Leisa: Hello I’m Leisa Holland Nelson and welcome to another edition of Women Mean Business where we’re going to take you up close and personal with extraordinary women doing extraordinary things. My guest today is Stacy Stewart, the President of the March of Dimes; Stacy welcome to Houston.
Stacy: It’s great to be here.
Leisa: I’m so glad you’re here. I know you made an extraordinary announcement, which I’m going to let you share with our audience when you tell us about March of Dimes and why you’re in Houston.
Stacy: Absolutely, thank you for having me on. So I’m in Houston today to make a big announcement and I’m very excited about it. The March of Dimes – and I just became the President of March of Dimes about 5 months ago – and a lot of people know the March of Dimes but don’t always know what we do. The March of Dimes is the leading organization focusing on healthy babies and healthy moms. A lot of people know the March of Dimes from how we got started by President Roosevelt. In the late 1930s when the Polio epidemic was at its height President Roosevelt put out a call and asked people to give dimes –literally – send dimes into the White House, raising money to find a cure for Polio. And people did.
People literally went to post offices all around the country, mailed in dimes in envelopes to the White House. All of those millions of dollars that got raised were used to fund the eventual Polio vaccine that was discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk. And that was in the late 1930s, we’re coming up on our 80th anniversary. There are few organizations that can say they set out to accomplish one really big health related challenge and they did it; we did it. But when we did that we decided to continue to focus on other things that would improve the life and health of babies and children.
And so over the course of 80 years the March of Dimes has continued to invest in cutting edge medical research to find new advances that would improve the health of newborn babies and help make sure that moms have all the support and help they need to have healthy babies. So a lot of people don’t know that the fact that women know to take folic acid to prevent neural tube birth defects, that comes from the research of the March of Dimes. When a baby is born and receives an Apgar score, well Virginia Apgar was the Chief Medical Officer of the March of Dimes for a time. When your baby gets a little heel prick and there’s a newborn screening that’s done, that comes from both the research and the advocacy of the March of Dimes. And today what the March of Dimes is focused on is making sure all babies are born healthy, especially looking at the issue of preterm birth.
So today 1 out of every 9 or 10 babies is born too soon and it is the leading cause of death for newborn babies – it’s the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 0 and 5. It’s a very significant health crisis, probably the most significant health crisis that faces children and babies today and so we are putting everything that we have into funding research, making sure that there’s education provided and information provided to mothers to have healthy pregnancies; doing advocacy and all the things that are really required to try to bring an end to pre-maturity.
Leisa: I’m stunned because I know you know that in Houston alone there are 100,000 babies born every year so we’re talking about 9 or 10,000 premature births that are at risk. It’s a very significant number.
Stacy: It’s very significant and what a lot of people don’t realize – and a lot of people think well the baby was born and it survived so it should be all fine. Well the fact of the matter is is when a baby is born preterm that baby often is subject to lifelong health challenges from all kinds of physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy; many other lifelong challenges that make it very challenging over the course of that baby and that young person’s life. We estimate that preterm birth costs this country about $26 billion a year.
Leisa: Which is phenomenal.
Stacy: Which is phenomenal.
Leisa: And that’s where corporations start paying attention, when you put the number to it. But as tough a challenge as that is, what you’re here announcing today is very exciting so spill the beans.
Stacy: The great thing about coming to Houston is that you can come to the world’s leading, largest group of health institutions anywhere in the world. The Texas Medical Center houses some of the best minds in medicine, the best minds in perinatal support, and so we had an idea with some volunteers actually here in Houston, to develop a new center housed right here in the Texas Medical Center to focus on perinatal safety. So one of the things that all sectors look at is how they can improve safety in their industry; the airline industry does it, the energy sector does it.
Well so does the healthcare sector and part of what we want to make sure of at the March of Dimes is that whether it’s from pre-conception through pregnancy, through labor and delivery and then going home that babies are as healthy as they possibly can be; to help them thrive and survive and that parents have the support they need to know how to keep their babies healthy. But hospital personnel for example know what they need to do in the hospital setting to keep babies safe. And so we created and announced today the formation of the first ever – first of its kind – perinatal safety center, very exciting, in partnership with UT Health and Children’s Memorial Hermann’s Hospital. And what we will do is work with investigators and researchers to identify those practices and those protocols that will actually ensure – if hospitals implement them – that perinatal safety is at the highest level it can possibly be. And if you’ve ever been into a NICU you understand what a delicate health setting that is and how important it is to maintain a clean environment, how susceptible newborns are to infection and disease and germs.
That’s just one example of some of the things that the center will be looking at in addition to other things like making sure that mothers get flu vaccines so that their babies are healthy as well. So there are a range of things that the center will do but I’m just so excited because Houston is on the cutting edge of medical research, of innovation, and that’s what the March of Dimes is today. From 80 years ago our founding around Polio to now being a leading innovator in medical research focusing on healthy moms, healthy babies, we have to partner with the best minds in the world – in this country and around the world – to make sure that we’re delivering in the best way possible to give every baby a fighting chance.
Leisa: Well we’re thrilled to be part of it here in Houston.
Stacy: I’m so thrilled that you’re a part of it, absolutely.
Leisa: But Stacy I know this is not your first rodeo as we say down here in Texas. I want you to tell us a little bit about what you did before March of Dimes.
