Why & How Dr. Myriam Sidibe Is Helping To Change Our World

You need to go over your core purpose over and over. That is where you will build the strength to continue. In working toward my engineering degree at McGill, I learned that graduation ceremonies for Canadian engineers include a ritual: each graduate receives a ring made from metal retrieved from a bridge that collapsed. The ritual […]

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You need to go over your core purpose over and over. That is where you will build the strength to continue. In working toward my engineering degree at McGill, I learned that graduation ceremonies for Canadian engineers include a ritual: each graduate receives a ring made from metal retrieved from a bridge that collapsed. The ritual reminds engineers that they work for people and that people’s lives depend on their best work. That became a motto for my professional life and it continues to give me strength and focus.

Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Myriam Sidibe.

Dr. Myriam Sidibe, one of the world’s leading experts on brands that drive health outcomes through mass behavioral change, conceived and established the award-winning UN-recognized Global Handwashing Day — now celebrated in over 100 countries. A senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government of the Harvard Kennedy School and former social mission director at Unilever, Sidibe has been recognized as one of the top 10 Intrapreneurs in the world for her approach to pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo — which has proven pivotal to leading a paradigm shift in the way public-private partnerships for health and wellbeing are managed and funded. Sidibe is a trustee of WaterAid, the world’s largest civil society organization on water and sanitation and was a commissioner for the Lancet on the future of health in Africa. Originally from Mali, Sidibe and holds a doctorate in public health from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in Mali, living there until I was about 12 years old and then started following my parents in their respective tours of duty as UN workers, living in over 20 countries. I was never overly privileged but we were never poor. I went to public schools until I was about 12. Then, I transitioned to a private French school and then to an international school when my family moved to NY and when the UN could pay for better education.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of the latest books I have read that I found inspirational was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. What I loved about Homegoing was that it focused on both sides of the African slave trade, and what is particularly impactful is that the book manages to include African responsibilities in the slave trade. It also clearly explains generational trauma and the ways that it is transmitted. It really puts the spotlight on what colonization and slave trade did to specific families over the long-term. The novel explores in vivid detail the stories that we have so often never heard. History calls them the slaves, but who were they really? There are many female characters in the book and to hear the perspective of a woman in the slave trade — either sold off or married to a white colonizer — was absolutely fascinating. I am very fond of African female authors in general, ranging from Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun) to Jennifer Makumbi (Kintu). I have been an ardent fighter for both gender equality and understanding the impact that colonization and racial discrimination have had on Africans and African Americans and this book is a beautiful blend of both of those interest areas for me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

My favorite life quotes are from Nelson Mandela: “There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living,” and “It always seems impossible until it is done”. This last quote has been core to everything that I have been working on throughout my career. Sometimes, an absolutely massive goal allows people to be more innovative and achieve even more than expected. This was the case with Global Handwashing Day. While working on my doctorate jointly in health policy and epidemiology between the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, I began research into children’s motivation to hand wash with soap. I wanted to bring handwashing to the maximum number of people where it mattered most, in the areas of highest mortality and morbidity. It was during this time that I discovered Unilever, or rather we discovered each other, and I joined the marketing team where I could influence marketing campaigns with my handwashing findings. We co-founded Global Handwashing Day in 2008, an advocacy day now recognized by the UN and celebrated every 15th of October by 500 million people in a hundred countries. I used my doctoral research findings to help develop the “School of Five,” a handwash programme for schools that has been translated into 19 languages to reach 450 million children in 35 countries. Everybody laughed at this project at first because it seemed too massive to achieve, but now it reaches hundreds of millions of people.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization or initiative(s). Can you tell us a bit about what you and/or your organization are trying to address?

