Being the Leader You Needed

Niccole Bruno, DVM, and Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH, were friends at Tuskegee University during their pre-veterinary studies. The two reconnected in 2022 as veterinarians and leaders with a vision, and BlendVet was born.

By Katie Berlin, Niccole Bruno

A Conversation with the Founders of Blendvet

When you ask Niccole Bruno, DVM, to tell you why she started her company, blendvet, her face lights up, she takes a breath, and then she’s off—and you’d better be ready, because you’ll want to bottle some of what she’s got.

Bruno and Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH, were friends at Tuskegee University during their preveterinary studies and reconnected in 2022 as veterinarians and leaders with a vision. As blendvet’s CEO and COO, respectively, Bruno and Ervin-Smith have set their sights not only on being mentors and setting an example for young would-be veterinary professionals but also on doing the same for veterinary practices and managers who may not realize how important seemingly small actions can be.

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 she provided me some exposure and resources through books, but I didn’t really have that mentorship as a child. Shortly after saying I wanted to be a vet, my younger sister said she wanted to be a vet, and it became a family mission, all of us going and doing events and activities, and feeding stray animals in the streets of Queens, New York.

And it ultimately led me on a journey to Tuskegee University for undergrad because my mom felt that it was important for me to see representation, and that is where I met Dr. Ervin-Smith. It was Tuskegee that really showed me what it was like to belong in this profession and to be guided and mentored by my professors and have classmates like Genine that were trying to get to the same goal of vet school.

And when it came time to apply to veterinary school… I applied to Cornell and was accepted, and had that moment of, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to go,” because I didn’t want to go back into the world of being the only and lonely, and I had no idea what my class would look like. I knew what my class at Tuskegee would look like.

I ultimately went up to Cornell. No regrets. I had one of the most diverse classes in Cornell’s vet school history, and my classmates and I founded VOICE.

And that was so instrumental in how we have gotten here… I had that sense of belonging at Cornell, even though I wasn’t the majority. VOICE became a national organization, [with] chapters in other veterinary schools, and it was something that my sister was able to benefit from. And I started to realize that 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 is coming behind me, and what was I going to do to create a change so that [those places] didn’t have the same environment for her?

I felt like I did such great work at Cornell with my classmates, with VOICE, but then you graduate, you go into the real world, and it’s back to the same stagnant culture of vet med… I felt very disengaged because I didn’t feel like my voice mattered. I didn’t see myself in any of my colleagues, even the staff, and I felt such a disconnect with the clients that we serve because we weren’t able to provide any kind of education. If there were language barriers, these were important to me because I’m biracial and my father’s Colombian, and I grew up hearing Spanish. I’m not fluent in it, but I understand enough to help, to start, to know that we need to do more.

GettyImages-1394002689.jpgI 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, I did, and when I looked at the community that we were serving, I made sure that I hired people to [address] 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.”

I moved to Houston in 2017, and I worked in a corporate hospital…through the pandemic. The pandemic obviously changed us all, but I think it definitely required leadership to change their mindset.

And I realized that how I had been led was not how I needed to lead my staff. Right before 2020 happened, I [thought], “I’m ready to do more in the DEI space… I want to create more of a monumental change within the industry.” And I started making some phone calls, started getting myself better educated. I took the Purdue [DE&I] course, the [AVMA] Brave Space course, and I thought about how I wanted to create a program that not only taught individuals about DEI but made it more [about] where we can apply it into daily practice, and I came up with the concept of BLEND.

The letters of BLEND stand for the pillars, or the values, of the program: Building relationships; Leadership; Education and equity; Navigating the unknown; and Diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

And through those pillars, [we are] infusing DEI within the hospital so that everybody, whether they’re a client service representative or a practice manager, should be able to take something from it and apply it to their 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 know that when they come work in your hospital, their voice will matter. Because that’s all I ever wanted in this profession.

Katie Berlin: Sometimes those experiences where we’re not led well, or we’re not receiving the support that we need, create really great leaders, because you see that hole and you step up to fill it. I was looking at your website and I just could feel that coming off of the pages, how much you care personally, and I definitely feel that now that we’re here together.