Stacy: So I came to March of Dimes from 7 years at United Way Worldwide, 4 of which I served as the U.S President overseeing 1100 local United Ways all around the country as part of the worldwide network for United Way. Great experience, I also spent a few years working in leading our global impact areas of education and common health in United Way; fantastic organization. Before that I served as the President and CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation and also worked for a number of years in Fannie Mae on the company side; the foundation and the company were actually separate – related but separate – so I spent 17 years at Fannie Mae and the Fannie Mae Foundation.
And then before that I actually worked on Wall Street. I spent about 5 years working in the area of public finance. I was in New York and then a smaller firm in Atlanta, where I’m from originally, for a number of years and it was great experience. My route to the March of Dimes is not traditional. I’m not a doctor by training, I’m not a medical researcher by training, but I have been very involved in business. I went to business school at the University of Michigan and I focused on finance and again worked on Wall Street and have a business background, so my strength is really in managing large scale organizations but towards an end that is about improving the public interest.
And that’s something that I was always really passionate about; I really wanted to focus on finance and business but every day I wanted to do that towards improving someone else’s life or improving community. So working at Fannie Mae and the Fannie Mae Foundation, the United Way and now the March of Dimes has given me the opportunity. And really the opportunity to come to the March of Dimes is incredible; the legacy of this organization, the founding from President Roosevelt. I’m the 5th President, the 2nd woman, the 1st African American to lead this incredibly historic organization; it’s just an amazing opportunity. And to leverage my skills in managing and creating the next generation with the March of Dimes is intending to become as an organization, to build off of our legacy but be looking forward, is really a great honor.
And it’s allowing me to use all of my management, business, finance creative skills, but also my dad was a doctor. He was a physician for 50 years, was very dedicated to the healthcare of everyone. Most of his patients were many African American woman, a lot of them on Medicaid and Medicare, and he really taught me the importance of both being dedicated to your profession but also giving back. He had been the head of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Growing up in Atlanta you become a part of the civil rights movement, it’s unavoidable.
Leisa: I’m sure that’s true.
Stacy: And so those are my role models of Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy and folks like my father and many of his friends who were real trailblazers. And who were committed to excellence in their profession but were also committed to saying part of your life has to be about giving back and being of service. And to do it in the area of health similar to my dad’s career is really a special honor.
Leisa: It’s wonderful. I mean I’m thrilled to have you as a board member of the March of Dimes here in Houston, it’s really so exciting for us.
Stacy: Well it’s our honor, you’re a fantastic volunteer and you’re so committed to us, we appreciate all that you do.
Leisa: Thank you so much. I have one last question for you. I don’t know if you really dreamed of doing this on the swings out in the backyard when you were a little girl. I mean did you really think you’d grow up to lead a national healthcare organization that would really change the world? So that being said tell us what advice do you have for the next generation who would like to achieve your success.
Stacy: Well I’m going to say a couple of things. I’m 53 now.
Stacy: I know, and I don’t know when I was young on the play set I really knew or imagined where I would be but I’m want to say something that is really important. This past weekend I went back to my high school and I was recognized as a distinguished alumni from my high school. I actually went to this school from 7th – 12th grade, it was a great private school in Atlanta and it was a great experience. It didn’t feel like a great experience at the time; it felt pretty daunting, pretty intimidating. I’m not going to say that I was an A+ student, I was good solid B+ student in a very competitive environment.
I was also one of only two African American girls in my class so it was socially very difficult; feeling a part of the campus was hard. It was an honor to go back and be recognized by them as a distinguished alumni because I was pretty much the average, every day student there. But what I learned over the course of my life is really important and I was talking to one of your fellow volunteers here in Houston about this which is that part of the story that I tell about my life now isn’t how I started, it’s where I am today. And I’m not going to say I’m finished yet.
Leisa: No I hope not.
Stacy: But over the course of my career I think one of the things that I can most point to that I’ve learned is it doesn’t matter how you start, what matters is how you continue through your life. And there are books about grit and resilience and I think I’m a poster child for that. I think in many ways – and certainly there are a lot of women that are hardworking, that are persistent and that don’t give up and for me that’s been how I’ve looked at my life. There have certainly been lots of challenges, lots of things I’ve had to overcome, but there’s nothing that replaces working hard and staying committed to what you believe in and what’s important to you and living your passion.
And so when I was able to acknowledge the fact that what I wanted to do was to be in business but do good for others, I stayed focused on I don’t care what else comes my way, that’s what I’m going to focus on because that’s what I love. And you know, it’s just like you, you’re really good at things that you love but it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. You’ve got to also stick with it and have that grit and resilience to just pick yourself back up when you fall down. Or when you are told no you’ve got to keep going. And as women I think that’s particularly important, especially young women and I would say women of color. It’s extremely important to know that it is possible to do anything you want in your life if you put forth the effort and you don’t allow things to knock you down. You’ve got to get back up and keep going.
Leisa: Thank you very much.
Stacy: Thank you.
Leisa: There you have it, another extraordinary woman doing extraordinary things. I’m Leisa Holland Nelson, the Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Astoundz; your one search, one click, one company for all things interactive; website search engine optimization, social media and business solutions. You can find me at Astoundz.com or follow me on Twitter @LHNelson. We’ll be back again next week with another edition of Women Mean Business.
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