Physician Entrepreneur Makes Career of Building and Transforming Philanthropy Focused on Global Health

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Dr. Akudo Anyanwu is the Vice President of Development and Campaign Strategist with Texas Biomedical Research Institute. She arrived to this position from a journey that has taken her around the world. Learn more about how this physician is leading the charge to raise funds to help protect the global community from the threats of infectious diseases.

Can you share a brief overview of your career?

My story would not be complete without explaining the beginning of my work in global health. I was born in Philadelphia to Nigerian parents – my background is international so global health seemed obvious. When I worked at the Earth Institute at Columbia, I worked with one of the world’s most prominent economists, Jeffrey Sachs. He was trying to raise money globally for AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. He sent me to Rwanda and Nigeria to set up systems and raise funding for treatment of these diseases. It was an enormous job that involved a lot of travel. I met with ministers of health, government agencies, policy experts, NGO’s - it was impactful and kept me going.

After a few years of international work, I went to Emory where I led a coalition for organizations working on soil transmitted diseases. This type of philanthropy was new for me but I knew the diseases of the tropics. I was able to raise the profile, increase the funding received, and create advocacy for those diseases. Returning to the United States was a family decision. I wanted my children to have the experience I had growing up here. I was drawn to the opportunity at Johns Hopkins to serve as the Associate Dean of Development and Alumni Affairs of the Nursing School and then was drawn to Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

What attracted you to the Vice President role at Texas Biomedical Research Institute?

From initial conversations with Lindauer, a move to Texas wasn’t something I thought I would consider. The more I learned about the opportunity, the more I realized I couldn’t say no. I tested it with all of my mentors and the response was the same - “this is your passion; it combines all of your interests; this is right for you.” I felt I could make an impact and once I started meeting people there, I knew it was the right opportunity for me.

What drew you away from practicing medicine to raising funds and establishing programs that address global health issues?

I am committed person – you can’t get through medical school if you aren’t! I studied molecular biology as an undergraduate and took graduate level courses. I started student groups raising awareness for global health issues. Along the way, I realized I was also interested in entrepreneurship. Growing up, our home was like a non-profit. We were always setting up families, raising money for initiatives related to Africa, helping others. I realized I was an entrepreneur at heart – l enjoy business and building things. Switching careers took some courage as this was not common among doctors. I now see physician friends branching out to other things. I couldn’t keep my entrepreneurship under wraps.

What are some of the highlights of your global work?

I am proud of the work I did negotiating with the government of Japan to give $180M to The Global Fund. I had been sent to Japan for a week of meetings with 6-7 meetings/day. I had to make the case why Japan should invest in this fund to solve problems in Africa. I was as nervous as can be. The Japanese have a gifting culture and I had a suitcase full of gifts. I was keenly aware of their culture and made sure I understood the right way to bow, when to make eye contact, etc. All of that was in play and I had my one-year-old and my mother on that trip with me. At the end of it all, we got the money and I still have the scarf the prime minister gave me.

Another highlight was when I worked with the president of Rwanda to host a meeting of private sector leaders across Africa. I arranged for them to see gorillas at a wildlife preserve and visit the monument to the Rwandan genocide. We had an evening event with the president and his wife with musicians from across Africa singing. One of the CEO’s gave a fabulous speech – you could hear purses being opened as he spoke. We raised $2M at that event alone.

What has been the highlight of your career thus far? What has been the biggest challenge?

Highlights and challenges are often connected, don’t you think? To a large extent, the common thread through much of my career has been being the only person in the room that looks like me. A lot of my stories were years ago so this is thankfully changing. It wasn’t strange to me but it was strange for the other people in the room. That can get in the way when people aren't used to dealing with people who look like you.

Your international experience is incredible traveling to more than 30 countries for your work with the Earth Institute alone, how has that shaped how you lead a team?

I have evolved as a leader over the years; and I have learned to look for three things from my team - are they willing, able, and manageable? I need my team to have energy, ability, and manageability. Core for me is creating culture for the long term where people feel trusted, respected, and appreciated. Does my team feel trusted, respected, and recognized? I have to ask myself that question every day. I have to be a steward of their dignity. I am very bold in what I try to do and they have to rise to the challenge. I look for fire in the belly when I hire people because you can’t teach that. As a leader, I have to create something that makes them want to get out of bed every day and do their best work.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self stay on this track and know that you're heading in the right direction. To trust my judgment, ability and trust my gut, it's always right!

Written by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.