Brigitte Nettesheim was just the third student from her high school—in Warsaw, a small West Central Illinois town—to be accepted to West Point, the United States Military Academy. Her guidance counselor, a mentor to Nettesheim throughout her four years of high school, had a son at West Point and was familiar with the application process and overall experience. She encouraged her to apply.
“I felt the burden of not wanting my family to have to pay for college and knew I needed a scholarship,” recalls Nettesheim. “It was maybe happenstance, maybe fate, that my guidance counselor steered me toward West Point.”
She attended a summer academic enrichment program at West Point before senior year and was “sold,” she says. “The academic rigor and physical discipline were intimidating for a 17-year-old, but I was attracted to the teamwork approach, camaraderie, and rich history of building leaders who served our country. No civilian undergraduate institution could provide that same experience.”
Having grown up on a farm, Nettesheim says the values of hard work and teamwork were instilled in her from a young age. The Warsaw community helped shape her mindset, too; she recalls someone saying to her, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” For Nettesheim, that translated to serving others.
She spent five years on active duty in the United States Army, primarily in the Aviation and Finance branches, stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. Even though she never deployed—she describes her stint as one during the Clinton peacetime era between the two gulf wars—Nettesheim resigned as a Captain after becoming a mom. “I couldn’t imagine being the mom I wanted to be and be deployable at any given moment,” explains Nettesheim. “It was a family decision.”
Still, she felt called to serve post-Army and joined the private healthcare sector, a space in which she felt a difference could be made. And, of course, healthcare is an industry with no shortage of government influence, which helped combine her experience with her passion. She spent two years at Caremark, CVS’ prescription benefit management subsidiary, in pharmacy services in business development before pursuing an MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. There, she focused in healthcare industry management.
“I remember a class where we talked about game theory,” says Nettesheim. “I sort of scratched my head that anyone would struggle with this. It was already ingrained in how I thought about situations because of my military training. What would I do if I were the enemy? What variables would influence my action? I found bringing that into the business world to be a relatively easy transition. The hardest part is understanding who my enemies and friends are now. It’s a bit of a frenemy game in healthcare.”
That said, Nettesheim struggled to acclimate, too. She called women who had graduated West Point ahead of her and asked what she should wear to work, having been used to donning a uniform every day. It also took time to understand what Nettesheim calls “business speak,” and the ebb and flow of how employees interact with each other, which is different than in the military.
“I had an amazing boss and mentor who had hired junior military officers before,” Nettesheim remembers. “I still credit him for teaching me Excel and turning me into a modeling nerd. And I always remind myself in stressful situations that there are no live bullets flying at us. That helps me stay calm and thoughtful.”
Nettesheim has repaid the favor, actively striving to recruit, mentor, sponsor, and retain veterans in her current role as President, North Central Region & Joint Ventures at Aetna, a CVS Health Company. Building an organization with a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, thought processes, ethnicities, and genders has been a highlight of her career, she says.
“When you’re in the military, you learn to build teams that trust each other,” explains Nettesheim. “You’re responsible for each other’s lives. I bring that to work every single day. Military strategy and planning have a lot of parallels in my work life today, especially in healthcare. It takes all types to win wars.”
She’s been with Aetna for more than 15 years, working across multiple aspects of the business but mostly focused on improving the affordability of healthcare and on improving health equity. She’s stayed in the CVS Health family because she says, they believe the same thing she does: the current healthcare system is too inaccessible, costly, and complex. The goal? To develop healthcare solutions that enable individuals and families to receive higher quality care without overpaying.
Nettesheim is currently working to design benefit solutions with larger employers. She is most proud of the contribution she makes to a nationwide project through the CVS Health Foundation— which supports communities CVS serves through in-kind donations, employee giving, and fundraising—to provide for underserved communities. Thanks to this initiative, CVS Health Foundation has announced an investment of tens of millions of dollars to build supportive housing units for underserved populations in Cleveland, Denver, and Anchorage just to name a few. Nettesheim and the team have their sights set on Chicago next.
“I want to push the boundaries of healthcare status quo,” says Nettesheim. “The only way to advance health equity is by addressing the social determinants of health at a hyper-local level. This is why I do what I do—so we can invest in initiatives like this.”
That’s probably why she’s also on the executive committee of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), a nonprofit organization that is committed to creating safe, healthy, and drug-free communities globally. The CEO of CADCA is a retired general who was a professor of military science while Nettesheim studied at West Point. He inspired her to become involved.
And that same military network transcends Nettesheim’s professional life. She has a close-knit group of friends on the North Shore who graduated from West Point around the same time she did. All four West Point graduates who live in Kenilworth have a child who attended the same grade at Joseph Sears School together. Nettesheim is mom to Tori (24), Elisa (22), and Alex (15).
“The North Shore is an amazing place to raise children,” she says. “And my military experience definitely influenced how I parent. I just hope to raise young adults with strong values.”
Like mother, like children.