One of the first things we did in response to the crisis was launch the Covid-19 Vaccine and Support Fund to address the urgent need for research, advocacy and education to protect moms, babies and families from Covid-19 and the unknown future effects of the virus. We have a responsibility to direct efforts, including funds, to deliver on the unmet needs of the populations we serve, most notably, women who may become pregnant, pregnant women and newborns.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacey D. Stewart, President and CEO of March of Dimes.
Stacey D. Stewart, our President and CEO, joined March of Dimes as its fifth President on January 1, 2017. In this role, Stewart heads the organization leading the fight for the health of all moms and babies. She is responsible for all aspects of the organization’s strategy, vision and operations.
Stewart came to March of Dimes from United Way Worldwide, where she held several positions, most recently serving as U.S. President of United Way, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization. There she provided strategic direction for more than 1,000 local United Ways. Stewart was also responsible for United Way’s national efforts in education, financial stability and health, as well as guiding efforts to enhance the brand and grow revenue. Stewart spearheaded the transformation of United Way from a pass-through fundraiser to a leading organization for local community impact. Prior to becoming U.S. President, Stewart served as Executive Vice President, Community Impact Leadership and Learning. In this role, Stewart developed global partnerships to advance community impact in more than 40 countries.
A business veteran, Stewart has also held a number of senior roles, including Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President for the Office of Community and Charitable Giving at Fannie Mae, as well as President and Chief Executive Officer for the Fannie Mae Foundation. Additionally, Stewart has an extensive background in finance and investment banking, having served as Vice President for Pryor, McClendon, Counts & Co., and as a senior associate for Merrill Lynch, specializing in financings for state and local governments.
Stewart has a master’s of business administration in finance from the University of Michigan and a bachelor of arts in economics from Georgetown University. She also holds honorary degrees from Trinity University, Morgan State University, Texas Southern University, Lincoln University and Alabama A&M University. She currently serves on several boards nationally and in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
Stewart is married to Jarvis C. Stewart, the Chairman and Managing Partner of I + R Media, LLC, a strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C. The Stewarts have two children, Madeleine and Savannah.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Stacey! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My path to March of Dimes wasn’t a traditional one, but the journey to get here has been a valuable one. I was an economics major at Georgetown, and I went to business school and concentrated in finance. I had every intent on working on Wall Street, which I did. I spent a summer working in leveraged buyouts and decided it didn’t hold appeal. I wanted to do something I felt served the public, which has been a consistent theme throughout my career.
I worked at Merrill Lynch, before going to Fannie Mae — a private company providing resources and capital to people to buy homes or to be able to rent affordable housing. Eventually, I worked my way up to president of the Fannie Mae Foundation which, at the time, was the nation’s largest foundation dedicated to affordable housing. We helped a lot of low-income individuals, as well as immigrant and their families, which was professionally rewarding.
From there I went to United Way Worldwide, the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. As their U.S. president, I was responsible for setting strategy and direction for local United Ways across the country. When the opportunity to work at March of Dimes came, I was excited to be part of one of very few organizations in the world who has tackled and solved a big public health crisis: the polio pandemic. It is an honor to lead an organization that has that kind of legacy and be the second African-American woman to do so. We are focused on tackling the biggest threats to moms and babies, such as preterm birth and maternal mortality, which are issues I care deeply about.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I first assumed my role as President and CEO my daughters and I took a trip to New Orleans, where we toured a slave plantation. The former slave cabins were transformed into exhibits and one in particular focused on the health of slaves. The exhibit explained that childbirth was a leading cause of death on the plantation. At that moment, it became clear to me that Black women have been experiencing maternal health challenges well before the 21st Century and that even today they are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their White peers, which is unacceptable.
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?
