When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I did not know. Is that an answer? Yeah, I had no idea. I grew up in a small town in Missouri and it was like doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher, the things you learn about in kindergarten. I was in theater and debate and student council and dance and advanced academic programs, all that. I went to see my counselor, like, "Give me some advice. What should I do?" And my counselor said, "Oh, you should be an actress. Haven't you heard that Brad Pitt went to Mizzou? You should do what he did. I think you're really talented." And I thought, "What? Why would you give me that advice?" Needless to say, I didn't have a lot of guidance. So I thought I wanted to work with people and make the world a better place, but I didn’t even know the term social justice at that time.
How did you decide to attend Loyola University Chicago?
I was from Missouri, so I looked at schools in the Midwest. I thought I wanted to be in a big city, so we went to Chicago and looked at some schools. I liked Loyola because it had a really urban feel, the campus is pretty, and I liked that it was by the lake. And for me, it was very different from my small town. It was the diversity. And being a political science major, it was the internships. Loyola helped people get real-world experience and that was really appealing to me. Plus being in a city is fun.
How did you choose your major?
I think I was an English major and a theater minor at first, and then I added the political science major later and dropped the theater minor. Chicago was such a political city, and I took a class that showed me how you could make change on a large scale through the political process and policy and laws, and it was a new thing I hadn't thought about before. So I took one class and really liked it and decided to change my major.
Growing up, I was very sheltered. I was from rural Missouri. I didn't know any people of color. I didn't know any people from other countries. In Chicago, there were Filipino people and Turkish people and Spanish-speaking people and immigrants and brown people and black people. There are poor people in rural Missouri, but I didn't fully understand poverty until I got to Chicago. So being exposed to so many different challenges and so many different perspectives and so many different types of people, political science was a way to act in response to a lot of things that I had been unaware of previously.
I did a lot of internships - I'm a huge proponent of internships. I interned for a state rep and worked in the district office. For the first time, I understood what benefits the state could provide to people like electricity, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, social security. So that was great. And I interned for EMERGENCY, which is an international NGO focused on rebuilding health infrastructure in post-war countries. I did a lot of work in Southeast Asia where there were leftover land mines, so they set up land mine rehabilitation centers and trained people to go out and find them, and helped them make prosthetics.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
My first job out of school was working for Greenpeace. It was a ton of fun, but I only did that for about six months before I ended up getting a job with Mike Quigley. I actually have Loyola to thank for that. I went to meet with the head of the political science department, and he said, "I have somebody I think you should meet." He called Quigley, who was an adjunct professor at Loyola, and said, "I've got a student here I think you should talk to."
At the time, he was a county commissioner, and I came on as a junior staffer.
I was a legislative lead, but there were four of us, so I did a little bit of everything. What was cool about working in a super tiny office was that he was very trusting and would pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. It was great because I didn't even understand my limitations at the time, and I would go to these meetings with the Cook County Bar Association about digitizing all the court records and say, "Well, Commissioner Quigley thinks this." I was fresh out of school, this young girl with all these old men lawyers, but he had total trust in me.
When Rahm Emanuel went to work in the White House after Obama won, his congressional seat opened up and there was a special election. So Mike ran in the special election, and I got to work on that which was tons of fun, and he won. Then he said, "What do you want to do? Do you want to stay in Chicago and work in my district office, or do you want to come to DC and do legislation on the hill?" And that was a no-brainer. So I moved to DC in 2009.
When I was working on the Hill, I worked with the FDA on changing the lifetime blood ban on men who have sex with men. It said, essentially, that if you’re a man and you've had sex even one time with another man since 1985, you cannot ever donate blood. I worked really hard for about two years to get that lifetime ban lifted, and to change it to a five-year deferral, which is not ideal, but it can ramp down to a one-year deferral, and then eventually a behavior-based approach, which just means only deferring people from donating blood who engage in risky behavior. That was something I was quite proud to work on.
I left the Hill almost five years ago, and I went to the United Nations Foundation to work on international health with a focus on gender, on girls’ and women's health and rights. It's a little bit convoluted, but the US government is the largest funder of international women's health programs around the world, and funding for those programs is incredibly important for global development, particularly in low-income countries that really rely on US assistance to provide basic healthcare like contraception and prenatal care, and programs to end gender-based violence, genital mutilation, and child marriage.
