Ashley M. Cunningham, 35 

Chief Innovation Officer, Virginia Center for Health Innovation

click to enlarge feat42_ashley_cunningham.jpg

Scott Elmquist

"Everyone should have a good go-to soup recipe," Ashley Cunningham says. You start with the basics — onions, carrots and celery — and from there you can create a thousand different, healthy dishes.

That simple philosophy informs her work as chief innovation officer at the Virginia Center for Health Innovation, where Cunningham has spent almost three years stirring a pot of great ideas from Virginia's health care and wellness professionals.

"When you say innovation, it's not necessarily that someone has created a whole new way of doing things," Cunningham says. Instead, what she's doing is accelerating the adoption of smarter, more efficient practices by Virginia's hospital leaders, health insurance executives, doctors, medical school faculty and others. "We're in this together," she says.

The Virginia Health Innovation Network allows them to collaborate on efforts such as federal grant proposals or ways to encourage employees to participate in wellness programs. Such a thing has never been done before, Cunningham says, and there's been interest in replicating it at the national level.

Before coming to the Center for Health Innovation, Cunningham worked for the Virginia Community Healthcare Association, offering incentives for wellness programs at small employers. Before that, she was with the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation, leading physicians and their practices through intensive quality improvement programs.

Of course, she knows that good health is about more than policy and programs — it starts with healthy eating. Cunningham likes the saying, "Pay your farmer or pay your doctor," and for two years served on the board of Slow Food RVA, which supports farmers and access to "good, clean, fair food," especially in lower-income communities. She plans to volunteer with Bon Secours' new Class-a-Roll mobile teaching kitchen, which travels to community events and shows children how to cook. The first thing she'll make? Probably soup.

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