Global Health: Investing And Building Structures For Future Success


Mary-Ann Etiebet, MD, MBA

Lead & Executive Director

Merck for Mothers

November 2020


Principal, Population Health, Premier Performance Partners, Premier Inc

Senior Advisor, DSRIP & Population Health, Greater New York Hospital Association

Director, Ambulatory Care Strategies, NYC Health and Hospitals

Assistant Professor, Division of Infectious Disease, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Wife, Sister, Mother of 2

Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet is the Lead & Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, Merck’s $500 million global health initiative to help create a world where no woman has to die while giving life. Dr. Etiebet was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, the eldest of five daughters. Growing up in that society and culture she noticed multiple inequities – gender inequities, economic inequities, health inequities, etc. – that impacted the quality of life. Witnessing that around her sparked an interest to build solutions that would help support equitable access to opportunities, especially as it pertained to gender parity. At Merck, Dr. Etiebet is responsible for developing collaborations and implementing health programs that leverage the private sector for the public good to help end preventable maternal mortality. Since 2011, Merck for Mothers’ programs and collaborations have reached over 11M women in 48 countries through programs promoting safe, high quality, respectful care. Dr. Etiebet is an advocate, physician, virologist, and investor who shares with our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, how she’s building systems today that enable long-lasting progress for tomorrow.

How has your professional and/or academic experience influenced how you approach entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership?

Throughout my professional career, I’ve always worn many hats. In having several responsibilities and roles in one job, I have learned a lot of different things and more importantly, found ways in which multiple variables can fit and work together. Which, I think, and recognize now, is the true spirit of entrepreneurship. The first job I had after college was an experience that has informed much of my career decisions since. I worked for a relatively young, small health advocacy non-profit. The organization was founded by one woman and only had a handful of employees when I joined. As a team, we had to be flexible and fill in for each other to accomplish our goals. After two years, I saw how my work contributed directly towards growing the organization and increasing our reach. What I learned about myself in that time and have carried with me is a love for building from the ground up something that is sustainable and that could be molded to serve populations in need.

Talk about a challenging time through which you had to lead – was there a defining moment? Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

One theme that has continuously come up in my career is how to support people and talent. At Merck, my biggest challenge is finding ways to support women and communities – including back on the African Continent. There is a huge opportunity to invest in local healthcare entrepreneurs and healthcare business owners to help them implement sustainable practices and operate independently of external funding. However, multiple barriers prevent this from happening as fast as I want. One of the biggest obstacles facing social entrepreneurs is how funding decision-making processes are structured and made. It’s hard to make the case for people and organizations that haven’t proven themselves using traditional yardsticks because they don’t have the “right” background. Or, for people and organizations that are based in countries with different tax process, yet such filings are part of evaluations. We have to be intentional because many seemingly objective standards can be exclusionary and hurt, or put at a disadvantage, certain populations. We need to build networks and teams that bring diverse experiences and expertise to inform the decisions we have to make. You can’t know what you don’t know, and I would want my team to inclusionary and be equipped with experiences that make them uniquely suitable to make decisions for these communities because they understand the scenarios, the opportunity, the culture. I think this is how we can move the needle to increase diversity – including from the Continent - by creating pathways of access and opportunity to the healthcare investment dollars that exist for entrepreneurs.

What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health & tech industries?

Our lives can’t be compartmentalized and so I think first recognizing that work and home intertwine. With that in mind, I would say make decisions based on the best-case scenario but have a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario. Being a trailblazer can be risky, but the unknown doesn’t have to be scary if we remind ourselves and others that many things fail. At times in my career, I’ve stayed on the safe side based on what I thought would be the best for my family. But you can’t predict the future so don’t limit your options and possibilities because of your lack of imagination. The perceived culture of entrepreneurship is about risking everything and putting all your bets down for one idea, but that may not be realistic for everyone – including many who come from racial minorities, low socioeconomic background, women, or may not have a college education. So, I also challenge leaders in health and tech to think about how they can create alternatives for those who may have the next best thing but can’t put everything on the line to start a company.

How do you leverage your professional role to advance healthcare and technology in the face of global inequities?

At Merck for Mothers, my team and I are in a privileged position because we can lead on issues like systemic racism and health disparities. After all, it’s in our mandate because those factors are drivers of poor maternal health outcomes. We can speak on systemic racism, which is a driver of these outcomes, and we are able to invest in research and policies to help us understand why and in programs and organizations that are addressing the issue from several different angles. Right now, there is a heightened awareness of and willingness to collaborate towards eliminating racial injustice. It will take more time to address inequities on a global level, but I believe the upcoming generation will have the tools to do so and the interest.

Lecky’s Comments:

Our featured #WCE provides many pearls of wisdom. A key takeaway, however, is that your tolerance for risk is just that, YOURS. It takes time and experience to learn and gauge what that level is yet without taking the risk, perhaps calculated ones, you’ll never know the potentiality of what it is that you seek to accomplish.

If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.

Contact information:

Sharon Mwale       Program Manager        [email protected]

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