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12 Rounds with Jihan Bekiri

Jihan Bekiri. Photo supplied.

In our new weekly feature 12 Rounds, leaders will answer 12 questions — some light, some heavy — from our Publisher and CEO Henry Sanders to help the community understand them, what they do, and why. Today: WPS Health Solutions Vice President for DEI Jihan Bekiri.

Jihan Bekiri is Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at WPS Health Solutions. She arrived at WPS in January after focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion at American Family Insurance and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in Madison. She graduated with honors from Marquette University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs, followed by earning a Master of Science in International Development from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom with distinction. Bekiri is also a certified diversity executive and practitioner from the Institute for Diversity Certification.

What advice would you give someone who is a person of color not from Wisconsin who is thinking about moving to Madison? It depends on the person of course, but I would begin by connecting them to the international food options. If there were from my neck of the woods (Southeastern Europe, Middle East), I’d tell them to visit our go-to market for all goodies (shout out to Fresh Mart and Istanbul Market) and Oliva in Middleton. Food is my love language. 

Aside from that, I would tell them to come to the city with an open mind and eyes. The city is undergoing some rapid change and you can be a part of that process. Sometimes that will feel rather lonely or even a burden, other times it will feel empowering. Proactively seek your circle – it takes time, so work on your patience (I know I have had to). If you decide to take a leap, please reach out to me and I will help with the connection making the best that I can.

Name three songs that accurately reflect how you’re feeling. This really depends on the day for me. I find myself listening to Turkish and Albanian (and other Balkan music) more these days because it makes me feel closer to ‘home.’  Now that there are a few Albanian artists in the mainstream (finally) –Dua Lipa or Bebe Rexha. A couple specific songs come to mind though as I write this…

  • “I’m a mess” – Bebe Rexha 
  • “Waiting on the World to Change” – John Mayer

If you could go back in time to any point of life to tell yourself something, what age would you go back to and what would you tell yourself? I’d go back to my 25-year-old self and tell me to spend all my free time with my Dad. It was the last year that I would have with him – I’d give anything to go back to that time. 

What did you learn about yourself in 2020? I learned two things – the ocean between our family felt even further away during the pandemic and I am more wasteful than I would have liked to admit. I can do with fewer things and less clutter in my life and need to make time to connect with our family and friends overseas to replenish and recharge my soul – without this, I realize I feel disconnected and lost.

At this point of your life do you feel you have found your purpose? If so, how did you figure out your purpose? I think I have found that my purpose evolves. I always knew that I wanted to be a public servant in some fashion – I have learned that service can look/feel different provided the opportunity. I know that at the end of the day, my purpose is for the people (especially those that are often overlooked).

There is a lot of division around the issues of race in politics. What can we do to lessen those divisions? Listen with an open mind and heart. Reflect. Internalize the new perspective gained in the process. I believe that if we entered every conversation with a basic, yet fundamental, agreement that we are all command the respect as human beings, we would have a much different outcome. We will always disagree on policy, but our humanity should never be questioned in the process. 

What’s the most annoying question you get about your ethnicity? The “what are you?” question is by far the most triggering for me and has been my whole life.

As the VP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what are three reasons DEI programs fail? In no particular order, a siloed approach that doesn’t strategically embed DEI across the organization (rather it’s seen as the work of the DEI team alone), a lack of senior leadership commitment to the DEI goals OR their own introspective learning needed to lead this work and overlooking the importance of the employee experience and inclusive culture. 

On your LinkedIn page you have a picture that says “stand for justice.” What does that mean to you and why is it important? The “stand for justice” banner for me goes back to my response to my purpose. For me, it means using my voice for those that are not at the table or overlooked. It means providing a counter perspective to perhaps disrupt the norm/groupthink. It serves as a daily reminder of my personal “north star” – since I start my day with a social media review. It is important for me to put it out there, for people to know that it’s what drives me, and is what I strive to live every day. 

George Clooney or Brad Pitt? George Clooney without a doubt.

What are the two best books you have read in the past year?

10 minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak 

Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Reconciliation by Annahid Dashtgard

 Would you rather go for a bike ride or go for a walk? I am not much of an outdoorsy person, but I guess I would prefer to go for a walk.