Global Health Corps just sent its latest cohort of fellows to their yearlong posts developing health and social justice solutions in places like Zambia, Malawi, and Rwanda.
And while the GHC fellows–all aged 30 and under–will help develop new systems for dealing with endemic issues like maternal death rates and the spread of airborne disease, perhaps the most intriguing thing about them isn’t where they’re going. It’s where they come from.
Of the 134 fellows in this year’s GHC class, only three are medically trained doctors. Most come from other backgrounds like architecture, design, communications, and corporate logistics.
And that’s not by mistake–GHC cofounder and CEO Barbara Bush says her team deliberately chooses students and professionals from different backgrounds to help struggling communities get ahead of systemic problems.
“Global health issues are very complex. They’re so rooted in poverty, they’re so rooted in education–or lack of education–issues. There’s a lot of gender issues that play into poor health outcomes,” Bush says. “I think that’s why we need very different thinkers and different folks at the table. It’s health care, and it’s a health system, and if it’s not meeting everyone it’s meant to serve, then it’s not effective.”
Here’s how she finds–and keeps–the best and brightest leaders from around the world:
From the very beginning of GHC, Bush says diverse backgrounds were a priority.
“We knew intuitively that by bringing different skill sets to the field and by making sure that there were different lenses looking at the same challenges, we would end up with new solutions or different solutions because there would be different perspectives or different points of view,” Bush says. “We really wanted to make sure we did have architects at the table sitting with doctors and engineers because those different conversations and those different points of views together could lead to something that hasn’t been considered yet.”
Her team surveyed leaders and organizations in the global health space, and they all wanted the same thing: systems thinkers.
“They had great doctors on their team, they had great nurses,” Bush says. “But they wanted to get ahead of the bigger challenges and they wanted to develop smarter systems so they could reach people before they would get so sick that they needed to see a doctor.”
Bush points to the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa as proof that it wasn’t a lack of medical doctors that allowed the virus to spread. “Those were systems breakdowns, and so there need to be better systems thinkers.”
So her team set out to find young people with logistics, technology, and communication skills. But she also wanted to find the next generation of leaders in health and beyond. So part of the recruitment process became finding people who demonstrated leadership potential and had decades left on their career paths to dedicate to global leadership.
Now fellows in Rwanda with architecture backgrounds are working to prevent the spread of airborne disease by changing the way air flows in hospitals. And safe-motherhood homes in rural Malawi are helping to stem the unnecessary maternal deaths by giving expectant mothers an alternate place to deliver their babies safely under the supervision of medical personnel so they don’t have to make the dangerous trek to faraway hospitals.
In Sierra Leone, GHC alums who used to work on supply chain efficiency at places like Restoration Hardware and Gap are creating new logistical systems to manage future outbreaks like the Ebola outbreak from the past year. “We are just excited by those sector shifts. They have really relevant skills that can be used very differently,” Bush says.
Since much of GHC’s work would take place in sub-Saharan Africa, Bush also wanted to reverse the brain drain in that area. So instead of parachuting Americans into Africa, GHC recruits half American and half foreign (mostly African) fellows who work in pairs at their designated posts. That ensures many fellows either work in their home countries or near them, and remain working there after the fellowship is complete.
“Everyone that’s entering into this field has a personal reason or something that affected their life, or they’ve seen an injustice that’s moved them,” Bush says of the fellows. “And that’s why they want to work on these issues.”
And the fellows themselves help GHC overcome what might have been a challenge: helping prospective fellows realize how their own nonmedical background could fit in the global health care landscape. They are outspoken, writing op-eds and sharing on social media. And they hail from Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, New Jersey, and Scotland, making GHC more likely to draw even more fellows from diverse backgrounds.
“They’re our biggest recruiting mechanism,” Bush says. “Generally when we think of health, we think of medical professionals because that’s typically how people are treated. But in order to prevent illnesses, then you have to get ahead of the curve, which could look like a totally different skill set than a doctor.”
Bush’s brand of recruitment has paid off. GHC now has 600 fellows and alumni in its tight-knit network. Out of 6,000 applications for 2015, Bush’s team selected 134, its largest class of fellows ever, with an acceptance rate of only 2%.
The alum network is highly connected, Bush says, working together throughout their careers. “Because they’re so in touch, again, diversity is critical because then they have a whole army of people to lean on when they need help problem-solving.”
As Bush and her GHC team open the application process for the next fellow class in November, they’ll be looking for what she calls “rational dreamers” who have the audacity to think they can change the field of global health and the know-how to get it done.
As GHC scales and adds more and more alums, Bush says, it has been building up its programming and support network for graduates of the program. About 90% of the fellows continue to work in global health or social justice as their main profession after GHC, Bush says.
And as they become more influential in their own work, it’s critical for GHC to continue to invest in them and make sure they’re also feeding GHC’s success. In addition to continued training, workshops, and retreats, the alums have meet-ups with other alums in their area to keep the network strong.
“In the 40 years that they have after Global Health Corps, when they continue to work on these issues, they can continue to be impactful,” Bush says.
Click through the slideshow above to learn more about some of this year’s GHC fellows.