Charlie Hale: Building a movement of young leaders in global health

The mission of Global Health Corps is to build a diverse community of leaders to build the movement for global health equity. Image by Global Health Corps

Young people have much to contribute to the field of global health, says a co-founder of Global Health Corps. It's about matching their skills with the specific problems that health care providers and nonprofits face.

Global Health Corps, a nonprofit that recruits young professionals to work in the field of global health, is based on two simple ideas, says Charlie Hale.

The first is that health care is more complex than just health. It requires skills far beyond the medical field, from disciplines such as architecture, human resources and supply chain management.

“And the second idea is that we wanted to get people with those diverse skills working in global health,” said Hale, a co-founder of Global Health Corps. “We felt like young people have a lot of talent, but it was about applying that more efficiently and effectively.”

Founded in 2008, Global Health Corps pairs young professionals with health clinics and nonprofits in East Africa and the United States that can use their skills and talents.

“We go to partner nonprofits and ask, ‘What’s a problem you’re trying to solve that requires a skill set you don’t have?’”

Charlie HaleHale is a public policy and government relations senior analyst for Google. Before joining Google in 2006, he worked for a year with the U.S. Department of State as a critical language fellow. He and a small group of other 20-somethings -- including Barbara and Jenna Bush -- launched Global Health Corps in 2008 after attending a conference on AIDS sponsored by UNAIDS and Google.

Hale was at Duke earlier this year to address the Karsh International Scholars Program and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about Global Health Corps.

It’s a nonprofit we started in 2008 to build a movement of young leaders in global health.

Our approach rests on two ideas. The first is that health care is more complex than just health. It has problems that require skills that doctors and nurses don’t always have, skills from outside the medical field. It takes architects designing more innovative hospitals. It takes people who know supply chain to move drugs from Point A to Point B more efficiently. It takes people who can write grant applications.

And the second idea is that we wanted to get people with those diverse skills working in global health. We felt like young people have a lot of talent, but it was about applying that more efficiently and effectively.

We had seen a lot of volunteer programs where young people would go and do a clinic in the field and then just observe and help out. But sometimes they were actually more of a liability and weren’t adding value.

The insight we had is that young people do have a lot to add. It’s about figuring out what their skills are and matching those with a problem that a clinic or a nonprofit might have.

We go to partner nonprofits and ask, “What’s a problem you’re trying to solve that requires a skill set you don’t have?”

The answers are overwhelming: “We have tons of challenges. We don’t have computer science skills. We don’t have programmers who can build databases. We don’t have architects who can design our clinics. We don’t have good writers who can write our grant applications.”

So we recruit young professionals with those skills. We put them in teams of two and embed them in these nonprofits to work on a project for one year.

The results have been great. We went from 22 fellows in the first year to more than 100 in our current class.

We’re based mostly in East Africa and also in the U.S. The U.S. has its own health challenges, so we wanted to create cross-country partnerships. We didn’t want it to be a U.S. nonprofit going into Rwanda to help the Rwandans.

We felt like there were things that professionals working in Rwanda could apply here in the U.S. So all our fellowship teams are one in-country fellow and one international fellow paired together.

Q: What tipped you to the idea that health care was about more than a doctor and a nurse, that it required the skills of other professionals, too?

We talked to Paul Farmer, who came on as an adviser, and he said he wanted young people to volunteer for his nonprofit, Partners In Health, but he didn’t want them to be a drag on their work. He said it would be tremendously valuable if there was a way to match some skill that they have with something that his nonprofit needed.

So we asked, “What are the problems you have that you don’t have the skills to solve?”

He told us he had HR issues and needed help figuring out how to best staff their clinics. So we worked with Harvard Business School and got some young professionals who knew how to design HR programs to go in and help.

He also told us they kept all their medicines in one clinic in the city but had problems getting them out efficiently to their network of smaller clinics in rural areas.

So we took a young guy who worked at Gap in supply chain management. He was a wizard at figuring out how to get sweaters from Indonesia to the U.S. He wanted to do something that was service-oriented, so he joined Global Health Corps, and he and his partner redesigned the supply chain for a clinic in Rwanda.

Q: Some people have compared Global Health Corps to Teach For America.

Teach For America was a big inspiration for us, because it helped change the conversation around education. It showed young graduates who might have gone to work for Morgan Stanley that teaching can teach you leadership skills. It can teach you how to have executive presence. It can teach you how to manage the hardest people to manage, which are kids.

After two years, you might decide you want to become a teacher, and even if you don’t, the chances are you’re going to be involved in your local schools. You’re going to tutor after work. You’re going to be involved in education.

We saw what TFA did for education, and we wanted to replicate that for public health. That guy who worked in supply chain is now back at Gap, but he’s thinking more about how to be more socially responsible. I’ll put my money on him becoming an amazing social entrepreneur and using his skills for good rather than just staying on his corporate track.

Q: What do you look for in your fellows and in the organizations where you place them?

We talked a lot about that when we started, about the skills and worldview and values that we wanted, and it came down to two important things.

One was a dedication to service. We wanted people who were dedicated to helping others, because when you’re out in the field in Tanzania -- or Newark, New Jersey -- things can get tough. We wanted people who were resilient and dedicated to helping others.

