Sandra Lawrence '78

By Julia Van Develder

It All Adds Up

Nobody does the numbers like Sandra Lawrence ’78. She’s poised, soft spoken. She has a slight Southern accent, a vestige of her upbringing in rural South Carolina. But she carries a big calculator, and she influences the spending of billions of dollars in Kansas City and on both sides of the state line.

Lawrence has a big job—executive vice president and CFO of Children’s Mercy Hospital, one of the top pediatric hospitals in the U.S. She oversees the hospital’s operations in finance, managed care, human resources, information services, and government relations. She was recruited by CEO Randall O’Donnell in 2005 at the beginning of the planning process for a multimillion-dollar expansion; she was one of the main architects of the 15-year plan to implement the project.

She also has a couple of other commitments. Former chair and now board member of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. Board member and investment committee member of the Hall (as in Hallmark) Family Foundation. Trustee and finance committee member of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Board member of Westar Energy. 

And those are just the current ones.

“What drives me?” She considers the question for a moment. “If I get up on a Saturday morning and have nothing to do, part of me says, ‘Whoa—this is great. I just want some down time.’ And another part of me says, ‘I should be making good use of this time.’ I wasn’t raised in an environment where you were idle or where you didn’t always give something back to someone else, whether it was taking a meal to Cousin Clara on Sunday afternoons, or helping someone weed a garden. Those were things you were expected to do, and the more you had, the more you were supposed to do.”

But Lawrence picks her commitments carefully. Everything she does is connected. Every organization she serves has the potential to further the work of the others in some way. The Hall Family Foundation is the principal donor behind the multimillion-dollar expansion under way at Children’s Mercy. The Kansas Bioscience Authority, created by the Kansas State Legislature to promote bioscience industries in Kansas, is heavily invested in the University of Kansas Cancer Center, which in turn benefits from collaborative research with Children’s Mercy scientists. 

“A rising tide lifts all the boats,” says Lawrence. “I’m interested in organizations that work together to improve the quality of life in the whole region.”

And Children’s Mercy? It’s at the heart of the matter. Literally. Lawrence and her husband, Willie, a Harvard-trained cardiologist, have three children. At the age of five months, their youngest, Westbrook, needed surgery to repair three holes in his heart. Her husband looked for the best pediatric cardiac surgeons in the country and narrowed it down to three. One of them was right in their backyard—at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “We didn’t have to go back to Boston. That was where we thought we were headed. We did it here, and it was phenomenal. The care was just expert—that part of it goes without saying. But the interpersonal experience we had was very unique. People cared not just about our child’s health, but they cared about our family’s emotional stability through the process. And it just meant a lot to us.”

Lawrence spread the news of their experience with such passionate conviction that she was asked to join the hospital’s board of directors. A few years later, she got the call from O’Donnell, offering her the top financial post. 

“I love my job. I love my job,” says Lawrence. “This is the longest I’ve been in any one job, and I couldn’t be happier. I like change—change is what I do best. And our leadership is very receptive to change. Sometimes we make changes because something bad happens and we have to do something to make it better. But at Children’s Mercy, we look at things that are working perfectly well, and we say, ‘Why couldn’t it be better?’ 

“And then I like the challenge of having to come in and figure out how to make sense of all of the issues that we’re facing as a country from a health-care perspective. The issues are challenging, but when was the last time we had an opportunity to move our country forward on health care? I don’t know what the ultimate answers will be, but I love knowing that I get to be a part of figuring them out.” 

“Vassar” isn’t exactly a household word in Jenkinsville, South Carolina (population: 50). “I’d never even heard of it,” says Sandra Lawrence ’78. “But then Vassar sent mailings to me when I was considering colleges.” 

She was young—she turned 17 her first September at Vassar. Her parents expected her to stay in South Carolina and go to one of the local colleges.
“I remember, my father said, ‘You know, if you go away to school, we can’t really afford to give you a car, but if you stay at home, you can get a car.’ And I thought, hmmm—car, or independence? So I packed my bags and went off to Vassar. I didn’t visit it. We didn’t have enough money to make that kind of a trip. I just showed up my first day. And that was how my journey began.” 

After completing her degree in psychology at Vassar, she earned her master’s in architecture at MIT and an MBA at Harvard Business School—excellent experiences, all three, but progressively less “warm and fuzzy,” says Lawrence. “At Vassar, you’d see your professors on campus or in the hallway, and they’d stop you and ask, ‘How’s it going?’ And if you said, ‘Okay,’ they wanted to know what was just okay. I felt that somebody cared about who I was and how I developed. 

“Another thing that benefited me was that I got to be involved in the Academic Panel and on the Judicial Board. The students were part of the governance of the school. That was really my first introduction to serving on a board or offering my own input in a structured forum. 

“And finally, as nurturing and protecting as Vassar is, it also pushes you to get out and do things beyond the borders of the campus. I did a statistics project in the public schools…I traveled to other schools and other cities on the weekends… I did a project in one of the prisons with another friend of mine. And Vassar provided the car for us to borrow to drive there and encouraged us to get out and do that kind of work. So the institution always pushed me to think outside of itself, and to bring what I learned back inside, and to do something for people other than myself.”