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Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet of Merck for Mothers: “Good leaders open doors and look for opportunities for team members to move on and move ahead”

I have found that many of my leadership lessons crystallized when I recognized them through the prism of motherhood: When my daughters tell me to let them do things on their own and ask me to trust them, I am reminded that good leaders leave their teams feeling empowered. When my daughters try and make […]

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I have found that many of my leadership lessons crystallized when I recognized them through the prism of motherhood:

When my daughters tell me to let them do things on their own and ask me to trust them, I am reminded that good leaders leave their teams feeling empowered.

When my daughters try and make me choose whose cookies are the best, I am reminded that the diverse contributions of team members need to be acknowledged and valued.

When I discover how different my daughters are from me, as well as from each other, I reminded that good leaders allow team members to lean into their strengths.

When I find myself frustrated because I receive monosyllabic answers from my teenager, I am reminded that my team can’t read my mind, and I need to give direct and open feedback.

And as the specter of college grows closer and they will (hopefully) leave the house, I am reminded that good leaders open doors and look for opportunities for team members to move on and move ahead.


As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing. Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet.

Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet has two decades of experience improving healthcare outcomes for vulnerable populations and transforming healthcare delivery at the frontlines. She is the lead & executive director of Merck for Mothers, Merck’s $500M global health initiative to help create a world where no woman has to die while giving life. Between 2011 and 2019, Merck for Mothers’ maternal health programs and partnerships have resulted in healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries for over 10M women in 48 countries.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I remember looking out the car window on the way to school and seeing, along the highway median, an adolescent girl selling fruits from a tray on her head. She walked by swiveling her hips because her legs were misshapen from what I later learned was rickets — a nutritional deficiency. She was also holding the hand of a young boy, likely her younger brother, who was in a uniform and likely on his way to school. I remember thinking that something was inherently unfair about this picture.

Looking back, I think it subconsciously crystallized the relationship between health, education and economic empowerment. How women and girls were — and still are — losing out on the positive ripple effects of that relationship. It all starts with staying alive and healthy, and that belief catalyzed my career in medicine and health.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Merck, we are inspired by a shared vision and mission to save and improve lives. For more than 125 years, the company has been tackling some of the world’s most complex health challenges, whether it be Ebola, HIV/AIDS, or maternal deaths. We are inventing for life — making a difference in the world by harnessing science and translating it into innovative solutions. Merck for Mothers reflects our commitment as a company to use our scientific and business expertise to catalyze sustainable solutions that deliver value for society — today and for future generations.

Women dying during and after childbirth is not something that can be fixed with a silver bullet. These deaths are most commonly a result of many different factors, including factors outside of the health care system. I often say that maternal mortality is not just a vital sign of a health system but a vital sign of society.

For example, the United States is the only high-income country with maternal mortality on the rise, and the racial disparities in maternal health are stark and persistent. According to the CDC, a Black woman is about three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy or childbirth complication than a White woman. Merck for Mothers isinvesting in our communities and addressing some of the root causes of these inequalities. We are proud to be among those tackling major health disparities, such as access to care, that still exist in our society today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

To help reduce maternal deaths and narrow disparities in the U.S., we launched an initiative called Safer Childbirth Cities. The initiative aims to foster local solutions that help cities become safer — and more equitable — places to give birth. A big focus of this work is supporting coalitions that are delivering on what women say they want and need, as well as bridging the divide between clinic and community.

Last year, we announced the first ten city-based coalitions — all the way from Chicago to New Orleans and Atlanta and it’s been incredibly exciting to witness the momentum that is building. These organizations are pulling more partners into their efforts, making linkages across sectors, sharing their approaches and powering each other’s efforts.

We’ve also worked to model partnership at the funding level so that we can reach more cities and bring additional expertise and experience to this national effort. We are looking forward to announcing details about the next phase of the initiative later this year.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No. We may be making progress in some areas — we do see more women receiving degrees in STEM or working in these fields — but we need to look more closely. Progress has been uneven and selective and is still fragile. Not all STEM fields are seeing increasing numbers of women; we still see racial disparities; and we still see a huge drop off in the leadership pipeline.

When I was finishing medical school, I remember wondering why — despite the fact that our graduating class was 51% female –all the people matching in neurosurgery were male and most of the people matching in primary care were female. Until more women can speak to having positive lived experiences in these roles, I don’t think we will see a major shift. And that will not happen without societal and workplace conditions that allow for full participation in both work and other aspects of our lives — and we feel comfortable bringing our authentic selves into the workplace.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I have found that many of my leadership lessons crystallized when I recognized them through the prism of motherhood:

  1. When my daughters tell me to let them do things on their own and ask me to trust them, I am reminded that good leaders leave their teams feeling empowered.
  2. When my daughters try and make me choose whose cookies are the best, I am reminded that the diverse contributions of team members need to be acknowledged and valued.
  3. When I discover how different my daughters are from me, as well as from each other, I reminded that good leaders allow team members to lean into their strengths.
  4. When I find myself frustrated because I receive monosyllabic answers from my teenager, I am reminded that my team can’t read my mind, and I need to give direct and open feedback.
  5. And as the specter of college grows closer and they will (hopefully) leave the house, I am reminded that good leaders open doors and look for opportunities for team members to move on and move ahead.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Bring your authentic self to work. I know its advice that’s out there, but I’ve come to value it even more as I grow in my career. I’ve found that it is easier to surface what you do best as well as share unique — and valuable — insights with your team in this mode. Importantly, it also supports a culture of diversity and inclusion by giving implicit permission to those around you to do the same.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The most important advice I can give is take the time to build a team by finding the right team members. Oftentimes you may want to rush to fill a gap because of the workload but waiting to find the person who is right fit is always worth it. When I was part of an admissions committee, we would look at an individual’s academic overview, but it would often come down to one question: would you trust this person to take care of your patient during an emergency in the middle of the night?

That experience taught me the importance of hiring people who are not afraid to admit they don’t know the answer and recognize that can’t do it on their own. So much can be learned on the job, but ultimately you need to trust in your team’s ability to make the right decisions. If you hire the right people — they will manage the large team for you!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are too many to count. What I will say is that it wasn’t always a formal mentorship or action on my behalf. Many times, it was a small interaction or witnessing an off the cuff moment that still sticks with me decades later. What that’s taught me is to never underestimate the power of your words or actions in the blur of the everyday to make an impact.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Merck for Mothers, our mission is to help create a world where no woman has to die giving life. Since we started in 2011, we’ve helped more than ten million women have safer pregnancies and deliveries in 48 countries. There’s progress underway but much still to do, and we’re collaborating with organizations around the world to ensure the momentum continues and is as scalable and sustainable as possible. On the micro level, it’s the doors and windows you open for others so that their power for good is unleashed into the world.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” — Marianne Williamson

I think for me; this quote speaks to the fear of the unknown. I’m a planner and someone who likes to make sure I can deal with all contingencies. I have no problem envisioning the additional responsibilities that arise from being in a place of “power.” I have less imagination when it comes to envisioning the expansion of tools to tackle those responsibilities. Luckily you can trick you brain into creating new neural pathways just by performing the actions!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michelle Obama. She has been an incredible advocate for women and girls both at home in the U.S. and around the world. As the self-described Mom-in-Chief, I’d love to hear her thoughts on how we support all mothers to stay alive and healthy.

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