In case you missed it, the American Diabetes Association is going through a leadership transition. The big diabetes org brought on a new chief scientific and mission officer early this year and just last month, Kevin Hagan stepped down as CEO after just over two years. In his place is an interim officer, now serving in that role until the ADA completes its national search and names a new permanent leader by year’s end.
Say hello to Martha Clark, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes right after college four decades ago and has multiple family members with diabetes. Notably, she may be the first or one of the only T1 D-peeps to hold the top spot in the ADA’s 77-year history.
Today, we’re happy to share a recent phone interview with Clark, a business leader from California who, aside from her senior-level executive and volunteer non-profit experience, also served in various ADA leadership roles over the past several years before taking over as interim CEO in April.
DM) Thanks for taking the time, Martha! Can we start by talking about your own personal diabetes story?
I’ve had type 1 for 42 years now. I was diagnosed at what was an unusual age at the time: 21. I had just graduated from college three months before, and was on my own living and working in Cambridge, MA.
Like many back in the 1970s, I was misdiagnosed. It took several years to get myself on an insulin regime that worked, so those early years were not happy ones. But over the years, I’ve been able to adopt a lot of the new technology – such as better insulins and data tools – and am very healthy. Like many type 1s, I do manage through difficult days. I’m very grateful there are organizations like ADA that have helped support and drive the discoveries that have resulted in these advances, making me much healthier than I anticipated when I was diagnosed.
Was it tough being diagnosed just out of college and starting out on your own?
You know, I am blessed with a fairly accepting temperament so I take things as they come. I am an “assess where you are and move forward” kind of person, so I have learned how to deal with it. I think (living with this condition) really strengthens character.
Isn’t it amazing to think about how much has changed since your diagnosis days?
Yes, it is. I heard (ADA’s new Chief Scientific Officer) Dr. William Cefalu talk recently about how things were for people diagnosed in the ’70s and early ’80s, and the prospects for their life at the time. It was a much shorter lifespan, and a fairly large percentage of people were experiencing the very worst complications of diabetes. And now, it’s really amazing at how much better people’s prospects are. For me, it wasn’t clear about whether I could even have a healthy child. But I now have a wonderful, beautiful 30-year-old, and was part of a research study at UCSF that helped me get through that pregnancy experience. So I am grateful to the science!
Do you have any other family members with type 1 diabetes?
Yes, I have a whole family filled with people who have diabetes. Our family is the poster child for how incredibly complex this disease is and can’t be simplified. In the two branches of my family – one has always had weight problems yet doesn’t have any trace of diabetes on that side, and the other is quite lean and athletic, and we have some form of diabetes everywhere on our side of the family tree. We have five or six PWDs (people with diabetes) in two generations — my grandfather, my aunt, my cousin, my brother, my sister and I all have type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The two of us who have type 1 were both diagnosed as adults. That surprises people, as we break all of the stereotypes about diabetes.
When did first you get involved with ADA leadership?
It was quite a bit later after diagnosis. I had been involved as a consumer of ADA information – like Diabetes Forecast and various other publications – all along. People with diabetes are always seeking new information and tips on better managing through the day, so that’s been a part of my life through the years.
Then when I retired from 35 years in business as an executive about six years ago, I almost immediately reached out to the ADA to see what I could do as a volunteer.
I worked on the Community Leadership Board in the San Francisco Bay Area for a while and chaired that board, and then led an initiative to engage the technology community in a different kind of partnership than we’d had in the past.
Can you expand on that technology and innovation focus?
We were doing an analysis of what initiatives we could do as local volunteer leaders to press forward. When you’re in the Bay Area, it’s hard to ignore the fact that you’re in the middle of the technology world in Silicon Valley. So we decided we wanted to think about how we find out what tech companies are thinking about, when they’re looking at health, sensors, watches and wearables, etc. What disruptive ways are they developing to distribute healthy food, for example, and what are the device companies exploring?
Also, what are some of the newer forms of technology that haven’t been applied yet but have the potential to help with the behavioral side of managing life with diabetes – whether that’s wearables, or the information they feed back, or Artificial Intelligence like IBM Watson that we’re now partnered with. Or even virtual or augmented reality, other technologies that might help people make better food choices.
Because we were in the Bay Area, we thought we could tap into the leading edge in IT on behalf of the ADA. That led to our first Silicon Valley Summit in 2016 in November, and that led to the recent Innovation Summit just in Chicago and later this year in Boston.
I think there is tremendous potential there for personalized devices and support, and we are really hoping AI can help move toward more precision in the medical devices and specific recommendations for people with diabetes.
An interesting follow-on to the DiabetesMine Innovation Summits we’ve been hosting since 2011. What came next for you with ADA?
I joined the national board at the beginning of 2016, chaired the Finance Committee, and served on the board until mid-March before taking the interim CEO position.
You also have volunteer experience in the global non-profit world, too…?
