Pamela Barnes left a shining corporate career for the underfunded world of nonprofit health. It was the best thing she ever did.
Success is about putting yourself out there and taking a risk, Pamela Barnes says. She ought to know. First, she left a lucrative 20-year career in investment management and corporate finance with GTE and RCA to focus on her passion: women’s health. Then, at age 48, five years into her stint as COO of one of the largest Planned Parenthood affiliates in New York State, she up and headed to Paraguay for the Peace Corps. There she spent two years on the ground delivering family-planning education by bicycle throughout the countryside. Not your typical CEO trajectory.
“I loved working in finance and found it intellectually stimulating, but I knew I wanted to do something more,” explains Barnes, who after returning from her South American sojourn became president and CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Today, her desires and background have come together nicely at EngenderHealth, a leading global women’s health organization based in New York City dedicated to making high-quality family planning and sexual and reproductive health services accessible in 20 countries.
As president and CEO, Barnes, 63, is committed to ensuring that every pregnancy is planned, every child is wanted, and every mother has the best chance at survival.
Diversity Woman caught up with Barnes between global trips to talk about women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and teamwork.
Diversity Woman: Tell us about your assignment in the Peace Corps.
Pamela Barnes: I worked with a male nurse named Javier traveling among five villages to deliver family planning, vaccines, iodine treatment, and any variety of public health interventions. It was truly extraordinary. I would not be here at EngenderHealth today, feeling the great sense of passion of this organization, if I hadn’t had that experience.
DW: How did you have the courage to make that leap?
PB: It’s important to think about how you can put pieces together and how to network with like-minded people. I started by volunteering for Planned Parenthood, and then I was asked to take a position with them. So there were interim steps.
DW: Why are you focused on women’s health?
PB: In the 1970s, I was very interested in issues of women’s reproductive choice and was an activist. Later, I found myself one of very few women in the 1980s in a senior role at major corporations. That was a real awakening for me. I was surprised about the inequalities for women in business. While with the Peace Corps, I got a deep understanding of what it means to live in places where women don’t even have access to the basics. At the end of that experience, I had a neighbor die due to postpartum hemorrhage, which was truly preventable. So there has been a natural coming together in my life of women’s equality and women’s health as they relate to our choices.
DW: What is the driving force behind EngenderHealth?
PB: We want to enable every woman to have the number of children she wants, not the number that her circumstances dictate. We offer a very woman-centered approach to providing tools and quality health services a woman needs to have a healthy pregnancy and healthy children throughout her lifetime.
In the countries where we work, many people don’t even have access to the most basic care. So we are really trying to ensure that those services are there, and that women know they’re there.
DW: How do you use social media?
PB: Four hundred of our 500 workers operate outside the United States. So our backbone is the support we get through the social networks—through people blogging and writing about their own experiences and the work that is related to EngenderHealth. These are critical forms of communication for us. We’re also using mobile technology as information channels for women who need to know about family planning, where they can get services, what information providers need. How exciting is that! It’s transformative in our field.
DW: What characterizes your management style?
PB: I believe in the power of teams. I love the effectiveness of teams that can work together with trust and respect. It’s such an exciting way to work, and really I can’t work any other way.
DW: Has a lot changed for women in business, as you see it?
PB: Women are still not being paid at the same rate as men. Their representation in senior leadership is not adequate. As a woman who was in that world for 20 years plus, I am very disappointed to see the lack of progress. At the same time, women now represent more than half of undergraduate and certain graduate populations, so I have great hope about the next generation of women being able to succeed.
DW: What’s happening for women in other countries?
PB: It’s deeply moving to see what women do with incredibly limited resources. They’ll walk 15 kilometers or more when pregnant to get health care. There is a tremendous amount of courage among them. I’m also inspired by the women leaders I meet in many countries. I often come back and think, “Gee, where are our inspiring voices in the health-care world in the United States?” We’ve had Hillary Clinton and Wendy Davis, but we need more advocates like that.
DW: You attended the Women Deliver summit in Kuala Lumpur in May. Can you share some highlights?
PB: This is the largest global event focused on health and empowerment for girls and women, with the likes of Melinda Gates, Chelsea Clinton, the younger Barbara Bush, and thousands of participants around the world. I participated in workshops and plenaries, but the most fabulous part was simply listening to the real-life experiences of people from developing countries. You could really get a sense of what’s going on, and there was a lot of useful problem solving. Barbara and Chelsea are exciting women to watch in leadership. They created a great buzz there.
DW: You recently launched a new campaign, Fistula-Free Generation. What is that about?
PB: A fistula is an abnormal tear in the bladder or rectum that’s created when a baby gets stuck in the birth canal. The baby in this case is often born dead, and the woman will continue to leak urine or feces, or both, which can make her an outcast because of the odor and the inability to control her bowels. In many countries where we work, a majority of women deliver at home, which puts them at greater risk for obstetric complications, including fistula. EngenderHealth is changing that. We train health-care professionals and educate communities to improve women’s access to family planning and maternal health care, including fistula prevention and treatment services. It is truly life changing for these women.
DW: Do you have advice to women for working in the business world?
PB: Don’t be afraid to take a risk. My father always said, “Go do it. You don’t want to say you should have done it.” It could be as simple as going to knock on your boss’s door if you have an idea.
DW: What is currently on your nightstand for reading?
PB: I just finished Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, which I found incredibly disappointing. Here is a leader in a corporate position, but she had not one constructive policy proposal to improve the lives of working women. I also recently read Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. What an extraordinary woman! And I have just read Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, which is very inspiring to the work we do.
Marguerite Rigoglioso is a regular contributor to DW.