Op-Ed: A Sit-Down With Helena Buonanno Foulkes

When a door closes, one possible governor candidate takes it as a sign to open a school, then a bridge


It’s a little over two and a half years before the next governor will be elected in Rhode Island, and for many people, it can’t come soon enough. The Washington Bridge and its effect on businesses, schools, the overall economy, everyday life, people’s schedules, and their sanity will be a major issue, along with the usual issues of education, housing, medical care.

Helena Buonanno Foulkes, the well-established and highly respected former CVS Health president and Hudson’s Bay Company CEO, entered the 2022 gubernatorial race late as a Democrat, and a dark horse who showed that a thoroughbred without being part of the political game could be a player. She came up 3,357 votes short in a five-way race with three people who had previously won statewide offices.

In the final weeks of her campaign, you could see the crowds and interest grow as the “unknown” became a “player.” “Have you met Helena?” was the “buzz” of the governor’s race, and it fell just short. Gabe Amo’s rise during the congressional race in the fall followed a similar path… but to victory.

Does she have any regrets? “My decision to run was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she explains. A success at almost everything she has ever tried, her mantra now is a simple one. “Things happen for a reason. If I don’t succeed, I learn from the experience and get better. ‘Would have, could have, should have’ doesn’t move you forward,” she reflects.

The lessons learned give us some insight into what may be ahead. She reported successful fundraising (over $203,700 in the first quarter of this year), and when asked if this means she’s in, she laughed and said, “It just means if I do run, I will be prepared.”

On the campaign trail, many of the state’s problems and opportunities were spelled out to her. “I got to speak with thousands of people and their message was clear. Most people love living in RI, but they are concerned that there may not be jobs for them and their kids, housing availability and cost, and will we even have enough doctors to take care of us? And doctors all pointed to our reimbursement system, which is much lower than neighboring states. Whether it’s education, housing, or healthcare, we need more collaboration to figure out what works, and build it or scale it,” she explains.   

Since the campaign, she remains busy splitting her time working on a wide variety of corporate boards as well as volunteering for hands-on local projects. She’s particularly enjoyed working with Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera to help get the schools returned to the city after 33 years of state control. Bruce Sundlun was governor when the state took over and judging by the latest test results – only 4 percent of students were considered proficient in math and 6 percent in English language arts – Central Falls can only do better.

“There are many unique problems because of the makeup of their population, which can change daily, but the situation is unacceptable,” notes Foulkes, “and having spent time with many capable and vested teachers and administrators, I know that with creative and innovative thinking, this situation can be improved. It has to be!”

“One of the things that I learned from the huge growth of CVS was that many people who joined our company moved to Massachusetts because of the success of their educational system,” continues Foulkes. “Too many of our schools are not better than they were 25 years ago and that must change. That said, I do see rays of hope. We need to support all of our teachers and possibly look at some degree of regionalization. And we need to encourage and support more schools for special needs like The Wolf School [in East Providence].”

Foulkes has been back in the corporate world serving on the boards of the Follett Higher Education Group, Costco, Harry’s Inc., Skillsoft Corp., PM Pediatrics Care, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Salesforce, and an advisory for the Enterprise Development Program at Bank of America. She also joined the board of Crossroads RI.

Foulkes feels there are many tools that she has acquired during her years as president of CVS Health, a company that has an operating budget 50 times bigger than RI and over 200,000 employees. She notes, “What I realized over time is that your ability to affect change is multiplied by gazillions once you really think about how you influence people to come along with you, and that’s what good leaders in government have to really focus on.”

If she runs – and if things go her way – we might see her cutting the ribbon for the new Washington Bridge midway through her first term!



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