"People are what's going to change the world"

Our Executive Director recently had a chance to chat with Moniola Odunsi, an inspiring 16-year-old founder & innovator, about her own path in global health and the impact that Watsi is creating in the world for people in need of access to healthcare. As we celebrate #InternationalWomensDay and strive to lift up the voices of girls and women who are making the world a healthier, more equitable place, we're excited to share a few excerpts from their conversation.

Moniola: If you were to give a one minute elevator pitch on the mission of Watsi and what the ultimate goal is, what would you say and what drew you to the company?

Mackinnon: Watsi is really showing every single day that anyone, anywhere can do good and change lives. And what we do is bring people together through technology to fund life-changing healthcare. We've seen that through this high-impact, but actually relatively low-cost intervention, lives are forever changed. It could be mobility-restoring leg surgery for a child who isn't able to walk, or sight-restoring eye surgery for a grandparent that just wants to be able to see their grandchild and play with them. We're really inspired by what our patients want and need in their life, and want to be there for them to make that a reality.

Moniola: That is such an important mission right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and how massive of a toll it's had on so many people around the world. Ultimately empathy and recognizing the need for these type of things is truly important.

Mackinnon: On empathy, along with curiosity, in terms of what we instill in children, empathy is right up there. We need to figure out ways to help us understand who other people are and what they are going through—that makes the world go around.

Yesterday I actually was moved to tears from an empathy moment that I'd love to share with you. On Watsi, anyone, anywhere can donate. And, what we do is help share stories of people who need access to healthcare. We had the coolest kid on our site the last couple of weeks. He's five years old. He wants to be an engineer when he grows up. His mom talked about how he already takes apart and puts back together electronics all over their house.

Marline, a young patient in Kenya.
Marline, a five-year-old patient from Kenya.

I loved Marline's story and when it came in, I actually donated myself to his case right away. I dedicated it to my own five-year-old's kindergarten teacher. And, I got a note yesterday from a woman who donated to his case too and she said, could you share this with Marline's mom? She wrote:

"I'm also a single mom and I have four kids and my second one also wanted to be an engineer and used to take things apart and put them back together. And now he is an engineer and doing so well. I just want to encourage this patient's mom that he has a bright life ahead."

It's in those moments where we can be living totally different lives on opposite ends of the earth and there are things that we share. We're all part of humanity and can do our part to make other people's lives better. That's what's so special about Watsi.

Moniola: Exactly. And, I think it's so important to recognize that fact especially because right now our nation and the world as a whole is in such divisive times. Recognizing that there are similarities and commonalities between all of us, that we're all fundamentally human is so, so important. And that story that you just shared is an incredible example of that.

Mackinnon: I think you're right. One of the most powerful learnings of the last year from politics to COVID and all the things going on is that people are what's going to change the world. We each need to be working hard to do that. We can't forget the role that we can play with whatever power we have, in whatever way we can, we should be using that positively.

Moniola: How has the pandemic affected Watsi and what were the necessary shifts you and the company had to make?

Mackinnon: We have so many patients who were living day-to-day, working hard, were entrepreneurial in their own way of earning income, even if it is as much as $4 a day. But when countries were really shut down through COVID-19, people were going months and months without any income at all. I saw a lot of patients and we're still seeing them, who maybe could afford their own healthcare earlier, but without working for six months, they have no funds to even pay for delivery of their baby.

The medical partners that we work with that help patients to travel long distances, those partners in particular were really affected because of lockdowns. It was really hard to move across borders and it still is. But for our patients who are living near where our healthcare centers are that we work with, we've actually done more surgeries for them. We especially saw an increase in maternal care and emergency surgeries.

One of the things that's been neat for me to see this year is where our values come into play. We can fall back on our values, especially during times of crisis, and they can help us make decisions.

"Our Watsi value of putting patients first, listening to their stories and learning what they need—that's what kept us going this year. We need to hear what's going on for them, our patients and our partners, and figure out how we can show up for them & tell their story."

Moniola: Tell us more about your day as an Executive Director. What are your long-term goals for the company and how have you tried to shape its future as the director?

