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Helene Gayle

President & CEO

Atlanta, GA

As women, we tend to feel like we need to be perfect before we can make a move. Instead, it’s our imperfections and our willingness to take risks that allow us to grow and succeed.

I got into the work that I do because I always knew that I wanted to contribute to positive social change and create major impact; that has always been my guiding framework. I was given certain opportunities, a good education, a decent brain and the ability to work well with people. I decided I needed to use those attributes to be influential both in terms of what I could accomplish in my job as well as what I could accomplish as a person. I am not ambitious in a personal sense, but also appreciate that the more you achieve, the more you can influence.

In college, I was very active. I was head of the Black Student Union and was involved in student politics. I grew into someone who appreciated how working collectively can accomplish change and positive action.

I went to medical school because I wanted to have a career that would allow me to use tangible skills to make a difference. Health is central to people’s lives, both on an individual level as well as globally. If you are a physician in a clinical practice you affect individuals one at a time. While this was appealing to me,  I gravitated toward public health. There was something about having great social impact that caught my attention and inspired me.

I found that while my motivation was clear, my path was not. Each step of the way was very frightening as I had to take more and more risks. I was trained as a pediatrician and most of my peers were following the traditional clinical path. I started to doubt myself. Had I wasted the last three years of my life? Would I enjoy this new arena? Would I feel lesser than my peers because I was no longer a clinician?

Many people didn’t understand my choice, but it spoke to me. I realized I could go to a two-year training program and hedge my bets—I had already done three for my clinical speciality. I could always come back to clinical medicine if I realized I had been mistaken.

So I took a chance and found myself working with the CDC. I spent more than 20 years working in various roles of the organization and taking many non-traditional paths, learning everything I needed to know about health and public policy.

I was then recruited by the Gates Foundation early on in its evolution. I was young but had the resources and the clout to make a difference. I learned a lot from that job. I feel the same way about CARE. In fact, all of the positions prior to CARE have prepared me for my current role.

Throughout my career, I’ve followed my gut and challenged myself to develop different parts of my skill set and expertise. I’ve also sought to build out different parts of my personality.

Part of that drive is very personal: I like continued growth. I get bored if I am doing the same thing, even if it's comfortable. I really do feel like I have been given the opportunity to have difference and influence, so I see it as my responsibility.

Above all, I believe women should take more risks—and keep being willing to take risks. Women tend to feel like we have to get everything “right” before we make a move; we have to be perfect. I think it holds us back. As women, we tend to feel like we need to be perfect before we can make a move. Instead, it’s our imperfections and our willingness to take risks that allow us to grow and succeed.

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