And the second and related thing was humility. We wanted people who were humble and hardworking. Humility was a big piece of our founding of Global Health Corps.

We had ideas of how we thought we could improve global health, but we also recognized that we didn’t have all the answers. So we went into the founding of Global Health Corps asking really smart people how to make our model better. We would go to people and ask, “What’s wrong with this model? Please teach us everything you know about global health and help us make this a better nonprofit.”

That bought us credibility. It helped open doors to a lot of new partners, and it led to this partnership model that we have that has been a big success.

Q: That humility was also combined with an amazing audacity and boldness. You had six young people sitting around asking, “How can we fix global health?”

Yeah. When you think of humility, you think of being deferential or not being ambitious. We had tremendous energy and enthusiasm, but we also recognized that we were young and had a lot to learn.

We also spent a lot of time when we founded it asking why we should do it in the first place. We promised ourselves that we would check our egos at the door, and if we found another organization that was achieving what we wanted to achieve, then we would just help them improve their organization.

We didn’t want to start a nonprofit just for the sake of doing it. We wanted to do it because it was actually providing something unique and valuable.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges in starting and growing Global Health Corps?

When we started, it was the recession. It was tough to go to people and say, “Hey, we’re these young, unproven people that have this idea that we think will work. Please give us money.”

That was a tough sell, so the first was just getting credibility, getting financial support, getting partnerships, but fortunately we got supported by Google. They were our first grant giver, and having that initial support was huge. It opened a ton of doors, because when we’d go to the Gates Foundation or Clinton Foundation or anyone else, we could say, “Google.org supported us. We’ve thought really hard about this. We have great advisers on board.”

The second challenge was making sure that our fellows had everything they needed out in the field. We want to support them and set them up for success, so we work hard to define what the project is before they go and have really clear expectations about what they’re supposed to achieve.

And then also to have a strong partner organization that can constantly give us feedback. A lot of partner organizations say, “Yeah, this has been really successful, and we want to have a fellow back next year.” That’s a big metric for success for us.

Q: Talk some about Google, where you work. All this grew out of a meeting that Google sponsored, the aids2031 conference. Tell us about that.

Google.org hosted a conference, aids2031, that was meant to ask, “Who are the next generation of young leaders in public health?” A lot of leaders in public health were retiring, and they wanted to think about how to encourage young people to get involved.

My friend Andrew Bentley, who worked at Google, attended that conference and met Jenna Bush and a guy named Jonny Dorsey from Stanford, and the three of them were talking about what’s the ideal organization to help encourage people to get involved in public health.

The thing they kept coming back to was Teach For America and how it had encouraged people who wouldn’t have otherwise gone into teaching to consider that career path.

So we thought through how we could apply a similar idea to global health, and that was the beginning of Global Health Corps. The six of us huddled in Jenna’s apartment in Baltimore for a long weekend -- locked the door and brainstormed for hours on what that vision looked like.

Q: Tell us about your work at Google. You’re a public policy and government relations senior analyst.

It’s totally separate from Global Health Corps. I was interested in Global Health Corps because I’m really interested in global health and how someone starts an organization or a movement, how you convince people to get behind a cause.

At Google, I work on public policy and government affairs for our geo products -- so Google Maps and Google Earth and Street View -- and then I also work on Google X, which is the experimental group at Google that does things like self-driving cars and Project Glass.

Q: Why is it important to have a unit like Google X, a “skunkworks”?

It’s important to think about problem solving in a big way, to say, “We’re not going to just make incremental progress; we need to think about problems from a ‘moonshot’ perspective.”

Astro Teller, the head of Google X, always talks about, “If I told you tomorrow that your car didn’t have to get 50 miles per gallon but had to get 500 miles per gallon, you would be forced to start over. You couldn’t just take the current system and make an incremental improvement. You’d have to start from scratch.”

You ask yourself, “If I had to start over, how would I approach this problem?”

That can be an important way to try to tackle problems.

Q: Were there particular insights from your work at Google that helped you in launching and running Global Health Corps?

I think so. Google’s focus on data and being rigorous about hitting certain milestones [were things] we really wanted to bring to Global Health Corps, and I think we have.

We have really focused on data, on what are the pieces that make a project successful, and being intellectually honest about setting expectations.

We sit down with the partner nonprofits and say, “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve, and what’s a project that we can design around this problem?” Then we list the key objectives to reach that goal, and then if we hit, we hit, and if we don’t, then we don’t, but we’re brutally honest with ourselves about if we’re successful or not.

We also embrace technology. All our fellows blog all the time and capture videos of their experiences. We’re trying to be as innovative and as embracing of technology as possible.

Q: What connects all your work? You went from a being critical language fellow in Arabic at the State Department to Google and then creating Global Health Corps.

I think the thing that connects it all is an openness to new experiences, to kind of speaking to strangers and being open to new ideas and new problems that you want to try to solve.

Global Health Corps started because I spoke to my now best friend, Andrew Bentley, at work, who was a total stranger, and he had the courage to speak to Jenna Bush for the first time at this conference, who then became a good friend, and it was that openness to meeting new people and new experiences that built Global Health Corps.