LaVonne Ansari was never a kid who dreamed of being a CEO.
As she grew up, Ansari knew she wanted to help people, to make a difference and have a meaningful impact as her legacy. She has spent the last 40 years making that a reality, helping the under-served get the services they need while pursuing equity across the board.
“The best advice I’ve ever received is very basic: treat people the way you want to be treated,” said Ansari, CEO and executive director at the Community Health Center of Buffalo. “It may be simple, but it’s not always easy to do so I always think about how I can help people.”
Ansari will be recognized Sept. 15 as the Women of Influence BusinessWoman of the Year. The award follows a lengthy career in Erie and Niagara counties that has spanned health care and higher education, from the region’s largest university and hospital to a small community health center where she said she has done her most impactful work.
She’s hesitant to reflect on her own career. Instead, she chooses to remain focused on the daily journey.
“The journey, you take one day at a time and you stay focused on the mission,” Ansari said. “The one thing I can say is that I’ve been very persistent in staying focused on the community. I never waiver. That’s how you know that you have a passion.”
A New York City native from Queens, Ansari met her husband at SUNY Brockport, then came with him to Buffalo in 1982 for a job. Over the next decade, she earned her master’s and then a Ph.D. while raising their children and working as a recreation therapist at Buffalo General Medical Center.
She spent the next 15 years in higher education, the first five at the University at Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center, followed by 10 years at Niagara County Community College as equity and diversity director, then vice president of operations. She came back to health care in 2006, joining the health center just a few years after it was created.
She has remained with the organization for 16 years, growing CHCB into a $14 million network of five health centers with 150 employees and 20,000 patients across two counties.
“When I came in, I didn’t understand why there was not a whole lot of patients with the need in the community,” Ansari said. “I think it was a combination of starting up a new practice, learning the FQHC world and the community not knowing that it existed. All those dynamics happened at one time.”
The job allowed her to use skills she learned in both industries, such as adapting an instant admissions system for first-time students to enroll patients into the practice.
“I took some of that model and married it to health care. That’s how we really started gaining momentum,” she said. “We just signed people up and then brought the papers back and called them to make appointments.”
Neither Ansari nor her husband – a longtime professor at SUNY Buffalo State – expected to live their lives and careers here but he was invited by his sister, Muriel Howard, who would go on to spend 13 years as president at the college after a 26-year career at UB.
Ansari grew up surrounded by her family. Her father worked for the post office and her mom worked at a clothing factory, then in the kitchens of New York City public schools. She didn’t know much about the rest of the state, so she was surprised and pleased to discover the slower pace of Buffalo as well as the opportunity to make a difference.
Ansari was somewhat of a pioneer in the DEI world, handling discrimination complaints, compliance, affirmative action and community outreach. A Muslim convert in college, Ansari came to the attention of the Community Health Center of Buffalo after doing a program on inclusion and diversity after the 9/11 attacks.
She says Islam is what defines her first, along with being a Black woman. All three have made her more strategic in her leadership style.
“It’s not just the diversity of our look, but the diversity of our thoughts and experiences. We all bring different experiences to the table, so I see my Islam first, then my race,” she said, and all three have helped her stand out among leaders. It has also provided some challenges to her career, but also some opportunities, Ansari said.
“I have to be a lot more conscientious, where I don’t think my counterparts have to,” she said.
And as tough as it was leading a health care organization through the pandemic, Ansari also spent two years leading the Community Health Center Association of New York State, taking over the chairman’s position weeks before the start of the pandemic.
Two months after completing that task, Ansari jumped in to provide services to Buffalo’s East Side after the May 14 massacre 2.8 miles away that affected so many of the health center’s current and prospective patients.
“The wonderful thing about the journey is you don’t know what’s ahead of you or what you’re going to do, so you look at everything you do as a way of growing and making sure you leave things better than what it was,” Ansari said. “You don’t know what you will do in leadership until these things occur.
“If the creator came and took me today, are my good deeds going to outweigh my bad?” Ansari said. “My legacy would be that I was a servant of the people and being a servant, you never stop working.”
CEO, Community Health Center of Buffalo Inc.
Started at company:2006 • Years in field: 20
Born in: Brooklyn • Lives in: Buffalo
Proudest accomplishment: My 40 years of marriage to Fajri Ansari and raising three wonderful children. Professionally, working as an educator for more than 30 years in partnership alongside my husband at Masjid Nu’Man (Islamic organization). Building a comprehensive primary care practice to serve those who are most in need.
Spouse: Fajri Ansari
Children: Tariq, Bashir, Naila
Grandchildren: Noah, Zachariah, Nadia
College: Recreation therapist, B.S. SUNY Brockport; M.S., multidisciplinary studies, SUNY Buffalo State; Ph.D., sociology of education, University at Buffalo
Graduate of: Forest Hills High School, Forest Hills, New York
Most fun event in the last year: Hanging out with several friends in Florida. My husband coached them as basketball players. Now, they have families of their own and we are enjoying their success.
Growing up: I grew up in Queens with my parents, brother, sister and extended family members. In high school, I ran track and played varsity volleyball. I sang in the New York City Choir and attended Ms. Bernice Johnson Dance School.
When not working, I’m: Listening to music, reading, walking, traveling with my family
Favorite nonprofits: Masjid Nu’man, WDM Muslim Association, Solid Foundation Prep
Leadership positions: Co-chair, Buffalo Together Fund; vice president, Collaboration on Poverty Elimination in Western New York (COPE WNY)
I can’t get rid of: an old piano
Lucky charm: I wear a necklace with the Arabic word for God.
Career advice: Self reflect so that you can self correct.
This keeps me up at night: The public schools system and education of our African-American and children of color.
Hidden talent: I am quick-witted.
This might surprise people: My favorite movie is the original “Imitation of Life” starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.
Wishful super power: The ability to be a super learner.
To-do list: Learn to play an instrument, write a book, take up a new hobby
A food I can’t live without: Sweet potatoes
Covid lesson: To rely on my intuition when you must make decisions and the solutions are unknown.
Tracey Drury covers health care, restaurants and nonprofits