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Lisa Plendl

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Born Leaders - Following a Serendipitous Path to a Successful Healthcare Career

03/31/2016 11:38AM | 6605 views

Hispanics and Latinos who mindfully tap one or more of the six elements of an “immigrant mindset” can attract greater opportunities for success. By nature, immigrants see opportunity everywhere; more easily adapt to changing conditions; pursue their passions to uncover endless possibilities; do their jobs as if they owned the business; form strong bonds to treat colleagues and friends as family; and willingly share that success with others to keep the prosperity cycle going. Born Leaders tells their stories.

At age 17, Victor Benavides left his home in the San Joaquin Valley, stuffed his clothes into a plastic trash bag, and headed south to Los Angeles with $100 in his pocket.

As the son of an immigrant father who fell on hard times that led the entire family to pick produce in the fields to earn a living, Vic wanted to ease the burden for his parents — and pursue his passion for music.

After many years of traveling an unconventional and serendipitous road, Benavides’s love for music continues, but he also followed his natural talents and passions as a self-taught person to a healthcare career. Today, Benavides serves as Government & Community Relations Associate for City of Hope, the world-renowned medical research center in Duarte, California.

“I’m a definite believer in the Shakespeare quote, ‘to thine own self be true.’ I’ve always lived by that,” says Benavides, a lover of literature from a family of artists and musicians. “The best thing is to be unique and celebrate yourself. Then there are no limits to what you can accomplish if you seize the opportunities. My story is the perfect example of the American Dream and the indomitable spirit of not giving up.”

Following his passion

As a 17-year-old out on his own for the first time, Benavides naturally learned to see opportunity everywhere, and adapt easily to changing conditions, much as his immigrant father did. His survival depended on it. He soon landed in Hollywood, and made his way by snagging odd jobs and crashing on acquaintances’ couches. “I always had a job, but I didn’t always have a home,” he says, looking back. Things moved slowly, but Benavides didn't give up. Eventually, he snagged two jobs, and finally rented his own place. Making $150 a week at some point, Benavides was grateful not to be a burden to his parents, but knew he was also living better than his family.

Benavides continued as a jack-of-all-trades over the next 15 years or so, moving from one opportunity to the next. The singer-song writer also pursued music and played in clubs, including famed Hollywood venues such as The Viper Room, Whisky a Go Go and House of Blues. Off stage, he took on everything from construction work to handyman tasks, odd jobs and served as facilities manager at a Hollywood movie theater.

“I had no money or time to attend college, but I’d borrow books from my friends in college. I always had a great thirst for knowledge,” he says. “I really didn't think a person without a college degree could have a ‘career.’  I had unwittingly limited my options based on a false notion that I had created.”

A decade ago, a connection with a dentist led him to another job working at a health fair, where Benavides distributed information and explained dental services to attendees. It was a great fit. “As a performer, I found it very easy to speak to people,” says Benavides. A visitor from City of Hope also needed someone to handle promotional duties, noticed Benavides’s congenial, well-spoken style, and eventually hired him to a similar role that blossomed into a full-time job.

Benavides has since taken advantage of every opportunity offered at City of Hope, and transformed his initial post into a true career. He has moved up the ladder by performing well and taking chances. And at City of Hope, which believes in growing its talent, his superiors also saw and nurtured his raw abilities.

“I'll never forget how a supervisor read an e-mail I had sent thanking some colleagues who had helped me on a particular event,” Benavides says. “She was impressed with my writing style and they began asking me to write briefing memos for leadership.”

Over the years, Benavides has risen to become a liaison between the medical research center and the community.

 “If I hadn’t recognized the opportunities in front of me, or was too frightened to engage them, I wouldn’t have achieved this level of success,” he notes. “The key is to never give up and to believe in yourself.”

Today his job includes encouraging young Hispanics and others to take advantage of the outstanding student science programs offered by City of Hope. That includes a high school program that allows students to conduct science experiments in the facility’s state-of-the-art laboratories with world-class researchers. Likewise, the Junior Medical Investigator program guides teens through a day of scientific inquiry to determine a patient’s illness. “We have great toys…such as an electron microscope,” he notes, allowing the kids to experience “awe and joy” associated with a career in healthcare or medicine.

Blossoming as a leader

At City of Hope, the self-taught Benavides has developed as a leader by learning from those around him. 

“Being a leader is not something that comes naturally for many,” he says.

“I became a leader by listening to good leaders. To be a good general, you need to be a good soldier.

“I really try to listen to what people around me are saying and try to fit that into who I am, and how I impart that to others. I also listen to internal and external stakeholders. I listen to the ideas of the people below me, as well,” he says.

Benavides also brings his leadership skills as a director sitting on two local Chamber of Commerce organizations. He helps ensure good relations between local businesses and City of Hope, and networks regularly with local business leaders.

That includes promoting health in the largely Hispanic community surrounding the medical facility, including local fitness, health and wellness challenges. Benavides is also tasked with working on health related legislation. He’s currently writing letters and providing other support to bolster a proposed regulation that would ban smoking outside local restaurants.

These days, Benavides still pulls out his guitar occasionally, but his primary passion is being part City of Hope’s mission to cure cancer and diabetes, he says.

“Latinos and everyone else have to deal with cancer. When you are affected by something, you take a stake,” says Benavides, who sees his colleagues – and patients – as family, much as his parents saw his friends, as he grew up. That’s why he’ll be among many City of Hope employees attending, for example, a bone marrow transplant reunion for thousands of donors and recipients in May hosted by the medical center. “That’s the nature of what we, as employees, do here at City of Hope. We own it. We want to be a part of it.”

Paying it forward

Today, he willingly shares his success with others to help keep the prosperity cycle going. He has mentored about 10 young people over the years, working to give back a little of what he received.

“City of Hope gave me the confidence that I needed in myself, and nurtured my growth. Because I never gave up, I ended up with a career at a health system that I care deeply about.”

Benavides enthusiastically encourages others to explore the many career paths available in healthcare now.

Find something that you have a passion for, he says, “and go for it.”

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