Don’t doubt yourself, even when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. For many of us, especially women, there is often a little voice inside our heads questioning whether or not we’re really the right one for the job, whether we really should stretch to propose that new idea, or whether we really can accomplish what we think we can. I’ve had to learn to sometimes tell that little voice to just go away. There are times when things don’t go the way you want them to, but if you learn from that, you still come out ahead…and it does NOT mean you aren’t good enough.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing K-T Overbey.
Katherine G. Overbey (K-T) joined OneSight as the President and Executive Director in 2018, where she leads a global team of employees and volunteers that deliver vision care to millions of people around the world who would otherwise not have access. During her tenure to date, she has developed the organization’s operational excellence across its global vision care programming, while enabling future scale through the development of strategic partnerships and a diversified funding base. Prior to OneSight, Overbey spent over 20 years as a marketing and organizational leader at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Procter & Gamble and Bain & Company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I spent the first 20+ years of my career in the corporate world, working for outstanding companies like Bain & Company and Procter & Gamble, and then decided to take a pause to be a stay-at-home mom to spend more time with my 3 children. After a couple of years, when I decided to return full-time to my career, I thought long and hard about where I wanted to invest my time. I realized that those projects where I felt that my work made a meaningful difference in someone’s life were the ones I was most passionate about and — not surprisingly — were also the ones where I felt I did my best work. For example, I spent 7 years working in P&G’s Feminine Care division on leading brands like Always and Tampax. When you are providing these products to young girls, it’s not just about their physical needs — in many parts of the world, this is what enables a girl to attend school every week of the month vs missing out on her education 25% of the time. Because of this realization, I knew I wanted to focus the rest of my career on mission-based work.
I then worked in public health (at our local children’s hospital) for 6 years, which was fantastic, but I really missed the global aspect of my previous work. I also felt a calling to be even closer to the front lines of making impact. I had been aware of OneSight’s work through colleagues in my network and followed the work of the organization. As I considered different potential paths for my career, I found myself unconsciously comparing them to OneSight. Then I was approached about the search for my current position, and it felt like everything fell into place. I often tell people this is my dream job, and it’s true. I have the honor to lead an amazing organization of passionate people making direct impact on millions of people’s lives, and I truly feel like I can leverage all the skills and experience I developed in my previous roles in order to take OneSight to even greater heights to improve lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the things I love about OneSight’s work is that every individual we help has an interesting story. When we are providing glasses to people at one of our vision centers or through a charitable clinic, there is always the ‘magic moment’ when they see through their new glasses for the first time.
It is amazing to see the reactions of young children and grown adults who are seeing things in a way they haven’t before. We had a young mother in Chile who had never actually seen the faces of her 3 young children before. We welcomed the president of The Gambia to one our vision centers and watched as he realized how much better he could see with his new glasses and how much of a difference this care could make for the people of his country.
Just recently, I watched a 5-year-old boy come into our clinic in New York City, clinging to his mother’s hand and completely drawn into himself, not interacting with anything around him. The boy had never had glasses, but our doctors discovered that he was so near-sighted that he could barely see clearly more than a few inches in front of him. As he wore his new glasses for the first time, he looked around with a wide-eyed, almost stunned look on his face. By the time he left, his entire personality had transformed and he was skipping down the street!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In retrospect, I suppose it’s funny, but at the time it was quite painful. Growing up on Lake Michigan, one of my first jobs was as a lifeguard. One day, I decided to jump down from my very tall guard chair into the sand. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the time to check that the sand was even at the bottom but instead just flung myself off carelessly. The result was a compound dislocation of my right knee, 11 months of having my leg immobilized and 2 surgeries.
“Look before you leap” took on a whole new meaning for me! Since then, while I try not to be overly cautious, I have found that doing a proper amount of homework before I go barging into any recommendation or program usually leads to more satisfactory results. For the record, I did pass my lifeguard test again the following summer, but my story was infamous at the beach for years!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
At OneSight, we believe in a world where access to vision care is no longer a barrier to achieving one’s human potential. By ensuring that anyone who needs a comprehensive eye exam and a pair of glasses to see clearly can have them, we are helping people all around the globe truly live their best lives. I often tell people that this is about so much more than just giving someone a pair of glasses…it’s about helping a child to learn properly, it’s about helping an adult keep doing their job so they can provide for their families or contribute to their communities, and it’s about keeping people safe while they are driving or walking by the side of the road.