While I don’t recall a mistake, I can share an interesting realization during my first days on the job. Someone was introducing me to staff as the new President (my title at the time) at our former headquarters and the room was packed. It was my understanding that I was greeting all March of Dimes staff, including our remote employees across the country. I just assumed that other staff would be joining us in a virtual capacity. I would later find out that “all staff” just meant the people physically working in headquarters. I immediately worked to establish a new meaning of “all staff” that included everyone. My team and I now convene organization-wide meetings via Zoom on a monthly basis, and even more frequently during this pandemic.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
March of Dimes is leading the fight for the health of all moms and babies. For more than 80 years, we have pioneered research, led programs, provided educational resources and enabled policy change so that every mom and baby can have the best possible start.
The fact is, every 12 hours a woman dies due to complications resulting from pregnancy and every two hours, we lose a baby. Women of color reading this won’t be surprised to learn this problem doesn’t affect all American women equally. For Black and Brown women who are 30 years or older, the number of pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births is approximately 4 to 5 times that of white women. Black women also have a preterm birth rate that’s 50 percent higher than that of white women.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic is only compounding the current maternal and infant health crisis facing our nation. March of Dimes, like many others, are concerned about pregnant women and babies who may be at greater risk of becoming sick and not receiving the care they need. One of the first things we did in response to the crisis was launch the Covid-19 Vaccine and Support Fund to address the urgent need for research, advocacy and education to protect moms, babies and families from Covid-19 and the unknown future effects of the virus. We have a responsibility to direct efforts, including funds, to deliver on the unmet needs of the populations we serve, most notably, women who may become pregnant, pregnant women and newborns.
As a donor-centric organization, we rely on the support of the public to fund our work. Because of social distancing orders, we’ve transformed our annual March for Babies events in communities across the country into a virtual fundraiser, called Step Up! People can sign up to count steps — safely at home or wherever they can — using smart phones or fitness watches and collect donations for their steps. Funds for the Step Up! campaign will support research for Covid-19 treatments to ensure they’re safe and inclusive for pregnant and lactating moms, promote advocacy efforts to help families directly impacted by Covid-19 and provide resources and training for NICU doctors and nurses.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Through my travels across the country, I have been privileged to meet thousands of moms who each have their own story to share. There’s one family that attends our March for Babies walk in Washington D.C. every year that comes to mind. A few years ago, one of my daughters was volunteering at the event and happened to be standing next to this particular family during the lei ceremony, which is a time where we honor the children who are no longer with us. As my daughter went to put the ceremonial lei on the mother, she became overwhelmed with emotion. It was beautiful moment to see my daughter console that mother and work to comfort her through her grief. The pain of loss is so heavy for millions of families and while it may get better with time, it never truly goes away. Each year, we lose 22,000 infants in the U.S. — that’s two babies every hour. My goal is to ensure that each year fewer families have to experience the tragic loss of a child.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
It’s important to note that the causes of our nation’s maternal and infant health crisis are complex and include physical health, mental health, social determinants, and much more. They can be traced back to issues in our health care system, including quality of care, systemic problems, and implicit bias. They stem from factors in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities.
There are several things we can do, however, improve health outcomes and address inequity head on. First, we can all take a greater role in building awareness in our communities to fight systemic inequities and rally support for solutions. Second, we can advocate for state and federal policies that protect the health of moms and babies- and in an election year, that’s more important than even. Third, we must put equity front and center in the fight for the health of all moms and babies. On the national level, policymakers must support legislation that improve data collection, helps end provider bias toward women of color, improves access to health care in places where there are few maternity care providers, and extends Medicaid coverage to women for a year after pregnancy.
Most urgently, however, it is imperative that we support pregnant women and babies during this unprecedented health emergency. We encourage everyone to sign up to participate in March for Babies Step Up! by going to www.marchforbabies.org to begin counting their steps and collecting donations. On May 15, the campaign concludes with a virtual celebration but we welcome everyone to continue supporting our work on behalf of moms and babies in this challenging time.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think the most important trait of being a good leader is being able to identify the best talent in order to do things that need to get done. One of the first things I did after arriving at March of Dimes was building a great leadership team.
