The new chief executive of the American Diabetes Association Tracey Brown, appointed earlier this year, is notably the first African-American woman to be at the org’s helm, as well as the first-ever to be living with type 2 diabetes herself.
Her appointment was the culmination of a search that took more than a year, following the departure of former CEO Kevin Hagen in March 2017 and a stint under interim leader Martha Clark, who happened to be living with type 1 diabetes herself.
Tracey is now coming off an action-packed first 100 days on the job that included a super-busy summer diabetes conference season. Today, we’re pleased to feature an interview with her on what she sees at the ADA’s biggest strengths and weaknesses, and what she hopes to build there going forward.
DM) Great to meet you Tracey. Our readers would love to start by hearing your own diabetes story…
TB) My personal diabetes story is part of why I’m actually here in this role. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes 15 years ago now. I probably didn’t take that diagnosis as seriously as I should’ve, because I was told that for 80% of the women it would go away. I had to watch what I ate while pregnant and was on insulin during my pregnancy, and ended up having an incredible baby girl who is now 15 years old. But I didn’t take it seriously after having my baby. The doctors kept me on insulin for a couple months after she was born, and then a bit longer, and finally I was told that my gestational diabetes was full-on type 2.
Did you take it more seriously after being diagnosed with T2D?
Again, I probably should’ve pivoted and done some things differently at that point, but I didn’t. I’m a Type A personality — very competitive, someone who believes I can do anything. So I basically said to myself, ‘I got this’ and left it there.
But from a very early age, my daughter would see me take insulin and test my blood sugars multiple times a day. One day when she was about 5 years old we were in the bathroom getting dressed, and she looked up at me and said: ‘Mom, you are you going to die of diabetes.’ That was turning point — the breaking point for me. I made a commitment to myself, my daughter and my family, that I would unapologetically tell my story wherever I could, as my form of driving awareness around the seriousness of this disease. I also made a commitment to tackle stigma, because there is a lot of negative stigma associated with type 2 diabetes. I made a commitment to be the poster child for how you thrive with diabetes — not just live or exist, but thrive.
A third commitment I made was not giving up on a cure in my lifetime. I put that last part in there about my lifetime, so that I’d always have a sense of urgency. I’m now 52 years old, and hope that it’s a halfway point in my life; I’m not giving up on that. All of that led me here to ADA, and I believe this is part of my life’s purpose.
Is that what took you from the corporate world to non-profit side at ADA?
Yes. I take my diagnosis as a gift, and think everyone has a reason for being in this world. I believe my God’s purpose is to showcase how to thrive with diabetes, to drive awareness for those living with diabetes and help to find a cure. That’s why I stepped out of the for-profit world, where I had a successful 30-year career, to come here to ADA.
Can you tell us ab bit about your professional background and how that set the stage for joining the ADA’s executive team?
I started out as a chemical engineer in R&D at Procter & Gamble, and over the years have been in management at RAPP Dallas and Sam’s Club (a division of Walmart). I’ve served on a lot of non-profit boards and been a chair of those, and one of the things that’s always struck me, is that many of these folks (in non-profit roles) don’t view themselves as a business. The fact of the matter is, we are. The only difference between for-profit and non-profit is your tax status and your profits are being invested into the cause and mission, instead of going to shareholders. I felt prepared in understanding the business fundamentals of what needs to be done to have a healthy, thriving business and organization. “No mission, no money; No money, no mission” is something I often say. Those are two sides of the same coin.
Did you feel that ADA was also lacking that drive and mindset?
In the for-profit space, there’s an understanding of the mission and value, and how to tell the story. That’s something we can do better. The ADA has not done a great job in telling our story, and showing how we emotionally connect with people with diabetes first — then telling the story of the value we’re adding for those people.
Also from my for-profit experience, I can see we need to really understand how to drive measurable and demonstrable impacts. It’s the measurable piece of how you’re using data, and understanding the need you’re serving and focusing on delivering that. Those are a few of the areas that I think are directly applicable to what I’m doing now.
You’re the first ADA CEO to be living with type 2 diabetes, as well as the first African-American at the helm… How important are those distinctions?
Being the first African-American (to lead ADA)… I haven’t given that much thought. First, I am a person living with diabetes and that’s why I am here. That’s what I am striving to be a poster child for.
The thing that resonates the most with me is that I’m the first CEO who is actually living with type 2 diabetes, and that means more to me than anything. You just have a different perspective. We make thousands of decisions a day based on what our numbers are telling us, from the time we wake up to when we go to sleep. That’s just a little perspective, and so I’m out in the community making sure that ADA is connecting with people who are making those decisions every day. No one can truly walk in your shoes in living with diabetes, even though people can try to understand. We can’t take our eye off that.
