When Tabitha Rice was deciding where to apply to college, she looked first for an Ivy League school-and then for one that had a children's hospital on site.
"That narrowed things down pretty quick," she laughs. She was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania, whose campus housed the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Within two weeks of starting school, she had landed a work-study job in Children's Hospital's oncology division, a research associate's position she held for the next four years. Each passing year strengthened her resolve to make her career in children's hospitals.
These days she's director of clinical business operations for nursing at Texas Children's Hospital, in charge of fostering a positive and professional work environment to attract and retain top nurses. The facility, recently designated as a magnet hospital, employs 1,200 nurses.
Her passion for children's healthcare began many years earlier. Working as a counselor at a camp for children with cancer, she became fast friends with a 7-year-old who had leukemia and ultimately succumbed to neuroblastoma. "Here was this kid who battled so much but had such a zest for life," she says. "It's what I love about coming to work every day-seeing that spirit in the kids."
She also credits her mother's work in special education, which showed her how a child's health problems affect the rest of his life. "Mom moved us around a lot to different school districts, and I saw the difference between children who have access to resources and children who don't," she says.
After graduating from Penn in 1996, Rice started to get a master's degree in public health at Harvard University, but a mentor there convinced her that an MBA would be more useful for her ultimate goal of heading a children's hospital. So she earned a certificate in public health from Harvard in 1997, and then returned to Houston, where she had spent her high school years. There she applied to Rice University because of its proximity to the Texas Medical Center and Texas Children's Hospital.
She took a course from an adjunct professor who worked at Texas Children's, and one of the assignments was to shadow a staffer there for a day. Rice chose Chief Executive Officer Mark Wallace. The two hit it off and Rice was offered an administrative fellowship when she graduated in 2000-which she accepted even though she also had a consulting offer that paid three times as much.
"I fell in love with the organization and the executive team," Rice says. At the end of the yearlong fellowship, her enthusiasm and drive drew several job offers from Texas Children's executives, and she accepted one from the chief nursing officer to be assistant director of business operations for the emergency center.
Wallace calls Rice one of his superstars. "She has innate leadership that you can see in about a minute and a half of talking to her," he says. "I was drawn to her energy level and her desire to get out there on the field and participate."