ original discussion of PCDC at Gracie Mansion. It certainly piqued my interest.

I represented what was then still Chemical Bank in the first multi-bank financing of PCDC. My experience with nonprofit lending and my academic background in health care gave me a unique perspective on the challenges this new organization was set up to tackle.

The lead bank was JPMorgan, where [PCDC co-founder] Hildy Simmons played a critical role in helping get PCDC off the ground. Our two banking institutions were merged a few years later and I was invited to join the Board.


What stands out as one of your proudest or most memorable moments on the Board?

Watching PCDC transition into an organization with national reach — and knowing that I played a part in helping PCDC understand the world of CDFIs.

It’s been so rewarding to serve on the Board alongside such smart and accomplished people, most of them from the health care sector.

And it’s been satisfying to provide insight into the perspective of lenders and the way banks partner with CDFIs to achieve on-the-ground impact for communities.


What’s a key lesson you learned during your tenure? 

Between 1993 and 2019, PCDC supported primary care practices and providers in 37 states as well as in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

I have a tremendous appreciation for the people — PCDC Board members and staff — who think at such a strategic level. They know so much about health care at the community and the systems levels. I’ve had a front-row seat and a top-notch education.

Louise Cohen knocked my socks off when she was a fellow Board member and continues to do so [as CEO] — her ability to synthesize information is astonishing. She never forgets the mission of ensuring access to quality care in every neighborhood.

As PCDC has widened its lens I am even more convinced that it is incredibly well situated to bring the worlds of community development and community health closer together.


What are your hopes for the future of primary care, writ large?

I could hope for nothing more than flipping the triangle that I mentioned. That’s the hope.

We are in a world of digital health and a complete reimagining of a health care system, one built around wellness and not healing of sickness. It’s the most important transformation upon us.

Primary care is where wellness is maintained and supported. Systems change that allows primary care to come to the fore is the opportunity we cannot afford to miss.


What would be your personal motto?

I don’t have a personal motto, but I have a personal aspiration.

It’s easy to say that everything is “community-centric,” but there’s a real tendency for people of expertise to place their knowledge at the center.

When you work at the community level, the most important thing to remember is that help is defined by the user. If you don’t start out by listening to how a situation is experienced by the person or organization on the ground, then you can have all the expertise in the world but you’re going to miss vital information.


What’s the most valuable career advice you’ve ever been given?

Go for winning the war, not the battle.

Register for the Gala Reception here.