By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 17, 2014
Helene Gayle could have spent the rest of her career as CEO of CARE, the international poverty-fighting organization, knowing she would always be contributing to the causes of social justice and global equity.
But she also knew from the first day she started at CARE in April 2006 that her tenure as its president would last between five and 10 years — an intellectual decision based on knowing that most leaders have shelf lives when they are most effective in their roles.
Gayle recently informed CARE associates that she would be stepping down from the organization at the end of its fiscal year on June 30.
In an interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle, Gayle said making that decision was emotionally difficult because her personal passions are so aligned with CARE’s mission.
But she says she had to remind herself — “I am not CARE; and CARE is not me.” The organization is so much larger than just one person.
“You are part of a chain of leadership,” Gayle said.
Gayle, 59, also believed there might be other ways she can expand her impact based on the breadth of her professional career – from serving as director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention to joining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leading its HIV, TB and Reproductive Health programs, to CARE, and to serving as a director of The Coca-Cola Co.
When asked if she knew what her next (and possibly last) professional move would be, she said that making the decision to leave CARE had been difficult enough. “I’m in a ‘no decision’ mode for the next three months,” she said.
During her tenure as CEO of CARE in Atlanta, Gayle has instituted several changes and initiatives at the nonprofit.
CARE was once a loose confederation of organizations around the world. But Gayle has worked hard to create the notion of “one CARE” working together.
“CARE’s staff told me early on that CARE could be a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts,” Gayle said. “I saw the potential of coming together as one CARE. We have made incredible progress. It is a much more interdependent and interconnected CARE.”
The nonprofit also shifted from being dependent on federal funding for international food aid to one that relied more on private giving so it could redirect its mission to reducing extreme poverty in the world.
That led to CARE’s initiative to focus its efforts on women and girls – essential to helping communities lift themselves up from poverty rather than leaving 50 percent of their population behind.
“It’s not anti-male,” Gayle said. “It’s how we bring whole societies forward. It’s about bringing different voices to the table.”
CARE did go through “major challenges financially” during her tenure. First there was the recession and then there was the significant shift in its funding model – away from federal food aid grants. CARE pushed for food aid reform, which needed to happen, even though Gayle said “we took a hit for it,” and it took CARE a while to recover.
Today Gayle said CARE is on “solid financial footing,” and she believes it has a strong financial future for its next CEO. CARE’s board currently is putting together a plan to search for Gayle’s successor.
As a way for CARE to have greater impact, Gayle implemented two other moves.
CARE established a separate nonprofit with the ability to advocate and lobby for its causes.
It also established CARE Enterprises Inc., a for-profit entity to engage more with the private sector.
Instead of being at odds with corporations, Gayle said nonprofits working with businesses can have a huge impact on communities. As an example, she mentioned Coca-Cola, which has made clean water a centerpiece of its global efforts. The company understands it can create economic and social value at the same time.
Gayle, who worked with the HIV and AIDs epidemic for most of her career, sees some similarities with the latest spread of the Ebola virus.
“Just like HIV, we probably waited a little too late to take it as seriously as we should have,” she said, adding that it is important to do everything possible to stop its spread as quickly as possible.
Asked about whether she had any concerns for her own health because of her regular travels to Africa and developing nations, Gayle brushed it off.
“You have got to die from something. I would rather die doing something I care about,” she said. But she is clearly being more thoughtful about her future than she has in the past. “How are you going to live the rest of your days when you know you have fewer days ahead of you than you have behind you? I really do want to feel that everything I do leads to greater impact.”
An area where Gayle has had great impact in Atlanta is pulling together the different global health organizations to find areas of possible collaboration.
“Atlanta is an interesting city, and it’s an interesting city that I’ve been part of since the mid-1980s. I’ve spent more time here than anywhere else,” Gayle said. “I have left Atlanta three times. I’ve always left thinking I wouldn’t be coming back — sold my homes. And then I’ve come back.”
Although other cities may be “more glamorous and exciting,” Gayle said, “there are very few cities where you can feel you have an impact creating the Atlanta story. Maybe it’s because it’s new. It’s still evolving. It’s still becoming what it’s going to be. You can make a contribution to the evolution of Atlanta as a city.”
As to the future of Atlanta as a mecca for global health and development, Gayle said: “We are at a point where there is no turning back” because of the anchor institutions that are in place.
As to whether she will stay in Atlanta, Gayle once again said she hasn’t placed any boundaries on what her next move will be.
And then, as if a lightbulb had turned on in her head, she said a lifelong ambition has been to have her own television show.
“I would love to have my own talk show,” Gayle said in all seriousness. “I would love to be a journalist.”