Sarah London, ’10, is leading Centene to create a better healthcare system for patients, doctors, and communities.
- September 28, 2023
- Health Care
Centene CEO Sarah London, ’10, is explaining her vision for improving US healthcare when she pauses to pull a Post-it Note from her computer. She holds it up to her webcam. On it are written two words: “Challenge Everything.”
It’s a motto she learned at Chicago Booth, and London applies it every day, both to her career and to her efforts to improve the health of tens of millions of Americans.
If you’re not familiar with Centene, even though it’s a nearly 40-year-old company with almost $150 billion in annual revenue, you’re not alone. The St. Louis–based healthcare payer tailors its brand to each state, operating under local names. But add up its markets and Centene serves more than 28 million Americans through Medicaid, Medicare, and the health-insurance marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act. It is the largest Medicaid insurer in the United States, covering about 16 million low-income members.
Dressed in athletic clothes for her interview, London looks ready to sprint, recalling her time as a Division I tennis player at Harvard. It’s a fitting image for someone who has been racing up the corporate ladder, becoming a CEO of a Fortune 25 company at just 42 years old, and one of only 52 women running Fortune 500 businesses.
London earned the CEO role at Centene in March 2022 after serving as vice chairman and leading the company’s technology and digital strategy. She succeeded Michael Neidorff, Centene’s CEO for more than 25 years. “The company had worked one way for a long time, and until the past couple of years, it was incredibly successful doing that,” she says. “But I don’t think that will get us where we need to go in the next decade.”
Now London’s responsibility is to keep what differentiates Centene, such as its relationships with local healthcare practices and nonprofit organizations, while making the company more efficient and effective by applying her knowledge of data analytics and technology. With so many facets of the business to coordinate, from streamlining operations to working with regulators to understanding what socioeconomic factors influence health, she draws on her Booth education to help her team identify the biggest opportunities.
London’s father, John McGinty, ’70, tried not to sway her when she was applying to business schools, but he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for his Booth experience.
“His perspective—and this is 100 percent true, from my lived experience—was that Booth will teach you how to think, not what to think,” she says. “Regardless of the path I took from that point forward, having the frameworks and rigor around how to puzzle out challenges would be valuable to me.” When she visited during the application process, she knew her choice. “I had a visceral reaction that this was where I wanted to be.”
“[My Father’s] perspective—and this is 100 percent true, from my lived experience—was that Booth will teach you how to think, not what to think.”
As a first-year Full-Time MBA student, London immersed herself in the Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD) program. “It was wonderful to have a whole train of thought in addition to what I was learning in the classroom that focused on the overlay of human interaction and leadership,” she says. “The concept of self-awareness is something I have carried forward in my day-to-day work and in my leadership style.”
London served as a LEAD facilitator during her second year, bonding with the others in the group. Her friend and classmate Anne Wong, ’10, another LEAD facilitator, recently found a note that London wrote for the following year’s facilitators. It reads in part: “Make the decision to let these people and this experience change you. And, most of all, be okay not knowing who you will be at the end of this journey. I can promise you, you will be better for it.”
For Wong, who now owns a healthcare consulting practice, the message captures London’s approach to work and life: “Don’t focus on the fact that you have a really long to-do list. Focus on what you can get out of an experience, and don’t limit yourself.”
London also relished the Managing the Workplace course taught by Stacey Kole, AM ’86, PhD ’92 (Economics), clinical professor of economics. “It was really about the complexity of managing what’s essentially a human organism,” London says. “There are processes and structures and ways of getting work done, but around all the edges of that, it’s just people and their feelings.”
Kole recalls London as standing out in a “terrific” cohort. “I remember really robust discussions about what really matters when you’re managing people, and how economics can guide you as a manager,” she says. “I always found Sarah to be very thoughtful in assessing lots of disparate pieces of information.”
Waverly Deutsch, retired clinical professor of entrepreneurship, immediately noted London’s intelligence, creativity, proficiency, and speed. “I always knew Sarah was going to be a CEO,” says Deutsch, who worked with London as a student in her Building the New Venture course and invited her to be a teaching assistant the following year. “Sarah has the ability to attract supporters and believers everywhere she goes.”
“I always knew Sarah was going to be a CEO. Sarah has the ability to attract supporters and believers everywhere she goes.”
London was already passionate about healthcare. After graduating from Harvard and spending two years in the film industry in Los Angeles, she’d returned to Boston to work in fundraising for her alma mater, where she focused on health, education, and equity. Harvard had recently launched its Global Health Institute, and London became deeply familiar with its mission and with the work of the late Dr. Paul Farmer, cofounder of Partners In Health, who was chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine. London then worked as director of special projects for Rebecca Onie, cofounder of the nonprofit Health Leads, which trains college students as community health workers.
