Teaching and waitressing helped shape Ruth Colby’s work ethic

Silver Cross Hospital’s president and CEO honored with 2021 ATHENA Award

Ruth Colby, president and CEO of Silver Cross Hospital, said her father discouraged his children from pursuing careers in health care.

So Colby took that advice and followed up on opportunities that led her back to health care.

Colby, who recently received the ATHENA Award from the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry and The Council for Working Women, started her 45-year career at Holy Trinity School for the Deaf on Taylor Street in Chicago. She taught there for three years, went to England on a Rotary club fellowship and then returned to teach for two more years.

She had worked with hearing-impaired students as part of a high school community service project and “fell in love” with teaching.

“I had learned how isolated they [hearing-impaired children] could be and how they felt excluded from things,” Colby said. “Knowing sign language made them feel included, and I thought that was amazing.”

Teaching also taught Colby patience, organization and how to “communicate complex ideas simply,” she said in her acceptance speech for the ATHENA Award

Colby said the nuns running the school were her first role models and called them “incredibly strong, accomplished women.”

“I remember them for their kindness, for service above self and for being extraordinary mentors to me,” Colby said in her speech. “They defined ‘work ethic’ and what it means to be humble – foundational values that have stayed with me for the past 40 years.”

Following up on opportunities

Colby applied for a Rotary fellowship in the early 1980s and the Evanston club selected her to study at Lady Spencer Churchill College in Oxford, England, and travel to Rotary clubs throughout the country to talk about her studies. She also was able to travel through Europe at this time, which gave her an understanding of diversity. She was 27 at the time.

“It was the first time abroad and it was an amazing experience,” Colby said.

Another early job that shaped Colby’s work ethic was waitressing in restaurants and Comiskey Park to earn extra money, she said.

“You come out to a restaurant to have a good time and you want to make that experience positive for people,” Colby said. “People don’t come to the hospital to have a good time, but we want to make that experience positive.”

Colby also learned computer programming at DePaul University and then worked at RR Donnelley and Sons, “the only woman in a group of 20 seasoned male programmers,” Colby said in her speech.

But it was at Donnelley that Colby learned humility and understanding – and the fact that everyone makes mistakes.

“It was one cold night in December when the program I wrote shut down the presses for the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I still shudder when I recall the memory,” Colby said in her speech. “But the words of my boss remain with me today: ‘It’s what you do after you make a mistake that really matters.’ He stayed with me all night until I corrected my error.”

Colby said the experience showed her that when mistakes happen, “we learn from them and go forward and support one another,” and that’s the attitude she said she projects at Silver Cross.

“When something wasn’t done exactly right, we sit down and try to understand it rather than blame,” Colby said. “Maybe the person wasn’t educated well or have the right processes in place. We always look at how we can improve so it won’t happen again.”

The beginning of the health care path

Colby, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University and a master’s degree from New York University, decided to enroll in a Master of Business Administration program with a specialization in finance at the University of Chicago.

“I learned all about business from RR Donnelly, but I knew nothing about finance,” Colby said. “So I challenged myself to major in finance and found out I had a reasonably good head for numbers and how businesses work.”

After Colby graduated, the president of the University of Chicago hospitals hired her for strategic planning, and that’s where Colby “found her passion and purpose,” which is “working for a not-for-profit that positively impacted individuals and the community at large,” Colby said in her speech.

As vice president of business development at the University of Chicago Health System, Colby identified new business opportunities for the medical center and developed an ambulatory physician network, according to the Silver Cross website.

During this time, Colby met Ruth Rothstein, who ran Cook County Hospital “with a strong hand and an iron fist,” Colby said in her speech.

“She was a trailblazer, and I idolized her because of her great leadership, her political savvy and probably because she was the only other person I knew named Ruth,” Colby said in her speech.

Colby worked for seven years at University of Chicago, then was recruited to the Sachs Group, a health consulting firm, where “she held senior positions at the Sachs Group and HCIA/Sachs during several mergers and acquisitions,” according to her biography on the Silver Cross website. Colby visited more than 500 hospitals during her tenure, she said.

In 2005, Colby was hired as the chief strategy officer at Silver Cross. Before that, Colby was the senior vice president of provider sales at Solucient LLC (now Truven Health/IBM Watson), according to the Silver Cross website.

She became president and CEO in 2017, which brought her back full circle to medicine.

Colby’s father, Dr. Donald B. Cohen, practiced medicine in Skokie for more than 50 years. Cohen was a founding doctor of Rush North Shore Medical Center and the former president of the medical staff.

“Unfortunately, he passed the year I started at Silver Cross,” Colby said. “He was just retired and in a bike accident, so sad. He was this happy, retired man. He is really missed.”

Colby has also served on the board of the Will County Children’s Advocacy Center and on the board of directors at the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation. She is chairwoman-elect at the Will County Center for Economic Development and was recognized in a Crain’s Chicago Business list of “Notable Women in Health Care.”

She’s received Gold Star for Health Award from the National Hook-Up of Black Women and an ATHENA Award from the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. She has been involved with the Rotary Club of Joliet, Kohl’s Children Museum and Joliet Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership School, according to a September Herald-News story.

Colby said she is very proud of the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council at Silver Cross and said she loves working at Silver Cross and inspiring healthy relationships through its inclusive culture.

“I love being a part of this community,” Colby said. “It’s been life-changing, and I feel very fortunate.”

Childerguild President Pam Resutko (left) presented Silver Cross Hospital President & CEO Ruth Colby with a check for $350,000 on Feb. 19 to fund help fund women and children services including Will County’s first neonatal intensive care unit.