Our Pearls And Heels lady today is Dr. Radha Karnad. Radha Karnad believes that every woman should view childbirth with joy rather than with fear of debt, disability or death. She is passionate about improving health systems to provide equitable access to high-quality healthcare for low-income women. In addition to the Acumen East Africa Regional Fellowship 2016, Radha is an Afya Bora Consortium Global Health Leadership Fellow 2016-2017. Through the current Fellowships and formerly as the Clinical Programs Manager at Jacaranda Health, she is putting her skills and experience with global best practices into practise at the local level. Her focus is on improving healthcare service delivery, creating sustainable systems for quality care delivery, and helping build new models for healthcare equality in East Africa. Radha is a medical doctor with an MPH in Health Systems Management from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
- Describe your typical day?
My life at the moment is a blend of family, work, and two fellowships so I don’t always feel like I have a typical day. When I do, my typical day begins with being woken by my two energetic and bouncy boys – 4 and 1.5 years old. The start of the day is a rush of getting everyone dressed, fed, teeth brushed and ready for our respective days.
My office is my peaceful haven after that high-energy start! I am lucky to have an incredibly varied job that includes thinking through new ideas and innovations in healthcare and how to make them a reality, doing a lot of reading to understand the context of the different healthcare problems, meeting very interesting people doing a variety of healthcare projects, and writing, writing, writing. All of which means my day flies by!
I try to be home by bath time and bedtime, this is special family time that my husband and I think is very important to prioritize. After the boys are asleep, I catch up on any final bits of work, have dinner with my husband, read a little of whatever book is currently on my nightstand, and try to go to bed early. I have recently started journaling again, so I try to make time for that just before bed as well.
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
For a while, I thought an actress or a teacher, but for most of my childhood and youth, I was certain I wanted to be a doctor. I was lucky enough to get a really solid education in the physical and social sciences through school in India which set the stage for me to do a liberal arts Bachelors’ Degree in the US, where I graduated in both Biology (Pre-med) and Anthropology.
My anthropology studies were mostly around understanding the social and cultural determinants of health and particularly why people make the types of health decisions or take the type of health-related actions they do. This gave me a much broader understanding of health than many others had when I entered medical school in a graduate program in the UK, and pure clinical medicine never sat 100% comfortably with me. I had a wonderful mentor in my Obstetrics and Gynaecology residency who encouraged me to explore my options more widely, so I took time off to do a Masters in Public Health, specializing in health management.
Around that time, my husband and I had the opportunity to move to Kenya, which we had long wanted to do. I got my dream job at a healthcare social enterprise called Jacaranda Health, which let me combine my clinical experience with my management knowledge and my interest in healthcare quality! Jacaranda Health was also my introduction to the Acumen East Africa Regional Fellows program, which I was selected for earlier this year, and here I am!
- If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I like to believe that I would be a food writer and travel the world writing about inspiring culinary experiences, but the truth is I absolutely love my job and what I do. I think if I had to start my career over again I would stop spending so much time doubting and worrying – things have had a way of working out just right.
- What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
Being organized: there are a lot of moving pieces to my job, many people to coordinate with, and deadlines to meet. Being organized helps me to keep on top of everything and do it well without feeling overwhelmed.
Communication skills: most of my work has involved writing in one form or another – proposals, concept notes, program plans, emails, work plans, blogs etc. – and being able to frame my ideas (and in particular medical terms and concepts) in ways that resonate with other people is critical.
Resourcefulness: a lot of my work involves finding new ways to do things, at a cheaper price, or differently than anyone else.
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
Having worked in the US and UK, and grown up in India, I can guarantee that Nairobi is an amazing place to work. I am constantly inspired by the people I work with, and the huge number of entrepreneurs across the city – everyone has a job, and a side business or two! It is really refreshing and means people come to the table with a variety of ideas and skill sets. I feel like there is a greater opportunity to truly make a difference, and people are always willing to give you the chance to prove yourself. In the years that I have worked here, I have tried so many new projects and areas of leadership that I would never have imagined when I did my medical training.
What could be better? People being on time!
- What motivates you?
I see the opportunity to make a difference through my job, to touch peoples’ lives and modify the experiences I have from other countries to work within the Kenyan context. That is very exciting for me, and motivates me every day.
- How do you define success?
Success for me is doing my very best at work and at home – finding that balance where I am able to manage both without compromising either.
- Who has been your greatest inspiration?
I come from a long line of very strong women who always stood up for – and fought for – what they believed in, even if it contravened what is seen as socially acceptable or normal. My grandmothers and mother are my constant inspiration.
- What is your favourite aspect of your job?
Talking to people. I have always been a strong communicator and someone who enjoys meeting and talking to people, both in my personal and professional life – I was one of those teenagers who spent all day with her friends at school and then all evening on the phone with them. It drove my parents crazy, they couldn’t understand what more we possibly had to talk about and why it couldn’t wait until tomorrow!
In my current job, talking to people and understanding their perspectives is what often sparks those interesting ideas that lead to new and improved healthcare programs. I have made so many useful networks and learnt about so many opportunities that have strengthened my work, and almost all of that has been through talking to people.
- What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
Being a bit of a risk-taker – exploring paths that are not necessarily the most straightforward or predictable, speaking up when you disagree, acknowledging when you are wrong (I am not always very good at that one but I try) and learning from those situations, and always being true to yourself.
- What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Opportunities will crop up in unexpected places and at unexpected times, that often don’t feel like “the right time”. Take them!
- What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of your career?
Finishing medical school was a huge achievement and incredibly satisfying – it was the basis of all the wonderful things that have come since.
- What makes you happy?
Seeing other people happy! Being with my family. Going on holiday (especially to the beach). Enjoying a good meal and a good laugh with friends. Reading a gripping detective novel.
- What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
My non-work time has been exclusively family time for the past few years. At the moment I am incredibly lucky to be an Acumen East Africa Fellow 2016 and an Afya Bora Consortium (ABC) Global Health Leadership Fellow 2016-2017 so a lot of my non-work time is going to those.
The two fellowships go together very nicely – ABC is providing medical staff in five countries in Africa with the leadership skills they need but are not often taught in medical or nursing school through a series of didactic training sessions alongside placement at specific attachment sites for mentorship and to put the learning into practice.
The Acumen Regional Fellowship is also focused on leadership development and putting learning into practice, but in a very personal way – I thought I would be learning technical skills, yet I have gotten much more personal growth and exploration these past few months. My cohort of 18 from across East Africa are like family now, and know me well enough after just three one-week sessions to be both my confidantes and my critics! I grew up wanting to change the world and help people – what is amazing about the Acumen Regional Fellowship is that it introduces you to a special group of people who believe that those ideas are not clichéd phrases but rather a potential reality if we work at it together. It is incredibly inspiring.
- Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
To be honest, I have stopped answering that question because I have realized how much can change in that time. If you had asked me ten, or even five, years ago where I would be now, I would have said finishing my residency in the UK, living in the flat my husband and I had there. Yet look here I am in Nairobi with two kids, a house and a dog, a job where I am having an impact on healthcare yet not seeing patients, and two awesome fellowships.
***The Acumen East Africa Fellows Program is a one-year leadership development program designed to connect and cultivate the next generation of social change agents with the audacity and skills to address the problems of poverty. Applications are currently open and can be accessed here. Questions can be directed at email@example.com.