Mackinnon: We're a small tech nonprofit. We were already all virtual before COVID-19, even though a lot of companies had to pivot that way now. What really drives Team Watsi is how connected we want to be with our partners and our patients and our team. So even though we're virtual and I'm at home in Wisconsin, my day-to-day is really focused on connecting with those that are important in our community and our organization.

Each morning before the rest of my family is up, I review all the cases that come in from different parts of the world. It's a really good way to start the day being grounded by who we're trying to serve.

And then from there I am talking to donors and I'll put up some social media posts to talk about successful stories. All of us wear multiple hats, that's kind of common in the non-profit world. We have a fantastic board of directors that I work really closely with on setting the vision and being really clear on our mission.

One of the things we've been really focused on at Watsi is how can we deepen our impact around the world? What we've really tried to do differently over the last year is follow up, even longer after surgery to see how our patients are doing. We've been really excited to find out what was important to patients in their life and are they able to do that more now that they've had access to care. Through learning more about that impact and then being able to tell that story, we'll become even better advocates for the importance of healthcare around the world and moving the whole world toward what's called universal health coverage, basically health for all.

We've all seen through COVID-19 that having access to healthcare is so essential and it creates a strong foundation from which you can do all the other things you want to do in life.

Moniola: How did your experience of going to college impact your growth both personally & professionally?

Mackinnon: The biggest take away from Wash U and Tufts University (my alma maters) was the lifelong supportive friendships that I made. I wouldn't underestimate how important it is to find those people in your life and, and invest in those relationships, because having a strong family and having strong friendships has been one of the main things that's been there to support me as I take more risks in life and, for example, move across the world. We all have to have big wings, but we also need strong roots. I was able to create some of those roots in college that then gave me wings later.

Learning how to ask questions is equally important. And that's a big part of Anthropology, which I studied. Figuring out how to ask questions is so essential. You apply that to your relationships and to work. And it's a big part of my day-to-day work here at Watsi—what questions are we asking to the people we're trying to reach so that we really can understand and deeply listen to their needs?

Moniola: Did you immediately know that you wanted to dive into the world of humanitarian work and was that planned or did you take the path of maximizing opportunities like internships, jobs, etc., to get a firmer grasp of what you ultimately wanted to pursue?

Mackinnon: Throughout college and even afterwards, I worked really hard so that I could have experiences internationally because I felt it was something that I wanted to do. So I worked lots of jobs during the year so that I could take an unpaid internship like one summer in Ghana. I was actually lucky enough to live in a different continent for four years straight. I worked for the Red Cross in Switzerland and I lived with a family in Chile who was doing human rights work. I got to really experience a lot.

After that I worked at a hospital in rural India. I was flying back through Bangkok to come home and I had a layover. I was able to get coffee with someone who worked at the United Nations there, and they asked if I wanted to stay and do an internship. So I stayed, again, you don't know what doors are going to open and you've got to take big risks sometimes to jump through them.

"I have found being outside the UN and with an NGO or a non-profit (we have lots of names for what we do), it enabled me to take on more leadership roles, which was really exciting and formative. Sometimes it is a lot of fun to be a tiny piece of something big. And then other times in your life you might want to step into more of a leadership role on a smaller scale, which is fantastic too!"

Moniola: What would be your advice for those looking to go into the field of humanitarian work ? What would you have told that little girl who was looking at problems in the world and wanted to create an impact?

Mackinnon: I really think as much as you can give yourself experiences small and large in your own community, or if you can create linkages around the world, it helps you truly understand what ignites you. And as I said for me, I felt I want to do good, but what kind of good?  With that question I was able to discover that healthcare and seeing the impact that it has on people's lives is what excites me. Maybe it's homelessness or access to clean water—do whatever you can do to uncover what lights a fire within you and then be able to just keep pushing on that. It doesn't have to be your job, but find ways to work on your passion. And it is totally OK if you end up taking another path. If you can really just try to find ways that keep those things that are meaningful in your life in some way, then you're going to look back and feel really fulfilled about the path you took.

If you'd like to watch their full conversation, check out the video below. We hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed talking with Moniola.

P.S. You can also check out Moniola's blog Bits of Business and follow along as she meets other leaders working toward a better world!

The Watsi Team

The Watsi Team

Everyone deserves healthcare.