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Catching up with Sonoma’s Laura Cali Robison, SVHS ‘99

Laura Cali Robison never had her career planned out.

“I never looked at it as, I want to go from career A to B, and I’m not sure I ever will,” she said.

Instead, Robison said she looks at whether a job is going to make her feel fulfilled.

“There is a misconception people have about how they should go about their career,” she said. “I always thought that people who were really successful had it all figured out but I’ve learned that that’s not really true.”

Robison has always had a passion for math and science, from her time in AP classes at Sonoma Valley High School to a double major in math and economics at Boston University. Since graduating from SVHS in 1999 and BU in 2003, she has taken on roles that utilize both her technical and leadership skills, becoming Oregon’s insurance commissioner at just 31 years old.

She credits much of her success, however, to developing communication skills early on in her career as an actuary. “I didn’t realize the importance of diversifying,” she said. Even as a high school student, Robison worked across skill sets, serving as captain of the swim and water polo teams her senior year and tutoring on the side.

Her job as insurance commissioner “was a little bit of using my technical skills and a lot of communication,” said Robison. “It was also a pretty significant management job.” The insurance commissioner for a state is “basically the chief regulator” for the insurance industry for that state. “My primary job was to protect the public and make sure people who buy insurance are treated fairly.”

She was one of 14 female insurance commissioners nationwide in 2017, and says a male-heavy environment has been fairly typical throughout her education and career.

“I think math and science, generally, and economics, probably historically, are pretty male heavy,” Robison said. “I was definitely in a lot of classes that were more men than women, especially in higher level math classes.” It hasn’t had a huge impact on her career though, and she explains that she has been lucky in having female leaders to look up to and inclusive work environments.

Reflecting on her career so far, Robison said, “The number one lesson for me is that even if you’re really great at whatever your area of expertise, if you can’t talk about what you do and the results of some work you’ve done in a way that makes sense to people, you personally are not going to go as far in your career as someone who can do that.”

This was particularly true during her time as a consultant in San Francisco. “I had to be in front of clients who had no clue or understanding of what I did,” she said. She had to think about how you relay these complicated concepts to people who don’t have any sort of background in them.

Two month ago, she took a job as chief financial officer for Oregon Health Authority, the state agency responsible for Medicaid and other health-related programs. As the agency with the largest budget in the state, “it’s a pretty significant responsibility,” said Robison, especially with all that is going on with healthcare at the national level.

“It’s been kind of like drinking from the fire hose for the last two months, but it’s going really well so far,” she said.

“The successful people I know really do like a challenge and are willing to take risks,” Robison said. “They think about their career in terms of what’s important to them — does it challenge me, is there career development?”

“You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do or what your dream job is,” she advised. “Learn from the people around you and take calculated risks. You’ll start to figure out what the elements of a dream job are as you progress.”

For Robison, those elements include a level of influence over decision making; making an impact; doing something challenging; and feeling like she’s working toward a broader purpose.

“I think it was definitely taking a risk, and doing something I didn’t totally know what I was getting into,” she said.

“I think it’s important for people to hear that even if you have moved jobs a couple of times before, it’s still really hard, especially if you’re leaving a job you enjoy.”