And Genine—you met [Niccole] at Tuskegee, so that means you’ve stayed in touch through being separated?

Genine Ervin-Smith: Actually…

NB: Actually, no.

GES: We hadn’t stayed in touch, and we took two different paths. She went to Cornell, and I stayed at Tuskegee. We had pretty similar experiences [in] veterinary medicine. As far as when we connected, it was the earlier part of [2022]. She had been a one-woman show all this time, working to get BLEND started and doing a fantastic job, and I was at a space in my career where that’s what I wanted to do as well because of those experiences. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses in vet medicine. Although I love it, there are things that we do need to change, and I’m really glad that I’m able to work with Niccole and create that space to do so. When we think about DEI, it’s not just for veterinary medicine. This is something that any profession can use.

KB: I keep seeing statistics that say employees prefer an employer who is making space for DEI initiatives in their workplace and prioritizing those conversations, and yet when you [ask employers] how many of them think it’s important, or how many of them would spend money or effort on these initiatives, it’s not super high. Where does that disconnect come from?

NB: I think a lot of it is not knowing where to start, and I think when you don’t have representation in that leadership spot, you’re not able to create that impact. I share a lot of my personal stories because I think that’s what resonates with people. Sometimes it’s very painful for me because it’s an experience I had where I had to push back in order to continue being the vet that I wanted to be. But in some cases, in order to really get somebody to understand how impactful they can be, [it takes] hearing my side of things.

“Most people don’t understand that only 3% of [veterinarians], less sometimes, depending on the year, are Black.”

—Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH

When we don’t take the time to bring in diverse voices and create that space for diverse talent to thrive, that’s what’s making leadership not want to invest and see it through, and I saw that during the pandemic.

I was in Houston, [where] a lot of the protests were happening. During the social unrest of George Floyd [and COVID], I lost my grandmother. I lost people that I knew in New York. And that, coupled with the social unrest, coupled with the lack of response in veterinary medicine, just made me unapologetically—I was just tired, and I was ready to speak up because my staff was hurting. They didn’t know what the position of our hospital [was], or our company, or what we were going to do to create change. Everybody was just very raw and vulnerable, and that’s when I realized that as leaders, we have to meet them at that place. I was able to share with them, “I’m hurting right now, and I think we can all agree that we need to talk about this, and we need to figure out what’s the best next step for us as a hospital.” 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 change.”

And not everybody has to do everything. Sometimes we need to find our own lane. Because a lot of veterinary students were unable to get exposure opportunities during the pandemic, I started Zooming into undergraduate colleges. I started with HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] because I’m an HBCU graduate, and I started talking to the prevet clubs about veterinary medicine. I offered a couple of students, before I had to stop due to COVID, to come and get some shadowing experience at my hospital, and I think by doing that, it let my staff see that we may not be able to make a huge, huge change, but we can do something to play a role and help somebody else fulfill their dream during this time.

GettyImages-1366374033.jpgSo I think that my takeaway always is to start off small, but you’d be so surprised, once you make that start, how much the doors open. And… I finally decided to take a leap and leave my job and focus exclusively on BLEND, and I made this announcement on LinkedIn, and here comes my long-time friend to say, “I’m going to do this with you.” And she has been a godsend, because at that point I was like, “I can’t do this by myself,” but I knew that I had to keep going until I met somebody that was going to do it with me, and here we are.

KB: Coming from my background of privilege, it never occurred to me that I might not be able to be a veterinarian. It never occurred to me, as a kid, that that wasn’t the case for everyone. I think the conversations that you’re having and starting and keeping going are so important for kids like I was, who need to be able to see that not everything is going to be the same for everyone, that we’re all starting out differently. And… there are a lot of rooms in vet med where, still, not everyone is invited.

GES: Most people don’t understand that only 3% of [veterinarians], less sometimes, depending on the year, are Black. Today we did a pipeline event at an elementary school, and looking and talking to veterinarians that look like them put a huge smile on these kids’ faces. Just providing that knowledge and exposure gives them the opportunity to think that they can now do this, because they see someone [doing it] that looks like them. We want to build a pipeline and make a more diverse profession.

