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4 Successful Women’s Roads to the Top

(page 2 of 4)

Photos: David Croxford, Courtesy of Virginia Pressler

Dr. Virginia Pressler

Executive VP, Chief Strategic Officer, Hawaii Pacific Health

On moving up

“I graduated from college in psychology in three and a half years to save money and was a TA, which paid for all my tuition. When I wasn’t in school I was working, so I graduated with no debt. At 22, I decided to get a real job. … I decided banking would be a good idea. I went to Bankoh … and they said, ‘We could make you a teller.’ I said, ‘No, don’t you have a management trainee program?’ They said, ‘Well, yes, but we’ve never had a woman in the program.’ I said, ‘Well?’ I became the first one.”

On limits

I remember oftentimes people saying, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I’d think, ‘You want to bet?’ If you have your heart set on it and you’re passionate about it, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Don’t let anyone discourage you.”

On career moves

“At the bank, I became pretty obnoxious. I said I’d like to work in personnel and looked at what we could do to improve it. The next thing I was doing aptitude tests and went into the investment department because someone was out sick, and came up with a new system for knowing how much money we had in each of the accounts. But I found banking boring. One day after finishing a big transaction, I thought, ‘Who cares? I want to do something meaningful in my life.’ … I was 26 and going through a mid-life crisis.”

On solutions

“I always look for a better way to do things and a challenge. Get the right people together to solve a problem and you can make effective, important change to benefit everyone.”

On being a leader

“I saw the opportunity to be a leader and a driving force in healthcare change. There was a little glimmer back then (1993) and here it is, 18 years later, and we’re seeing the change happen here at Hawaii Pacific Health. It’s been a team effort here and a confluence of forces nationally, but it’s about recognizing an opportunity and going for it.”

On balance

“You have to be organized to be effective. I’m very organized and very focused. At the same time, balance is crucial. I exercise every day, get eight hours of sleep and eat healthily. If you’re not balanced, you get burned out. What’s the point if you’re not having a meaningful, happy life?”

On specialization

“My surgical practice was general and at first I was doing everything. Then I specialized in breast cancer because I saw that women weren’t getting the best care they should have. There weren’t any fellowships in breast-cancer surgery, so I read everything I could, went to national trainings and specialized. I ran into a lot of flak from my colleagues who took issue with just doing breast-cancer surgery, but I became the expert in the community.”

On connections


“The key point is, it was people who gave me an opportunity to try something that was of interest to me. You’ve got to have relationships to get your foot in the door.”

On marriage

“It matters who you marry. I had my first child when I was a fourth-year resident in surgery and my husband would bring him to the hospital to see me because I would be on call 36 hours at a time. … I sometimes wonder how I survived. When the kids were young it was very challenging. I always felt torn between patients, my responsibilities at work and my kids. But my husband (she’s in a second marriage) has always been very dedicated.”


1949 Born, St. Louis, MO.
1967 Graduated, Seabury Hall, Maui, in school’s first graduating class
1971 Graduated, Cornell University, B.A. social psychology
1971-1976 Bank of Hawaii, assistant manager, investment department
1975 Graduated, UH, MBA
1977-1981 Cardiovascular Research Lab, Queen’s Medical Center, junior research fellow.
1981 Graduated, UH, M.S., physiology
1982 Graduated, John A. Burns School of Medicine.
1982-1988 One of the first women admitted into the UH integrated surgical residency program.
1984-1985 Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, research fellow in surgery.
1987 Birth of first child, Jamie.
1989 Birth of second child, Scott (deceased.)
1988-1993 Private practice in general surgery, and principal investigator at Cancer Research Center of Hawaii.
1993 Birth of third child, Katie.
1993-1996 The Queen’s Health Systems, VP/assistant to the president.
1996-1998 President and CEO, Queen’s/HMSA Premier Plan.
1999-2002 State Department of Health, deputy director for health resources administration.
2002-present Executive VP, Chief Strategic Officer, Hawaii Pacific Health.

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