It’s also important for a leader to have the ability to talk about a future direction in ways that get people excited and makes them want to be part of the change you’re creating. Leadership is also about the willingness to make a decision when one is needed. One of the things that I have helped to bring, at least I hope, to March of Dimes is being more decisive and giving people the opportunity to say, ‘let’s make a decision,’ and try it. If it’s not right, we can try something else. I think what people don’t always consider is that there is a cost of doing nothing and sometimes inaction is worse than trying and not succeeding.
With the onset of Covid-19 in the U.S., we had to quickly pivot the work we were doing to meet the needs of moms and babies grappling with this crisis. We had to reimagine our biggest fundraiser of the year, ensure we were providing accurate, timely health information and determine the resources and services families needed the most. None of that would have been possible without communicating a vision to our employees and ensuring they have the information, resources and tools needed to get behind it and make it happen.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That the changes required to move March of Dimes forward would be deep and extensive and would include our company culture, finances and strategy. I wasn’t hired by the March of Dimes Board of Trustees as a medical expert because we already had a Chief Medical and Health Officer. I was hired to transform the organization to create greater impact in our work on behalf of moms and babies.
- Technology would be the key to our growth. Our adoption of technology allowed us to maintain effective communications nationwide and become a more connected and efficient organization. It has also helped us recruit and retain top talent,especially remote employees who are unable to relocate to the Washington, DC area.
- The evolution of our mission would be necessary. Acknowledging the past is important, but moving forward is required. At one point, our former headquarters in White Plains, New York provided everything and it made sense for us to be there. As maternal and infant health became more of a national issue, we needed to relocate to the DC Metro area, which provides a national stage to better position us as the leader in the fight for the health of all moms and babies.
- Transforming an 80-year organization is hard and it takes years, and that work will take a toll on leaders both personally and professionally.
- To solve infant health, we must first solve maternal health, and the health issues that moms face before, during and after pregnancy. We’re fighting one crisis, not two — as the health of moms and babies are intertwined.
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. 🙂
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and my father was a physician — so I saw racial disparities in health early on. Many of his patients were Black women on Medicaid and Medicare who suffered from many of the chronic health conditions that are still persistent in our community — like obesity, hypertension and diabetes — the very health issues that put people at greater risk of complications from Covid-19.
Right now, you can hardly talk to any African American person in this country whose family is not in some way touched by these health challenges. Either we are personally affected by them, or someone close to us is. Our healthcare system has historically failed to support people of color in this country, and this pandemic is bringing that to the forefront. Amber Rose Issac, who was Black and Puerto Rican, recently died after giving birth to her first child after her family says her health issues were ignored by doctors until it was too late. We’re also seeing reports of maternity ward closures in underserved neighborhoods like the South Side of Chicago and worry about the implications that has for Black mothers who are exponentially more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than White women.
My goal is to shine a spotlight on what happened to Amber, and the thousands like her, so their stories aren’t forgotten and their death wasn’t in vain. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that we’re supporting moms and babies — whether that’s during a pandemic or not — so that every mom and baby can get the best possible start.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Sometimes your best method of transportation is a leap of faith” by Margaret Shepard.
When you are trying to drive change, it’s sometimes impossible to have all the necessary information before a decision must be made. You must take the guidance and advice you have available and make the most informed decision you can in that moment. To do this, you must also have some faith in your own intellect and leadership skills. If you wait too long or delay your decision to gather “perfect” information, you may miss an opportunity you needed to take advantage of an opportunity. It’s finding a balance between information that you have and trusting the process.
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 like to have a joint breakfast with Jeff Bezos and Howard Shultz. I admire Jeff’s incredible vision for Amazon and the way in which he transformed an online book company into the warehouse of our lives. Jeff persevered through challenging times and his story is inspiring. I would also like to meet with Howard Shultz because he has created a business with a sense of care for communities and the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I enjoy hearing from people on social media and engaging with them on the work we’re doing. You can find me on Twitter: @MarchofDimesCEO and Instagram: @marchofdimesceo.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!