“Make their voices matter”—BLEND builds a pipeline to a more diverse profession

BLEND (blend.vet) founder and CEO Niccole Bruno, DVM, and COO Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH, talk about positive representation and creating workplace cultures that make people want to stay.

We recently welcomed BLEND (blend.vet) founder and CEO Niccole Bruno, DVM, and COO Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH, to the podcast booth at Connexity 2022 and we couldn’t wait to share their inspiring message.  

These two long-time friends who met at Tuskegee University recently reconnected over LinkedIn, and found that even though their careers have taken separate paths, they’ve had common challenges as women of color in vet med. Now, they’re paving the way for future veterinary professionals by showing up at schools, sharing their stories with colleagues, and creating a nationwide network so that others don’t have to go through the same struggles they did.  

Many of us grappled with anger, powerlessness, and deafening silence from our hospital leaders during the social unrest of 2020. Dr. Bruno discussed working in Houston amidst protests following the death of George Floyd. She said, “I was just tired, and I was ready to speak up because my staff was hurting. They didn’t know…the position of our hospital, our company, what were we going to do to create change… I said, ‘I know you may want to go down and protest, but I need you to work, but this is what we can do to create the change.’” And then she went out and created it.  

The full conversation is coming soon to Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, but here are some of the highlights. Be on the lookout for the full episode at aaha.org/podcast, on YouTube, and wherever you get your podcasts. 

Hosted by Katie Berlin, DVM 


On the importance of representation in vet med 

Niccole Bruno: … Growing up in New York and not seeing myself in the role of a veterinarian was always something that bothered me. My mom was a teacher, and so she provided me with some exposure and resources through books, but I didn’t really have that mentorship as a child.  

And shortly after saying I wanted to be a vet, my younger sister said she wanted to be a vet, and so it became a family mission. Like all of us going and doing events and activities and, you know, feeding stray animals in the streets of Queens, New York.  

… I’ve always walked into places in veterinary medicine, seeing it from the perspective of my vantage point, but also knowing that my younger sister was coming behind me and what was I going to do to create a change so that it didn’t have to be the same environment for her? 


Genine Ervin-Smith: A lot of times people don’t understand or even know that in the veterinary profession, only 3% of that or less sometimes, depending on the year, are Black Americans. … Even today, we did a pipeline event at the elementary school—looking and talking to kids and they see veterinarians that look like them made a huge, huge, huge smile on these guys’ faces—and just providing that knowledge, and like you said, exposure, gives them the opportunity to even think that they can now do this because they see someone that looks like them. That’s what we want to do. We want to build a pipeline and make it a more diverse profession. 


On being the change you want to see 

Niccole Bruno: … I felt such a disconnect with the clients that we served because we weren’t able to provide any kind of education. You know—if there was language barriers—and these were things that were important to me because I’m biracial and my family—my father’s Colombian, and I grew up, you know, hearing Spanish. 

I’m not fluent in it, but I understand enough to help to start to know that we need to do more. And so I realized that, as an associate vet, there was not much I could do to change culture. And when I had an opportunity to step into a leadership role in Long Island, I did and when I looked at the community that we were serving, I made sure that I hired people within my staff to fill those barriers. 

And that’s when I fell in love with vet med again because I was like: I can change the culture, I can create the change that I want to see. 


Katie Berlin: … sometimes those experiences where we’re not led well or we’re not receiving the support that we need, it creates really great leaders because you see that hole and you step up to fill it. And I just love your story and it’s very inspiring. And I know that that’s one of the reasons why BLEND is going to be so successful, and has already been so successful, is because it has so much of that passion just inherent in it. 


On founding BLEND 

Niccole Bruno:  … the letters of BLEND stand for the pillars or the values of the program. So Building relationships, Leadership, Education and equity, Navigating the unknown, and Diversity, inclusion and belonging—and through those pillars, infusing DEI in the hospital so that everybody, whether you’re a client service representative or you’re a practice manager, you should be able to take something from it and apply it into your role and create the culture that makes people want to stay, but also make students of color or marginalized groups see themselves in this profession, and then know that when they come work in your hospital, their voice will matter, because that’s all I ever wanted in this profession. 


Genine Ervin-Smith: We have to really create the culture to make them want to stay. I mean, my experience as well, I mean, I had a lot of technicians that were either Hispanic or black, and then sometimes when they would come in, they would not see the support that they would actually expect to get. 

And they almost felt like an “us versus them” and they didn’t want to stay. They would go somewhere else. And so a lot of the positions I was in, in my leadership roles, you know, for me, I stayed quite a bit to help them understand what we need.  …  I wanted to make sure that they understood what we need to do to make our team members feel comfortable, feel like they belong. 

And that’s what BLEND is actually doing, creating an environment not just for DEI, but also the belonging piece and that community aspect is going to help them to feel as if they belong. And it’s not a “you versus us.” 


Learn more about BLEND and how to get involved at blend.vet.   

This full episode will be available soon on Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, anywhere you get your podcasts or at aaha.org/podcast 

Wish you could watch these conversations? Catch Central Line on YouTube.   



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