1 in 7 people around the globe need a pair of eyeglasses but cannot get them, either because they don’t have access to care, or they can’t afford them. That is 1.1 BILLION people!! We also know that children can learn up to twice as well when they have clear sight. Workers are 35% more productive and can earn up to 20% more with clear sight. In fact, a recent study determined that vision impairment has resulted in lost economic productivity of 410.7 billion dollars globally.
We provide glasses to people through two different models:
1) we establish sustainable vision centers, where we train locals in all the relevant skills (clinical, manufacturing and retail) to run a care center on an ongoing basis that supports itself through the sale of affordable glasses, so that we develop a long-term solution in communities around the world where there was previously no vision care available; and
2) we run short-term charitable clinics to serve the needs of marginalized or disadvantaged populations in need of urgent care. Through both these models, we not only make significant social impact by helping people see, we have also built skills in communities either through job creation in our vision centers or by engaging local volunteers as translators or facilitators in our work.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are many, but one particular person stands out in my mind. In 2019, OneSight conducted its first charitable clinic in the Middle East. Our work was based in northern Jordan, and we served refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, as well as local Jordanians in need. At the end of one day, our final patients were a 17-year old girl named Amal and her mother, who were refugees from the Syrian civil war. Amal’s mother was dressed in a full traditional burqa and spoke no English, but as I passed by and tried to welcome them in my broken Arabic, it became clear that Amal spoke quite good English. As I chatted with her, I learned that she had taught herself English from online media and popular music, but I was the first person she had ever actually spoken to in person. My own daughter (a medical student who speaks excellent Arabic) happened to be volunteering at the clinic with me. With help from translation by Amal and my daughter, the four of us had a wonderful mother-daughter chat where it became clear that despite our very different backgrounds, cultural norms and current circumstances, we had more in common than we thought. It was a wonderful experience of shared humanity.
When Amal and her mother had their full eye exams, the OneSight doctors discovered that Amal had a serious vision impairment in one eye that had gone untreated for years. While they couldn’t fully undo the damage, her new glasses enabled her to read again without headache pain. As someone who clearly loved learning, this brought her great joy. Her mother’s eye exam uncovered a previously undiagnosed cardiac condition, and referral for care was immediately given. It has been 2 years since we first met, but I am still in touch with Amal. Her family continues to go through great challenges in their circumstances, but she is still passionate about reading and studying. I sponsored her to take the TOEFL exam, and her dreams of one day studying to be a doctor are shining bright.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
One of the most important things I do in my role is to look for ways to amplify the breadth and impact of our work. There are ways others can help:
- Raise awareness of just how big the problem is — most people have no idea that so many people around the world have no way to get the care they need and deserve. 1.1 billion people who need glasses is a huge population, and the most vulnerable populations — women and girls, the elderly, displaced persons — are disproportionally affected. Furthermore, unlike other very serious global health issues, this problem is completely solvable…glasses have been around for hundreds of years and are readily available if we can just provide the care to those in need.
- Support programs that make glasses accessible to all those who need them. This includes advocacy for vision coverage and inclusion in universal health coverage plans. We know that affordability is a key barrier for many in need of glasses. Knowing the impact, it can have on quality of life, education, productivity, gender equity and many other important global goals, we believe it is critical that governments invest in vision coverage to support their people.