Brands on a Mission, the title of my book is also the movement that I am now leading. It is still part of the continuation of the work that I have been leading for 15 years at Unilever. My mission with this project is to open up what I have learned from our experiences implementing social change initiatives to more brands and companies. Brands on a Mission is a movement to catalyse and generate an additional US$1 billion investment in sustainable business models that address health and well-being, contributing to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It includes three core axes of action:

  • INSPIRE corporations and individuals to believe that it is possible to merge business and public health goals, and deliver real social impact
  • CATALYSE change through key public health issues and business models that will contribute to solving them
  • SHARE knowledge, skills and capabilities

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I just couldn’t find a growth plan and kept wondering about all this knowledge inside my head and this competency that I was building that nobody seemed to understand or appreciate so I decided to just write it down. I wanted to get more people washing their hands for better health outcomes. I wanted more brands to get involved in the same purpose wagons. I realized: “I need to articulate this knowledge and translate it into something that can be used by more people.” Of course I loved my company Unilever, but I was ready to share this knowledge with more companies and all that mattered was the message. I decided right there and then that it was time to create a new discipline which I am calling “marketing for public health” — there was a need to tell the story from the public health side and we needed to harness the powers of marketing and the private sector. This was not an easy process. Eventually, to make it happen, I had to leave my young kids of 5 and 3 years old in Kenya to move to Harvard in Boston with my teenage daughter.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I would like to believe that the populations for whom we implemented the programs were positively impacted. There are specific people who come to mind. First, a woman in a rural village in Migori, Kenya who had just experienced childbirth and was reminded and equipped with soap and hygiene facilities because our campaigns helped her and those attending the birth understand that 44% of child deaths happen in the first 28 days of the baby’s life and that soap can prevent this. There was a child in Ethiopia who, thanks to our campaigns, was enabled to wash his face so he could avoid catching trachoma — a disease that lives you blind and is preventable with improved hygiene skills and materials.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

The community at large can believe that this needs to be an inclusive process and demand more authentic commitment from their favorite brands when they take on a purpose. I am a big believer in the difference between ‘Brand Say’ and ‘Brand Do’, terms coined in 2016 by Steve Miles. Brand Say involves communicating to consumers about the social purpose; Brand Do is about translating this purpose into actually addressing social problems. We can make sure that brands are actually doing what they say they will do, using our money, social media, and more, to “vote” for the winners.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is defining a vision, getting people to dream, but charting the way so people can actually achieve the vision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The 5 things I wish someone told me:

1- It is hard to be the odd one out. My background, my upbringing and my training are very rare to find in marketing and in the private sector, meaning I am always the odd one out. I used to apologize a lot for asking simple questions or being out of touch at times with cultural trends. I don’t anymore.

2- Things might turn personal but you can’t let that destroy you. At one post, a senior individual screamed at me having never met me in my four years with the company. There was a small miscommunication: he felt that there was a disconnect between what I was doing and what he was doing, despite the fact that he did not have the requisite knowledge in the field or at country and market level. I could have come out against the company, but I wanted to achieve my goal, so I said: “Let me show you what I know.” In the end, it helped us work together much better, but it took me sidestepping the personal attacks for the bigger vision.

3- Be prepared to put in long hours. For years I have worked round the clock, year round. I have even had to move away from my children and family for long stretches of time to do my job. Meaningful work that seeks to fulfill a mission has no boundaries.

4- Keep the dreams alive even if no one can see it: When I joined Unilever I wanted to bring handwashing with soap to millions of people and I wanted to create the world’s largest handwashing programs. When I was talking about social mission before, no one was talking about purpose, most of my colleagues in the public sector had a hard time understanding what I really meant by that.

5- You need to go over your core purpose over and over. That is where you will build the strength to continue. In working toward my engineering degree at McGill, I learned that graduation ceremonies for Canadian engineers include a ritual: each graduate receives a ring made from metal retrieved from a bridge that collapsed. The ritual reminds engineers that they work for people and that people’s lives depend on their best work. That became a motto for my professional life and it continues to give me strength and focus.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It is your world and you will decide what you want it to be. If you are passionate and believe that you can make a difference, then you have a duty to get out there and do it. To whom much is given, much is expected!

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 say Richard Quest or Oprah. Two different styles, but both great interviewers. Quest in particular should hear not only from CEOs but from the women of colour like myself who get stuff done. There are not many African women business writers, but our voice is crucial.

How can our readers follow you online?

Here is my link tree to all of the Brands on a Mission social media handles: You can find me personally on Twitter at @Myriam_sidibe, on Instagram at @myriamsidibeofficial and on Linked in:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work.

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