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Women Who Lead- Suzanne Powell (Part 1)


 

Our LYP Women Who Lead series features women from diverse backgrounds and industries who share powerful insights and advice they have learnt from their career while navigating various challenges.


In February – Black History month, I had a chat with Suzanne Powell, a global health leader and epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a great example of Black Excellence in STEM.


During this interview, I enjoyed learning about her career trajectory which started from a ‘detour’, her experience of failure right at the start of her career and the benefit that this had on refining her path. I was inspired by her story of the impact of a sponsor or an ally on one’s career and I found the tips she shared for navigating discrimination very useful.


What’s your story and journey as a leader working in Global Health - how have you gotten here?


My journey to being an epidemiologist and leader in global health was not a straight trajectory, and I can chalk it up to 3 defining moments or approaches: First, by stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new. I never imagined that I would do global health, especially to the capacity in which I do now as I did not take the usual track.

Secondly, through a lot of prayer. Lastly, I credit getting into global health to the support of a mentor, who was a woman from a racialized group herself and who believed in my skillsets and capacity.


I was working in an epidemiology-related position after my graduate degree for about 3 years, and then the 2010 earthquake in Haiti happened. Although I hadn’t been aware that the opportunity existed and probably would not have believed in myself enough to apply, my mentor put my name forward and recommended me to lead a team of responders from my organization to work with the Haitian Ministry of Health and other international partners to set up an integrated disease surveillance system. And that was my start in global health. I remember feeling inadequate for many reasons including my prior lack of international experience, but she provided, at the time, reassurances to me about my capacity to take initiative, my knowledge of working in surveillance and my overall diplomatic skillsets.

So, I really do commend my mentor who at the time could see the skillsets that I did not see in myself and encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone. Due to that experience, I have since gotten progressive roles in global health, leading various teams and initiatives which has been a journey of discovering my natural skills and growing many leadership traits that have helped me achieve success in global health to date.


What is your favorite detour or failure in your career, and how did that set you up for even more success?


I would not call it a failure. I prefer to name it a hiccup or a detour because every step led me to another opportunity. So, my favorite detour happened right at the start of my career. I started in the nursing school program right after high school and failed one of my first-year core courses by a grade. I was absolutely devastated because I’d never failed anything in my life, and it had always been my biggest fear. But it made me step back and reevaluate my interests and goals. I realized I had the worst case of anxiety every time I had my hospital rotations and had to deal with patients – I hated it! I ended up repeating the year I failed and completing 2 years of a 3-year program before I withdrew from the program. It was great that I was young at the time and so I took the time to piece together my interests and build a career from those building blocks.


I knew that I enjoyed working in health but not at the individual level and that I also enjoyed the behavioral aspects of health. This led me to study health at the population level. And honestly, nursing provided a lot of transferrable skills to public health, so it wasn’t a complete loss.


Working in global health also helped me realize I loved travelling, working with global partners to investigate and dismantle complex problems, and support disease control, prevention, and elimination through evidence-based interventions. I have since identified other natural gifts, such as my diplomacy and sound judgement that team together to make me a perfect fit for global health.


So that’s how I got here – by failing out of nursing school and although that was uncomfortable, I do not think that I took the wrong path. What I learned is that I tried it and it didn’t work. Clarity comes from action.

What’s the best work-related advice you’ve ever received, and how did it help you?


Everything comes around full circle. Through the LYP program we were coached on ‘tooting our own horn’, which I never fully understood the importance of until recently. The best advice, which was reiterated to me in the last 6 months has been to, ‘Stop being so humble’. My current team lead keeps reminding and encouraging me to share my accomplishments and skills (appropriately, of course), whenever the opportunity presents itself, such as when I’m introducing myself on a conference call or in a meeting. There is so much merit in doing that as it sets the stage for the interaction and may lead to other opportunities. It also boosts your self-esteem and confidence. So, I would say, toot your own horn and stop being so humble.


What is your experience as a Black Woman in your career, and as a black woman generally? How, and to what extent has your ethnic/racial identity impacted your career, and how have you navigated this?


There’s no denying that being a woman in the health sector is hard and being a Black woman in the health sector is even harder.


I have faced microaggressions in the workplace including being called the assistant by my peers, being interrupted and having my ideas dismissed in meetings, only for someone else to say the same thing and have it welcomed with praise. Research has shown that Black women in the workforce face more bias and systemic racism than women of other races and ethnicities.

I’m grateful for the LYP program that not only allowed the space to speak about some of these incidents, but also provide some tools to my arsenal to directly navigate dealing with uncomfortable, micro-aggressive situations.


Overall, I try not to reflect on discrimination, and I work to build up my resilience. I have also been very blessed and fortunate to have allies, such as my sister, who encourage me to use my voice, remind me that my voice is powerful, and that I deserve a seat at the table.

Stay tuned for part 2 where Suzanne shares on how to navigate discrimination and build a strong community that can be leveraged for a successful career.


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adetola Oladimeji is a medical doctor and a global health leader who is deeply interested in the use of digital health technologies for optimizing population health outcomes. She is committed to lifelong learning, continuous personal development, and intentional community building. Check out her research and other publications here.

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