HELENE GAYLE. CARE USA PRESIDENT AND CEO - Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)

Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)




I grew up in a working-class family in Buffalo, New York. My parents were people of strong faith—not in a dogmatic way, but they felt deeply that part of living one’s faith was to think about others first and give back to society.

After church on Sundays, my father would take my four siblings and me to visit some of the elderly people in our community. Sometimes we would bring them food, and other times we would just socialize. My mother, a social worker, used to tell us, “If somebody makes a reasonable request, your answer should always be yes.” My parents also put a high premium on education. My siblings and I were expected to attend college and then have a profession. I realized early on that I wanted to use my education as a way to give back.

I pursued medicine, thinking that it was a practical tool to help people, but the career path I ultimately took was defined, at least in part, by the commencement speech at my younger brother’s college graduation. The speaker was D. A. Henderson, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and one of the leaders of the international effort to eradicate smallpox. He spoke about how they were able to wipe smallpox off the face of the earth by using the tools of public health. I was in medical school at the time and had vaguely considered going into public health, but D. A. Henderson crystallized it for me. Public health is practicing medicine at the population level instead of at the individual level. I realized that in this field I could use my skills as a doctor to have a positive impact on large groups of people—even on the world.

So, during medical school, I also got a master’s degree in public health. Afterward, I completed my residency in pediatrics and then went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for a two-year training program in epidemiology, which is the study of how disease spreads and the ways it can be controlled. I originally planned to stay only through the end of the program, but I fell in love with the place and ended up staying twenty years. I held various positions at the CDC, but my main focus was combating HIV/AIDS. When I started in 1984, HIV was very new. My colleagues believed that it would remain confined to pockets of marginalized people in our society and wouldn’t become an important public health issue, so they counseled me against focusing on that “strange” disease. Little did anyone know that it would become one of the defining public health issues of our time.

In 2001 I was offered a job directing the HIV, TB, and Reproductive Health Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. Leaving the CDC and moving across the country was both a personal and professional risk. At the CDC I had risen through the ranks to one of the most senior positions. Although the Gates Foundation is now one of the largest, most important foundations in the world, back then it was still developing and was relatively unknown. Some friends and colleagues advised me against it but, intrigued by the opportunity to try something different, I took the job. The transition was a lot harder than I expected. I didn’t have any friends in Seattle, and after two decades working in a large governmental organization, I found the free-flowing culture at the privately funded Gates Foundation foreign. For the first six months I kept thinking, Maybe I should just call the CDC and ask if I can have my job back.

But I had made a commitment and decided to tough it out, which was definitely the right choice. During my time with the Gates Foundation, I got to observe how one builds an organization from the ground up (I started out as the only employee in my division, and it now has a couple of hundred people) and I developed a better understanding of privately funded philanthropic establishments and their ability to foster positive social change. My experience there equipped me to be a better candidate for my next job.

After five years at the Gates Foundation, I was offered and accepted a job as president and CEO of CARE USA, a global humanitarian organization whose main goal is to eradicate poverty. The transition from the medical and health field into the broad arena of global development was a major one. Once again, colleagues advised me not to make the move. They questioned why I would want to give up the security of being an expert in my field and thought I would regret leaving a position at a foundation (where I dispensed money to those in need) for a job where I had to raise money. But I saw moving to CARE as a chance to broaden my work. In my new role I would be able to address some of the underlying social and economic factors that fuel health inequities and keep people trapped in poverty. I could potentially have an even greater impact on preventing death and disease than by using only health interventions.

I want to make as big a difference in the world as I possibly can. In order to achieve this goal, I continually expose myself to new arenas where I can potentially learn something useful. Doing this enables you to grow, but even as you push past your comfort zones, it is easy to be riddled with self-doubt. For instance, I recently had the honor of being asked to sit on the boards of both Colgate-Palmolive and Coca-Cola. At meetings I am predominantly surrounded by people who have decades of experience in business and are at ease with a world that is fairly unfamiliar to me. To live up to my responsibilities as a board member, I’ve had to learn about corporate finance and other core business issues. It’s been challenging but absolutely worth it. I’ve gained a better understanding of the corporate world, which is important for our work at CARE, where we are increasingly developing partnerships with businesses.

When people make career moves that don’t appear to take them on the most linear, expected path, there are often detractors out there saying it’s a bad idea. I am practical and certainly explore the positives and negatives of every situation, but in the end my decisions result from following my passion. You can’t map your life out with any precision and you have to get comfortable with that. You must also be willing to take risks and be deliberate about seizing opportunities that are off the beaten path. If you are curious about life and explore new things, you’ll continue to expand your options.

For many years I routinely found myself in situations where I was the only “whatever” in the group—whether it was the only person of color, the only woman, or the only person younger than forty. Walking into a room filled with people who are different from you can be intimidating. It’s also easy to be underestimated in those scenarios. I know there have been times when people have shown a lack of confidence in me and assumed I was not up to the task at hand. When this happens, I become even more motivated to show people that I am where I am because I have the necessary skills and ability.

Understanding how you are being stereotyped is the first step in remedying it. There have been times, for example, when I’ve realized that someone was not treating me as an equal because I am a woman. Feeling like a victim leads to victim behavior. Addressing an issue restores your power. On more than one occasion I have tactfully expressed to a male counterpart that I think he would be treating me differently if I were a man. Another way to cope with being discriminated against is to build networks of mentors and people who support and believe in you. Don’t be afraid to turn to these people if you feel undermined. They can help you build yourself back up.

Life is an obstacle course comprised of things that knock you down completely as well as the smaller day-to-day struggles. When I encounter tough times, personally or professionally, I get through them by remembering my core beliefs. I want to use my remaining time on this earth in ways that are meaningful to me. Thinking about the approximately eighty million poverty-stricken people CARE reaches each year always motivates me to persevere.


Images Social change is better achieved by being for something than against something. Growing up, I was part of a protest generation. We protested the war and stood in support of liberation struggles in Africa. Whenever we saw a problem, we were “against” it. It’s easy to think that by being against something you’re standing up for a cause, but if you want to have a greater impact, you need to ask yourself, “What do I stand for and what do I want to happen?”

Images The human potential and the power of the human spirit are unlimited. I have seen people start out with a two-dollar loan and end up becoming professionals who sent all of their children to college. While there are realistic limitations for everybody, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve most of what you want in life.