KB: What does a better world in veterinary medicine look like to you? What’s the number one thing that you would like to see?

NB: I think where I hit the point of burnout was realizing, “Why would I want to encourage students to come into a profession that I didn’t feel like I belonged in or had a pathway to leadership in?” I had to create my own company to be a leader. And I want veterinarians to understand that it’s just as important to provide a workplace environment [where] everybody who is underrepresented can have a voice, can feel as if they belong, because I think that’s the key to keeping us in the profession. And [I want to make sure] that when we go to schools, after we leave, they can call another veterinarian in Nashville and say, “Hey, can I get a shadowing experience? Because I just met two vets that I want to be like.”

But the reality is, that’s not what happens, and my colleagues don’t necessarily provide those experiences. I had a lot of students during the pandemic from HBCUs…and they could not find equine externships. They felt like they didn’t belong in those spaces. That’s why people don’t stay. We have to do more on both sides to feed the pipeline and create that culture in our practices that says, “Hey, you belong in this space.” That’s how we change the world.

“I think we all have to examine our privilege and then say, ‘Okay, [with] what I had, I can make it better for somebody else.’”

—Niccole Bruno, DVM

GES: We have to create the culture to make them want to stay. I had a lot of technicians that were Hispanic or Black, and sometimes they would not see the support that they would expect to get. It almost felt like us versus them, and they would go somewhere else. In my leadership roles, I stayed 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, like they belong. And that’s what BLEND is doing: creating an environment not just for DEI, but also for the belonging piece.

NB: And many people live in the communities their hospitals are in. So even if we can start off with community outreach, people feel good. I feel so energized from this morning with the students. They’re just so happy, and those are the things where, when we go out and engage with the communities and share what we do, we can feed off that energy. But we have to make sure that these students are supported, not just with mentorship and representation, but the financial aspect of it. There’s so much educational debt, and it makes the profession not very appealing when we are already dealing with students that are coming from environments where they’re not getting access to education or extra support. They have to go out and get these volunteer hours, and parents can’t always take you to a volunteer activity, or they can’t even afford to volunteer.

GettyImages-1289174533.jpgI had privileges in that I didn’t have to work in vet school, and I had family that supported me… I think we all have to examine our privilege and then say, “Okay, [with] what I had, I can make it better for somebody else.” And it’s sometimes as simple as creating that opportunity for them to get exposure or sponsoring a student to go to a program at a vet school. Vet schools have programs, but sometimes it’s really hard for students that are underrepresented and don’t have the means to get to those programs. Hospitals can sponsor students, and that is why BLEND isn’t just about the training; it’s about teaching hospitals how they can engage with the community in some subtle ways that create a [long-lasting] effect for one or two students.

If I could do nothing else, [my hope] would be that every hospital in this country will be BLEND-certified.

KB: That’s a lot of hospitals.

NB: It’s so funny, I had to take one of those assessment tests of your personality, and I got it back and it was like, “You’re a visionary.” I was like, “Really?”

KB: …And literally no one is surprised.

Catch the full episode, and every other episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, on major podcast platforms, YouTube, and at aaha.org/podcast.

Bruno_Niccole_Bio.jpg
Niccole Bruno, DVM, is the CEO and founder of blendvet, a veterinary workplace and academic certification program in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. She received a Bachelor of Animal Science degree from Tuskegee University in 2002 and went on to attend Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, where she and fellow classmates developed VOICE to aid in fostering an inclusive atmosphere for Cornell veterinary students.
Ervin-Smith_Genine_Bio.jpg
Genine Ervin-Smith, DVM, MPH, is COO of blendvet. She is a two-time graduate of Tuskegee University, receiving a Bachelor of Animal Science degree in 2001 and her DVM in 2007. After veterinary school, she continued in her studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to receive a Master of Public Health degree in Environmental and Global Health Sciences.
Katie Berlin
Katie Berlin, DVM, CVA, is AAHA’s Director of Content Strategy.

Photo credits: Anchiy/E+ via Getty Images, PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Magnifical Productions/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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