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Lili Tenney headshot on CU Anschutz background

While Science Moves Slow, Lili Tenney Moves Fast

minute read

Written by Laura Veith on May 6, 2020

In 2006, while the economy was heading into a downturn, an economic trend was on the rise. Businesses, specifically small entrepreneurs, were exploring new ways of practicing corporate social responsibility. Lili Tenney, a recent college graduate with a business degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, was intrigued by this corporate trend. Having started a mission-driven retail business (LiKi FAIRE) with her sister, Lili was exploring new and creative ways for companies to positively impact communities. 

With a keen eye for economic and community partnerships, Lili quickly became passionate about creating sustainable business models and ways for businesses to promote the health of the workforce communities. 

This exploration and desire to learn how to impact these communities was the first gust of wind that blew Lili to public health. "I had no idea what public health was in undergrad," says Tenney. Lili decided to pursue her Master's in public health at the newly-accredited  Colorado School of Public Health. "I decided to dual concentrate in community and behavioral health and epidemiology as I was very interested in community-based programs and working with community groups and wanted the fundamentals of studying disease," says Tenney.   

In her first year, Lili took Dr. Lee Newman's "Intro to Environmental and Occupational Health" course and the light bulb went on. She instantly saw the connection between her background in business and the impact that companies could have on improving the lives of workers. After graduating with her MPH in 2010, Lili started working as a professional research assistant at the Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center. 

"I wanted to apply the skills that I had learned in business school to promote our programs and overall, market occupational health and safety to a broader audience," says Tenney. "I also wanted to leverage my knowledge in community behavioral health to develop new projects for reaching and engaging worker populations." Throughout her first three years, Lili wore many hats at the Center, including being promoted to Director of Continuing Education where she led the development of signature courses including the first online opioid course in the country. 

With the support of an educational grant from workers' compensation company, Pinnacol Assurance, the course pivoted the Center's continuing education program and became a national leader in training healthcare providers on federal and state guidelines for chronic pain management. Lili became an active participant in the state of Colorado's approach to fighting the opioid epidemic through provider and prescriber education. 

Simultaneously, the Center was collaborating with Pinnacol Assurance to conduct a five-year health risk management study among businesses in Colorado. The study revealed the association between employee health and workplace safety outcomes. At the same time, it highlighted something exciting for Lili—small businesses were interested in improving employee well-being, but they needed help

The idea sparked a creative session between Lili and Center Director, Lee Newman, to design an intervention to engage small employers and enable them to implement best practices for workplace health and safety. All the while, the Center was growing and conducting more work in the emerging field of Total Worker Health® (TWH). 

Now Deputy Director of the Center, Lili was helping the small team craft a vision for their transformation as a capital "C" center—the Center for Health, Work & Environment. It was obvious that TWH would be a core focus across the Center's three pillars: research, education, and practice.

After receiving a foundational gift from Pinnacol Assurance, Lili and Lee co-founded Health Links™ in 2013, the country's first TWH program serving small businesses. 

Rooted in her passion for corporate social responsibility, Lili wanted to help businesses walk the talk when it came to their commitments to social and labor standards. She dreamed of Health Links as a program that would hold businesses accountable and celebrate those who were supporting a healthy workforce, similar to how LEED certification for green buildings standardized environmental architecture design. 

"It brought together all of what I love about public health—working with community partners, connecting with the business community, and supporting workers," says Tenney. "I thought about developing Health Links not necessarily as a grant-funded program, but as one of the first programs that could be potentially self-sustaining. This meant creating a program plan that reflected principles from both business and implementation science. It's commonly accepted that public health programs run as pilots and then disappear. I wanted Health Links to be impactful and I wanted to scale it." 

In the early years of Health Links, Lili would travel across the state to meet with community partners and public health leaders to train employer groups. "It was like running a little start-up with only two of us running the program and adapting to what we found was working along the way," says Tenney. "I was starting to learn more about the concepts of Total Worker Health and identify ways to infuse it into how we were working with businesses." 

The concept was starting to prove itself. In the first three years, Health Links had reached 200 businesses in 18 Colorado counties. Lili had secured funding through public health grants and contracts to support Health Links local advisors, trainings and program expansion. By 2018, she had positioned the program to scale nationally, providing organizations of all sizes, from any industry, with an evidence-based program providing assessment, certification and advising to achieve Total Worker Health. 

"When I first started working in public health, I was very doubtful of my experience compared to my peers," says Tenney. "I quickly discovered that my business background gave me a huge set of skills that other students with science backgrounds didn't have." 

These skills were essential to how Lili has practiced public health and led the development of programs like Health Links and the Center's Outreach Core. A skillset rooted in marketing, communication, and partnerships, combined with public health practice and research, has created and propelled many of the Center's projects and partnerships as we know them today. 

"I think one of my weaknesses in the eyes of my academic peers is that I like to move fast, and science moves slow," says Tenney. "But I would like that to be part of my legacy." Lili's gift for inventing, translating, disseminating science, and pursuing collaboration has been essential to the Center, which is why Lili continues to call it her home. 

"The leadership and the culture of our Center allows us to create, to discover, and to focus on practice-based solutions. That is challenging to balance, but that challenge is what keeps me here."