How’s your experience been so far?
I’m excited not only about what I’ve learned, from starting out on a bit of a ‘listening tour’ within the ADA and across the country at different chapters and communities, but also about the pivot we’re taking as an organization for our future. We’ve spent a good bit of time figuring out strategically to accelerate our ability to fulfill our mission.
Diabetes is the biggest health epidemic of our time now, and as someone who’s been living with T2D for 14 years, I see this as so important. Things are just getting worse, and so it’s time for us to truly sound the alarm, awaken the world, and do something that’s a bit more disruptive to address this epidemic.
What do you see as the ADA’s biggest strengths?
There are some clear things that I’ve learned so far on my initial listening tour. First, it’s just the strength of the people who work here in this organization. Clearly that passion is one of the biggest differences in why people show up here every day. It’s unparalleled to anything I’ve experienced at any for-profit company. That is a powerful strength, and we need to continue to understand that our associates here are our biggest asset.
Also, when you think about our heritage and DNA, we’re about to celebrate our 78th birthday at ADA. When you think about ADA being founded by doctors, we were very clear that they were trying to find a cure and helping people live with diabetes while doing that. That’s a strength. We are the credible source on diabetes. The professional community views us as that credible source and authority, and I believe we’re meeting their needs.
What about the ADA’s biggest weaknesses at this time?
When I speak with people who are living with diabetes, I believe we’re coming up short of truly meeting their needs. That pierces my heart. We have an opportunity to step up in a different way than we have before, to be able to deliver on that half of our mission to help those PWDs and their families thrive. There’s an opportunity to show up in a different way than we have for that audience.
The second opportunity I’ve learned about is that we’re a voluntary health organization, so we need to re-purpose the passion and support that exists within our community. We need to harness the passion of those volunteers and passionate supporters in a different way than we have. I’ve talked about igniting and unleashing our volunteer community.
How can the ADA ‘ignite’ its volunteer base?
We know that we can’t do this alone. If we could, we’d have already found a cure and it’d be game-over. We must collaborate in a different way than we have. We’ve got to be more intentional about who we partner with. I believe the whole world is connected through diabetes for life, and to stop this epidemic and do better it’s only going to happen through collaborations and only if it’s intentional and disruptive.
Some criticize the ADA partnerships with Pharma… can you address that?
There are a number of stakeholders across the board in diabetes, and everybody has a role to play in that ecosystem. We are very clear on what we’re trying to do. We want to bend the curve of this diabetes epidemic, decreasing the number of people who are becoming diabetic and be able to find a cure. Whether you’re Pharma, an advocacy organization, healthcare professional, donor, volunteer, or non-Pharma startup… there’s a role each can play in making things better in diabetes and bending that curve. That’s what we are going after. It comes down to being very clear on your goal and where people can fit into the path to that goal.
That’s all great on the T2 epidemic, but what about type 1?
In our mission statement, we talk about meeting the needs of all people with diabetes. All in all, I don’t think ADA has done a good enough job engaging with everyone in the community and talking about what we’re doing for each (part) of our community. There’s a commonality that we share, even though there are differences. If you talk to anyone internally at ADA, I don’t think anyone would say that we’re focused on one type more than another. But what I’ve learned, is that we aren’t messaging that appropriately for all, for both, or for either one. I honestly don’t think there’s a line, I think we’re trying to help all people connected to diabetes. There are too many people dying from diabetes, and its complications.
What do you think needs to be done on the point of diabetes stigma, especially for type 2s?
Diabetes is just so misunderstood. People just have so much misinformation about diabetes and this condition in general. The more we can educate and stop whispering about it, but speak proudly about it, the better off we’ll be and it will give us an opportunity to turn that stigma around.
So, how was your first experience with the ADA’s Scientific Sessions this June?
I started at a time when it was in the whirlwind of ADA preparing for that big event. As much as I knew what it would be like, it’s an experience like no other. My initial reaction post-event was one of pride. I had the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s most renowned doctors, nurses, educators, researchers in diabetes. They are all focused on bending this curve and improving diabetes care. I had a tremendous sense of pride walking out of there, after seeing those thousands of people who came together all in the name of trying to find a cure and help people with diabetes.
This is one of those things that I feel is a gold-start for ADA, and I’m proud of what we do there at the Scientific Sessions. And as much as I want the healthcare professionals to talk about this event, I equally want people with diabetes and their families talking about the impact of this meeting.
Agreed Tracey! Thank you for taking the time to talk, and share your passion for bringing value to PWDs as you take over the helm at ADA.