These experiences showed London that the systemic healthcare issues she would have expected in underresourced countries were impacting people across the United States. In particular, she learned about important drivers of health that happen outside the doctor’s office, such as poor housing conditions and lack of access to healthy food.
“Health Leads started to collect real data on that,” she says, “and it opened my eyes to the power of data to understand what’s really going on, to tell a different story about what we need to do to change the system. That was the insight I took to Booth, wanting to be part of what I saw as a transformation journey that the healthcare industry was already on, and needed to be on for the next couple of decades.”
Although London consistently impressed her professors, she also made time for fun. Classmate and friend Deirdre McGinty, ’10 (no relation), remembers that when she was having a personally challenging time, London helped cheer her up by working with some friends to hire a cover band they had seen in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for McGinty’s birthday party in Chicago. The band, Triple D, was such a hit that they returned to headline Booth’s winter formal.
“Sarah was one of my coconspirators in making wild ideas happen,” says McGinty, a partner in McKinsey’s healthcare practice. “Sarah is as funny, caring, and thoughtful as she is diligent, focused, and competitive. She’s the friend and colleague whom you call for 10 minutes of quick advice who then follows up two weeks later to check in and offer you three more ideas.”
London’s full life extends to close connections with family and friends. She and her husband, Terry, have two sons. Her father had his Booth education come full circle when he attended Sarah’s graduation, 40 years to the day after his own. He died of cancer the following year, a few weeks before Sarah and Terry’s wedding.
“She has had to work through some hard times, and she’s handled it with such grace,” Wong says. “It can be hard for CEOs to seem like they can relate, but to me, the way she handled her wedding so soon after her father’s death was an example of her humanity, and it shows that in the company she’s leading, she can identify with people who may be experiencing hardships.”
After graduating from Booth, London joined an analytics team at what is now R1 RCM, which uses technology to improve financial management for hospitals and health systems. “There was nothing on my resume that would suggest it was anything but a giant risk for the company,” London recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, I just need to ask questions.’ This mentality, particularly as I moved into bigger leadership roles, that it’s not about knowing everything, has helped me build a team around me that creates aggregate strength.”
London quickly impressed colleagues with her ability to extract insights from data. She moved next to Humedica, a healthcare informatics company. When Humedica was acquired by healthcare services provider Optum, she was promoted to Optum’s chief product officer. She then spent two years as an investor and operating partner in Optum’s venture-capital business before being recruited to Centene in 2020.
“The traditional historic lens around healthcare misses the causal factors affecting health outcomes. In every population, access to basic necessities—food, transportation, safe housing, job security, childcare—all end up being major influencers on the health journey.”
At Centene, London applies her expertise in public health, data, and strategy for the benefit of patients who are often lacking resources and support. “The traditional historic lens around healthcare misses the causal factors affecting health outcomes,” she says. “In every population, access to basic necessities—food, transportation, safe housing, job security, childcare—all end up being major influencers on the health journey.”
Centene leverages its knowledge of local communities to develop a holistic approach to health, working with social-service providers to address issues that extend beyond the doctor-patient relationship. In Florida, for example, Centene partners with nonprofit groups to host community baby showers for mothers-to-be who rely on Medicaid, handing out diapers and raising awareness about prenatal care. “It’s about tapping into the resources that are already in place,” London says. “The challenge is bigger than just us. Therefore, the solutions have to be bigger than just us.”
New policies from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are allowing states to more easily spend federal healthcare funds on a wider range of services considered social drivers of health, such as nutritious meals or a home dehumidifier to help a child’s asthma. Ultimately, London is working to demonstrate that this increased flexibility, strong community partnerships, and rapidly improving technology can help Centene help more individuals get and stay healthier.
“The healthcare system is incredibly complex,” she says. “It’s the largest industry in our country that has not gone through a technology and digital revolution, but I believe it is now poised to do just that because of the ubiquity of digital data. We’re starting to get to good standards and regulation around interoperability, and we should be able to build a fundamentally more efficient administrative backbone that will allow for a different member experience.”
In a short time, London has made her mark on an industry that is poised for change. Her success holds lessons for all Booth students, but particularly for women, Deutsch says.
“Sarah has a tremendous ability to trust her capabilities, to learn quickly, and to leverage mentors,” Deutsch says. “When a woman sees a job posting, if she doesn’t have 90 percent of the qualifications, she often doesn’t apply for it. Sarah’s career path shows that you should step up to those hard roles that you know in your heart of hearts that you can be good at.
“She is one of the most amazing alumni Chicago Booth has ever graduated,” Deutsch adds, “and she deserves this attention and more.”
The longtime Booth supporter reflects on her life-changing student experience and the qualities that make Booth unique.The Book of Booth: Investor Elaine Lingying Zong, ’98