Inspirational Woman Interview: Helene D. Gayle


Helene D. Gayle is the CEO of the McKinsey Social Initiative, a nonprofit organization that implements programs that bring together varied stakeholders to address complex global social challenges. Previously, she was president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading international humanitarian organization. An expert on global development, humanitarian, and health issues, she spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control, working primarily on HIV/AIDS. Helene then worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues. She serves on public company and non-profit boards including: The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the New America Foundation, the ONE Campaign, and the Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, she serves on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Helene was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. She earned a B.A. in psychology at Barnard College, an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University.

Can you tell us about your work as the CEO of the McKinsey Social Initiative and the programs you’ve led?

Helene D. Gayle: The McKinsey Social Initiative is very new and just started a few years ago. We have one program that is up and running and that’s the program focused on youth employment, looking at helping provide training and developing skills for unemployed youth and youth who have been otherwise unable to find employment, giving them the skills, and then matching them to employers who are seeking entry-level workers but don’t always know where to find them and don’t know what type of training to find a reliable workforce. By helping to find employers who are interested in employing youth and then helping young people who don’t necessarily have the right hard and soft skills acquire those skills and then matching them with employers who are looking for entry-level workers. It has been a successful program that has scaled to 5 countries around the world – US, Mexico, India, Kenya and Spain – and over 13,000 young people have been trained through the program. 90% of them have been able to find employment and close to 80-85% have over the long term, been able to stay employed. We have also been able to demonstrate that the return on investment in terms of resources is great and we continue to look at ways to drive the costs down using technology and other methods to become more cost effective in the way we run this program.

Regarding McKinsey Social Initiative‘s Generation Initiative, you tell us more about the problem of youth unemployment in the US and internationally?

Helene D. Gayle: In the places where we have been working, there are high rates of youth unemployment so we try to work in places domestically and internationally where the rates of youth employment are high, where there is a motivated workforce that is interested in finding entry-level employers and where we can give young people the skills – hard skills and soft skills. We place an emphasis on giving young people soft skills as well – how do you teach young people who have been unemployed and sometimes come from families where they haven’t seen employment and what it means to be a good employee? They haven’t seen employment modeled in their homes; we teach them the skills that go beyond the technical skills but also the behavioral skills that will allow them to become a successful employee.

You previously served as the President and CEO of CARE. Can you tell how you came to join CARE and your interests in humanitarian aid?

Helene D. Gayle: I’m a Physician by background and spent 20 years of my career in public health with the Centers for Disease and Control and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The motivation for all that I’ve done has always been around social justice and equity – how can I use my skills as a doctor, as a public health physician, to be able to look at how you give the most people possible the best chance at a healthy and equitable life? For me, health goes beyond diseases – it means economic health, it means educational health, the ability to raise your family in a safe environment, and more. All of those things are where I want to have an impact all the work that I do is about how I can use the skills I have in a way that helps to make people’s health and well-being as equal as possible.

From your experiences, what are the biggest myths and misconceptions about official development assistance (ODA)?

Helene D. Gayle: One thing is that people don’t understand, from the US context, that we give a lot less money for foreign assistance than we actually do. In many polls, people will think that we give anything from 25-50% of our national budget to foreign assistance but if you ask them how much is actually a reasonable amount, they say 10%. Americans are willing to give 10% of the national budget to foreign assistance but actually we spend less than 1%. I think that people don’t have an idea of how much we do spend and how good of a return on investment it is. When you think about how much it costs – pennies – to give vaccines to children in poor countries around the world and the fact that we save millions of lives just by the simple act of getting children vaccinated, get adequate nutrition, or that a woman is able to get adequate care when she’s pregnant so she doesn’t die in childbirth. When you think about what you invest and the return on investment it is huge, so I think that is what people don’t understand – that relatively speaking, although the US is the largest contributor to foreign aid, if you look at it per capita, we give much less than the rest of our Western industrialized nations, who give much more per capita to contribute to the global good.

Can you share your experiences leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, particularly on your work related to HIV/AIDS?

Helene D. Gayle: I came to the CDC in the mid-1980s when the HIV epidemic was becoming a major public health issue. I spent a lot of time looking at HIV transmission to children, minority populations, and a lot of the time working on HIV in international settings. For me, as I look across the areas that I worked on, it’s important to realize that HIV does disproportionately affect people who are poor, marginalized, and in many countries around the world it disproportionately affects women, especially young girls. If we are going to have an impact on reducing the spread of HIV, we also have to look at the social factors that influence why some people end up being at greater risk than others. A lot of the time it has to do with your social status and the social inequities that comes with. Working on HIV was a way to address some of the social inequities and how to make sure people are empowered so they can protect themselves, reduce their risk for the spread of a deadly disease, and build systems so that people who are affected by HIV can have the opportunity to get access to life-saving drugs and medications that have made a huge difference.

What have been the biggest challenges you faced in your career?

Helene D. Gayle: I’ve been in tough situations – spent a lot of time traveling non-stop around the clock. Global work demands a lot of personal time and energy; just the rigors of the roles that I’ve had can take their toll. Everything that I’ve done I feel, although some of it has been tough and I’ve been in very difficult circumstances around the world in poor countries, it has been very gratifying to see how people, when given even just a small amount of assistance, can make a huge difference in their own lives. We don’t realize how a little help can change the lives of people around the world. I think about women who in programs receive a $2 loan that helps them start a business that helps them feed their children and send them to school; when you see what huge difference a little help makes, for me that’s incredibly gratifying.

From your experiences at the CDC and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, what are the biggest challenges facing reproductive health and maternal/child health?

Helene D. Gayle: There are many cultural challenges in reproductive health; people are still uncomfortable with contraceptives and women having the access to space their births. Oftentimes, it’s other people in the family who have decision-making rights of how many children a woman has. If a woman has too many children, too soon and too frequently it’s bad for her health and it’s bad for the health of her children; working with communities to understand why a woman should have the opportunity to have safe choices and education about her reproductive health.

Also, effective maternal and child health requires a functioning health system. It means that women and children are in the greatest risk of disease and mortality in countries that lack such health systems. Strengthening health infrastructure is critical to give women and children in poor countries a chance for a better and healthier life.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you?

Helene D. Gayle: The woman who impacted me the most is my mother. My mother was a pioneer who raised all her five children to want to make a difference in the world – she is the woman who has influenced me the most.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to international development, global health and/or social innovation?

Helene D. Gayle: I am constantly trying to read new things and I like reading things that aren’t in my field; I have hundreds of books loaded on my Kindle app and someone just told me a book about the inventors of the lightbulb and what it took for all of them to come together to create a system to produce lightbulbs. That’s not my area of expertise but it’s interesting to think about how the innovators come together – you need the inventor, but also you need the lawyer, the patent worker, someone who knows about mass production, etc. I like books that tell us about our society more broadly and how people previously solved problems because I think sometimes it’s easy to think that we’re the only ones facing today’s challenges but people have faced challenges in the past. So I like to read a lot of history of historical fiction, biographies, and things that give me some sense of connectedness to how people figured things out in the past and what we can learn from that

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