- Fund effective and efficient solutions. While OneSight and other NGOs are making important and impactful progress in the millions that we serve, we are keenly aware of how much more there is to do. As we look to scale our work, funding is always a factor to consider. We have been privileged to partner with many different groups — governments, corporate sponsors, other NGOs, individuals and foundations — and we know that it will continue to take strong partnerships like these to fuel the impact we want to continue to make.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe in the concept of servant leadership, which means I see myself as serving the organization and the communities we help in order to make the greatest impact. While having a strong vision is critical for moving an organization to new heights, it is only impactful if you can bring that vision to life. To put it into action, a leader needs to get things done with and through others. By enabling and working alongside the other members of my organization, I believe I can effect greater change and greater results. A corollary to this concept is my deep belief that investing in people is a key element of a winning business strategy. Work doesn’t get done by strategic plans or by budgets; it gets done by people. If those people have developed strong skills, feel empowered and appreciated, and are passionate about the mission, they will take the impact of the work further than anyone can dream.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Follow your passion. While there is great value in doing things that might not always be ‘fun’ but teach you important lessons, it’s always important to be excited about what you are working to achieve. I have found that I have done my best work when I am passionate about the goal.
- Knowing where you’re going is more important than knowing exactly how you get there. It’s always important to be clear on what outcome you want, whether it be your long-term career path or a shorter-term project. There are multiple strategies for achieving the same results, some more effective than others, but if you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you will waste a lot of time spinning and not getting anywhere.
- Ask for feedback and then be honest with yourself. If you want to grow, you need to know what your strengths are and what opportunities you have to be more effective. While we all have a perception of our own strengths and opportunities, the best way to get better is to ask for honest feedback. This can be hard but incredibly valuable. No matter what you hear, you then need to have some quiet time where you really look in the mirror and decide ‘what do I do with this input.’ Whether or not you ever want to publicly admit what you’ve heard, as long as you can honestly examine your actions in light of feedback and decide what, if anything, you do differently, you can continue to stretch and grow.
- Don’t doubt yourself, even when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. For many of us, especially women, there is often a little voice inside our heads questioning whether or not we’re really the right one for the job, whether we really should stretch to propose that new idea, or whether we really can accomplish what we think we can. I’ve had to learn to sometimes tell that little voice to just go away. There are times when things don’t go the way you want them to, but if you learn from that, you still come out ahead…and it does NOT mean you aren’t good enough.
- Always be prepared to dance if you’re with the OneSight Africa team. When our team gets together, we work hard, but we also celebrate our work. In Africa, that means dancing! No matter who you are or how good/bad you think you are on the dance floor, it’s important to be a part of the fun. Anyone involved with global work knows that being open to different cultural norms, foods, or traditions is not only a way to assimilate and show respect but can open up doors to incredible experiences and memories!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We are a world and a society where the divide between those who are comfortable and those who are living in poverty is rapidly widening. Whether this gap is seen within a community or across the globe, I believe there is an urgency to address it. If we could inspire every single person who has ‘enough’ to contribute a small amount to improving the quality of life of someone who is lacking basic needs, we could make an enormous difference in the world. This goes far beyond just the ‘wealthy’ or ‘ultra-wealthy.’ Anyone who has a safe place to live and food to eat could make a small sacrifice. Even small donations — whether they be monetary or otherwise — could mean the difference for the millions in our world that have no health care, no vision care, face food security or lack stable housing. If we could collectively address these gaps for the many who are struggling, it would literally improve quality of life for our entire world, even for those who are ‘comfortable’ today as it would eliminate the root causes of many of our global challenges today. It just takes everyone to be willing to give just a bit of themselves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was raised to believe that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” and I have set that same expectation with my children. As I have travelled around the globe, it is very clear that for those of us who had the sheer luck to be born in a developed country like the United States, we have numerous advantages that many simply do not have. Clearly, no country is perfect, and we are facing many challenges at the moment, including systems that offer different advantages to some vs others. However, simply having basic infrastructure, freedom from ongoing wars, and access to public education provides opportunities. I know I have benefitted from many opportunities in my life, and I have worked hard to make the most of those opportunities, but I believe that it is my moral responsibility to try to make a difference for others — whether in my own community or halfway around the world — if and when I can.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to chat with Oprah Winfrey. The reason is that as her sphere of influence has grown throughout her career and life, she has always used it as a platform to improve the lives of others. In particular, I would love to talk to her about the impact she made through her girls’ school in South Africa. When I think about the link between clear vision and education, I see so many possibilities for lifting up more lives, not just for those girls, but their families and whole communities to truly unleash human potential. It would be an honor.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn — @OneSight
- Twitter — @OneSightOrg