A Passion to Serve, a Compass to Guide: Yvonne Cook is Highmark Foundation president and a key player in the Pittsburgh community

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2010
Yvonne Cook at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American CultureYvonne Cook at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture

Yvonne Cook has maintained a single focus in both her career and personal interests: serving the greater Pittsburgh community and beyond.

In her professional life, Cook (CGS ’91) is president of the Highmark Foundation, a private corporate foundation that is funded by insurer Highmark, Inc., and has assets of about $100 million. She assumed the position in 2003 and is responsible for managing and directing the foundation’s daily activities. Cook also is vice president for community and health initiatives at Highmark.

Each year, Highmark awards millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations to provide community services aimed at helping people live longer, healthier lives. And Cook is in charge of selecting which projects receive foundation funding.

“I really like interacting with potential grantees when they come to me with their projects,” she says. “I love hearing their ideas. I like helping to shape and support ideas and seeing them come to realization.”

Some past grants that had the most meaning for Cook include $246,000 to support the Centers for Healthy Hearts and Souls, which provides residents of some of Pittsburgh’s neediest communities with access to organized wellness activities; $53,000 to support Magee-Women’s Hospital to expand its Girls on the Run program, a self-esteem-building and healthy lifestyles program; $185,000 to the Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center to expand a mentoring program to girls ages 12-14; and $200,000 to the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to improve the treatment of maternal depression among low-income pregnant women or mothers enrolled in Allegheny County’s HealthChoices Program.

Originally enrolled as a business major at Pitt, it wasn’t until Cook met Lawrence Howard, former dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and emeritus professor of public and international affairs, that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in public management.

“He really turned my life around professionally,” she says. “He truly helped me to think about the world in a different way.”

“I had a very positive academic experience,” Cook adds. “The University of Pittsburgh prepared me for a varied career. As I continue to move and grow professionally, I really can’t thank Pitt enough for that.”

Cook says her professors equipped her for life after graduation. “There’s a difference between learning in a class and actually being prepared for your future,” she says.

Cook also obtained a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.

Cook’s passions and interests outside of work can be found in the community, as well. One in particular—The August Wilson Center for African American Culture—is near to her heart. Cook is cofounder and treasurer of the center, which opened amid much fanfare in the fall of 2009. It took 15 years of hard work and determination to bring the vision for the center to fruition.

“The center provides wonderful and high-quality African American programming, which is critical to diversity and inclusion efforts,” says Cook. “Our goal is to encourage everyone to participate in the center’s activities, and I am really proud of that.”

“Yvonne has been instrumental in helping us garner support from Highmark and other funding sources around the area,” says Oliver Byrd, senior vice president at BNY Mellon and chair of the August Wilson Center’s board.

“But most important is that she shows compassion for the artists and artist organizations—and a clear understanding of the contributions that people of color have made in Western Pennsylvania,” adds Byrd. “And it’s that kind of commitment that has enabled the center to make it so far on this 13-plus-year journey. It’s her perseverance that has helped to shape the vision of what the August Wilson Center has come to be.”

Tireless in her efforts to affect change in Pittsburgh, Cook also is an advisory board member of Imani Christian Academy, a private school that works with at-risk children to transform them into spiritually, academically, physically, and socially whole adults, and a board member of the Multicultural Arts Initiative, which is a funding and advocacy organization that supports culturally diverse arts programming.

The awards and honors she has received reflect her successes. Among them are the Coretta Scott King Women of Diversity Award (Women-CONNECT Magazine, 2009); Women of Achievement Award (S.I.D.S. of Pennsylvania/Cribs for Kids, 2009); and the Florence Nightingale Award (Health Hope Network, 2006). In addition, she was selected as one of the New Pittsburgh Courier’s 50 Women of Excellence in 2008.

Cook says she is committed to helping level the playing field for African Americans and women, something she did full-time when she served as executive assistant to former Allegheny County Chief Executive James Roddey. In that role, she advised Roddey on health and human service matters and provided oversight to the county’s Department of Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.

Cook says her spiritual and family values—which she refers to as her “moral compass”— drive her desire and commitment to serve the community.

“Also, my educational experiences, both in high school and college, continue to reinforce my need to be active in the community,” she says.

Cook says she takes pride in continuing to rely upon her moral compass as she moves up the corporate ladder.

“Sometimes, as you advance in your career, you become influenced—or you are seen to be in a privileged type of environment. I’ve been able to hold on to the compass that guides me and continues to help me make good decisions.”