Because I had worked on that portfolio when I was on the Hill, I knew how things worked there so I could design successful strategies to move the needle on those issues. What I mostly did for three years was grant money and think through strategy and go up to the Hill and do direct advocacy with congressmen and senators. But for the last two years, I've been working on a project with big international companies, so sort of shifting my focus. I work with companies that have large supply chains around the world to implement workplace health and wellness programs; think textiles, apparel, electronics, some agriculture like tea, coffee, cocoa, companies that employ a lot of women in developing countries.
The idea is that for a lot of these big brands, there's a return on investment when their workers are healthier; they're more productive, there's less turnover, less absenteeism. The thinking is that a lot of women have unmet health needs, so what role can the private sector play in helping to make sure that they have access to basic health information and services that they need to be healthy, productive people, and of course, healthy, productive workers.
I was really proud last year to secure 10 private-sector commitments to implement workplace women's health and wellness programs that we're now seeing come to fruition. There are tens of thousands more women who will now have access to care because these companies are stepping up in a big way. I'm excited to take that work forward, because I feel like I've really just dipped my toe into it.
I think a lot of jobs, you're technically performing, but are you doing anything that will actually make a difference? I try to challenge myself to really answer that honestly, and if I'm not happy with the answer, to change what I'm doing. That’s part of why I've changed jobs every two to five years in search of an impact. I have secured funding to do this work for two years, so I will stick with it for two years, but I'm also getting a second graduate degree. Here's a lesson for students: lifelong learning. You're not just going to go to college and then you're done, especially in today's economy. There's always skill-building that you can do, whether it's data analysis or AI or whatever the new thing is.
I'm getting a second master's in public health from the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins. It took me a while to figure this out and it actually took me doing work at the UN Foundation to figure out that I want to work on designing and reforming healthcare systems to improve outcomes. But I didn't figure that out until I was 30. And luckily I have a job that I can work full-time and do this at night, and I have a partner that enables me to change careers, and I have an income that enables me to pay for this. So I acknowledge it as a luxury, but I'm not satisfied and I'm looking to change.
Without getting on my soapbox, I think anyone who has done anything on public policy or healthcare knows America's healthcare system is broken and it's going through a time of really exciting upheaval. Compared to other sectors, healthcare is so behind on electronics, it's behind on customer service. There's a revolution of sorts going on right now to move from a system that is extremely expensive and delivers really poor outcomes, to one that can actually reduce costs and produce better outcomes. So that's a really exciting space to be in.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think that our society is moving toward an increased importance of data and the availability of data in all fields. One disservice I see is that women and girls are not taught to focus on math and science as much as we should. Or at least I wasn't. I think that making sure that students have a fairly deep understanding of statistics and data analysis, and the ability to use Excel and not just Word is going to be increasingly critical in any job, and I wish I’d had a stronger base. If you're in school and you're going to get a degree, focus on those hard skills. Those are harder to learn on the job.
And I wish I had been given a structure for how to think about what I wanted to do that was not so focused on a topic, like the way we have majors, but was more focused on a skill set. It would have been helpful if someone had asked me, "What type of work do you want to do? Do you love to just sit in a library and research?" Or, "Are you a super extrovert, and you love being around people?" Or, "Are you a big-picture thinker and you're really good at systems thinking?"
We don't necessarily design coursework around that, but I feel like so many people come to me and say, "I want to work for the UN." And I don’t know what that means. Do you want to work in the field? Do you get a lot of satisfaction from being with people? Okay. Then you should run a program. You should get program skills like how to run a budget, how to execute deliverables, how to design a timeline, program management skills. Or do you want to be a researcher at the UN? Or are you a mover and shaker and you want to be on the political side of things? Or do you want to go through laws with a fine-tooth comb? You can have a passion, but it would be really helpful if earlier on people started asking, "What type of work do you want to do?"
People change careers five to seven times in their lives, so just go and do and try, and you change later. It's fun. I've done that and it's challenging, but you can do it and it's more dynamic, I think. If you’re going to college, you’ve already got a leg up on so many other people, so understand your privilege and do something with it.