When she was less than two years old, Thi Phan’s family left on a boat from their native Vietnam with just the clothes on their backs and the family’s photos. They landed in a refugee camp in Guam, before eventually moving to Minnesota.
Her father was a surgeon and her mother studied law, but as is often the case with refugees searching for a better life, the transition wasn’t an easy one. “When we came to this country, we were on food stamps,” Phan recalls. Her father worked to pass the board exams and eventually got a job in a community health clinic. Phan, meanwhile, had to adjust to growing up in Minnesota, living with a Lutheran pastor and his family before moving to the Philadelphia area when she was six years old.
“Thomas Nyman was a pastor and is actually my godfather,” Phan says. “I eat a lot of herring to this day because I lived in Minnesota in that Scandinavian community. And my godmother was a sixty-year-old lady who taught me how to make Christmas cookies; it was all really wonderful.”
But that experience taught Phan a lot more than an appreciation for small fish and cookie dough shaped into trees; she quickly learned both the impact that an
individual can make on others and the reality of the American Dream. Not only did the Nyman family make them feel at home, they aided Phan’s father in his transition back to a life of medicine.
“My parents pushed toward the American Dream, which I think they fulfilled,” Phan says. However, they also made sure to honor their Vietnamese traditions and blend them into Phan’s American upbringing; as a prime example, she notes that her grandmother lived with the family until she passed away. “The food and the ideas about roles people played in the family were carried with my family, down to family-style food,” she says. “But I grew up in American culture so I really see myself as a hybrid.”
Initially, Phan’s parents had hoped she’d become a doctor, to follow in their footsteps. “It’s very much the immigrant Asian cultural mind-set,” Phan explains. “They really wanted me to pursue that for a better sense of security, but it just wasn’t my path. My dad became very respected, as he’s been practicing for more than thirty-five years now. He treats families where he has been seeing the great-grandparents and the great-grandchildren, which really reflects this continuity in the community.” Little did they know, however, that she’d find security by forging her own somewhat parallel path.
“Learning is so important to me; it’s a mind-set and way to constantly explore things and take up new challenges.”
In another hybrid blend of the past and present, Phan developed a career that has led her to an executive legal role at a worldwide health services organization. In 2005, she joined Cigna as senior counsel for the Securities Law group, and as the organization has drastically changed in the ensuing years, she has risen to the role of VP and chief counsel for corporate law. In that time, her varying positions and roles have called for differing focuses, but her primary responsibilities throughout have included leading strategic transactions law, intellectual property, information technology, tax, investments, and real estate law.
Although healthcare remains her passion, the intellectual inquiry of the law appealed to Phan; she initially hoped to couple that with her love of the arts. “Learning is so important to me; it’s a mind-set and way to constantly explore new things and take up new challenges,” she says. “When I first started law school, I thought that I might become an intellectual property or entertainment lawyer. What’s funny now is that I do oversee the intellectual property for the Cigna organization, but also I now know that law is in itself creative as well. It’s all about taking the legal issue and solving it in creative ways, and that’s really kept me excited and involved.”
Thankfully, she’s been able to pair that intellectual curiosity with the knowledge of how important it is to help others that was instilled in her at such an early age. “Cigna recognizes that people are at the heart of what we do,” Phan says. As an example, she details an executive education program, in which she and other team members traveled to India and China to understand the impact that the global business has in each of the individual cultures. “I have the great benefit that it’s an international company,” she explains. “It’s really important that we think globally.”
The Ride of a Lifetime
Although her roots are essential to the development of her career and life, Thi Phan’s relationship with her son, Liem, and her role as a mother have become equally as important. “I didn’t envision that becoming a mother would actually make me so much more confident in my life and my role at work,” she says. “Before I had my son, I was a perfectionist. I would keep working, working, working until I felt like I had all the information and everything was there. And I realized that that’s not something I wanted to do or could do after having my child. That’s just not the way I wanted to live my life. So, now I strive for excellence not perfection, and that has really opened me up to make sure that I am collaborating.” A prime example of that came when she needed to teach Liem how to ride a bike—a tricky proposition, as she had never properly learned herself. “I decided to learn with my son, which is great from an experience perspective,” she says. “Now, we as a family take these biking trips. It’s become a new memory that we will have for the rest of our lives.” Rather than worry about perfection, she taught herself to ride, and has built lasting memories for herself and her son.
Staying aware of individual cultures’ various traditions and mind-sets is important, but Phan is quick to assert the importance of every individual whom Cigna might be able to help. “Customers deserve to be at the center of everything we do,” she says. “I think that it is really imbued in our culture, where it is very outside-in. We don’t make products or think about policies in a vacuum; it’s got to be in response to what the customer and our clients need. We recognize that everybody is unique.”
That insistence on the unique journey of each individual extends to her team. Phan prioritizes teamwork and feels that her job is to support her team, give them the necessary resources, make sure to communicate the organization’s vision and priorities, and communicate transparently. “Then, I get out of their way to let them shine,” Phan says with a laugh. “I am a huge believer in what I call the virtuous cycle. The more I help promote and support my colleagues or other people’s work, the better I am going to be at my job.”
As a new refugee crisis unfolds around the world, Phan sees the potential for both individuals and Cigna to make an impact. “Our mission is to improve the health, well-being, and sense of security of our customers,” she says. “We’re a global organization and we very much care about the communities that we live in.” As an example, Cigna ensures that customers whom might be immigrants or refugees have the right interpreter services. “We’re coming at their needs in a culturally sensitive way so that they can really tell us what they need,” she says. “I think there’s a lot that we as a healthcare industry can do to help.”
Susan Seabrook of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC is proud to support Thi Phan and Cigna by providing highly focused and industry-specific tax counsel and representation. Susan and her colleague, Caroline Setliffe, assist clients in addressing their most sophisticated tax challenges, from M&A structuring to bet-the-company litigation. Learn more at www.bipc.com/tax-controversy.
Ladas & Parry congratulates Thi Phan on this well-deserved honor! We are proud to protect the association between Cigna brands and their quality health services throughout the world. Ladas & Parry represents owners of intellectual property at every stage of development, both domestically and internationally.
Paul, Weiss proudly joins in celebrating Thi Phan’s career at Cigna Corporation. Thi brings an exceptional combination of skill, experience, and good judgment to her role as vice president and chief counsel, and is a pleasure to work with. Paul, Weiss is a firm of more than nine hundred lawyers with market-leading public M&A, regulatory, and litigation practices.