The world was dealt a dizzying blow on Sunday as Bernard J. Tyson — Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente — passed away in his sleep. To say this news hit me hard would be an incredible understatement. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Mr. Tyson. I was left in awe of not only his accomplishments but also his genuine passion for serving his customers and community.
Who Was Bernard J. Tyson?
Mr. Tyson’s passion for health care began when he was a little boy. He admired the doctors who cared for his mother during her illness and was also inspired by the way they cared for his family as a whole. The experience made him want to become a doctor, but he later found his true calling in health care administration.
He studied the health care system during both his undergraduate and graduate programs. Post-graduation, his career took a trajectory which many of us can only aspire to as he served in all major aspects of Kaiser Permanente’s health care system, from hospital administrator to chief operating officer.
As Chairman and CEO, Tyson grew the Kaiser Permanente workforce from more than 174,000 people when he took over as CEO in 2013 to more than 218,000 employees today. Under his leadership, the organization provided care for 12.3 million members at 600+ locations across eight states and the District of Columbia.
When asked about his proudest achievements as CEO, he gushed about leading their “Thrive” program, which promotes good general health and preventative health care for its members. For Tyson, transforming the health care system was about ensuring that all KP’s customers were equipped to live their healthiest lives every day, not simply developing more treatments for illnesses.
He spoke passionately about KP’s work to destigmatize mental health issues and promote whole-body wellness that prioritized mental health. He strived to ensure that Kaiser’s customers had ready access to mental health specialists, just as they would for an oncologist, cardiologist, and any other health care providers.
Additionally, Tyson was passionate about leading Kaiser Permanente as a culturally-competent health care provider that could understand and adapt to the needs of the unique communities that make up our country.
“Bernard was an exceptional colleague, a passionate leader, and an honorable man. We will greatly miss him,” Kaiser Permanente said in their announcement of his passing.
All of these things are true, but we’d like to add a bit more. Bernard J. Tyson was an icon. He achieved a level of professional success, of which most of us can only dream. He inspired Black men and women around the world, and let us know that nothing was beyond our reach. He did so while doing his part to fix the health care problems that plagued the Black community.
Former president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, Ronald Parker, shared that Tyson was a champion for Black professionals to find executive leadership roles, fill publicly-traded company board seats, and also launched initiatives to recruit and mentor them.
“Even as a CEO, the black male experience is my reality,” he wrote in an op-ed published on Newsweek.
At AfroTech, we are sobered and honored that we were the last people to hear Tyson speak publicly. He was a featured speaker on our stage at AfroTech on Saturday, only hours before his untimely passing.
“We launched a homelessness program,” Tyson told Morgan DeBaun, Blavity, Inc. CEO at AfroTech 2019. “It’s a commitment (we made) that in any one of the communities that Kaiser Permanente exists, (we’re) not going to have homeless people,” he continued. “So, while I’m here, I don’t think it’s acceptable for anyone to sleep on the streets of America at night, the wealthiest country in the world.”
Rest in peace, Bernard J. Tyson. The world is better for having known you.