Yes, I’ve served as a volunteer board member of Project Redwood, a grant making nonprofit focused on global poverty solutions, and am also on the leadership committee for Stanford’s Women on Boards Initiative.
What do you think your professional background brings to this interim CEO role?
For more than 35 years, my career has spanned the strategyconsulting, asset management and banking industries.
My business experience really in some ways prepared me for the ADA, because I’ve always been involved in industries that were undergoing rapid change — generally from outside forces that required a lot of nimbleness from the organization. I was always working in planning or roles like human resources, finance functions, something that was about the infrastructure to be able to transform rapidly to those external situations.
That’s the world the ADA is in right now. We have an exploding number of people who are being diagnosed with diabetes. We have an ecosystem of new products and services to support that growing number. We have players coming out of the woodwork, from non-health companies you might never have thought would get involved in diabetes — like the Googles, Apples, and IBMs of the world — that are suddenly bringing their knowledge and resources to this problem. Things are changing so rapidly, and my hope is that my prior business experience can help ADA find its way through the transformation we’re undergoing.
What must the ADA do in adapting to this changing diabetes landscape?
It really started last year when we started thinking deeply about the future and put a new Strategic Plan together. My charge during this interim role is to continue that journey, which I am very committed to moving forward.
Adapting to this rapidly-changing ever-more-global situation with diabetes requires us to change because we’re one of the authoritative voices in diabetes. And we must do that with a sense of urgency. It requires us to change the way we think about our role in this rapidly changing environment; our relationship with each of the ecosystem players and how we partner with the traditional and non-traditional players; and how we best work together. All of these things are being transformed. It’s a very exciting challenge, but a big one!
Isn’t that one of the biggest challenges in a large established org like ADA, that it isn’t typically quick to change or move on important issues?
Being big has its benefits. It does give us credibility, in that we have 75+ years of accumulated knowledge and understanding of this disease. But yes, you’re right, in that sometimes it’s harder to turn the ship. Now, though, we have no choice. The reality is that in order to fulfill our mission, we must do it. So that’s what we are doing.
Can you address the ADA’s approach to hot button issues such as insulin affordability and diabetes access?
These are incredibility important. The issue of affordability is a bigger one than just insulin, of course. But we did decide to tackle that one directly last year (with the Make Insulin Affordable initiative and call to action). That affordability issue does extend to healthcare reform and the Affordable Care Act, that we fought on for years in protecting and advancing those protections. It extends to the cost not just of insulin, but to how this is a very expensive disease to have from a personal point of view. So it comes to co-pays increasing in private insurance coverage and so much more. There are a lot of questions around affordability and access, and it’s a personal focus for ADA because for us, medications and devices that are prescribed – whether insulin, pills or CGM – are essential needs. These are not optional.
We know this disease is disproportionately impacting disadvantaged communities who can ill afford to take proper care of themselves, and so it’s the affordability of the disease that is the real target for us at ADA.
On that note, do you think your personal connection to T1D adds any credibility to the Association?
I think you’ll all have to tell me that. It’s not for me to say. I am sure there are things I understand because I have diabetes, that may not be as easy for others to understand. But when it comes to moving forward the science, I have to say there is no more committed group of people than the staff I’ve met here. Whether they have diabetes or not, the people at ADA understand and are truly committed to addressing the problems associated with it. So, I think it’s for you and the outside world to say whether that gives the ADA more “personal” credibility. If it does, I hope I find a way to use it on behalf of people with diabetes. Because that’s really all that matters.
What would you like to say about the evolution of ADA as you’ve seen it?
One thing I’d like the community to know is that it’s an incredibly exciting time in science. That is at the core of everything we do. We are always looking at what the evidence-based science is telling us about how we can work on the disease, and move closer to a cure… it’s just very exciting.
The annual ADA Scientific Sessions are right around the corner in early June… How are you getting prepped for that?
It’s one of our signature weeks of the year, so I am looking forward to it. This will be my fourth Scientific Sessions in a row, so I’m starting to get a sense of how they evolve and the value they provide.
If you go to the Scientific Sessions now, as opposed to 30 years ago (when neither you nor I were there), I suppose you’d be looking at research and science from a host of different fields – immunology, genetics, and just a whole set of fields that were minuscule or non-existent decades ago. Or in my case 42, at age when I was told a cure was right around the corner and knew that wasn’t so near.
Today, it actually does feel like a cure is right around the corner and I find that incredibly exciting. I leave the Scientific Sessions now with such a feeling of hope, which I certainly had lost there for a number of years. To me, that’s the important message about where we are today. We are really in the middle of intense discovery around this disease, and the ADA’s committed to bringing every resource to bear. These Scientific Sessions are really an important forum for the sharing of that information.
So with the search for a new permanent CEO underway, are you interested in putting your name into the hat?
I’m very focused on the interim role, so it’s not my intention right now to apply. But I’ve made a practice all my life of never saying “Never” — and diabetes has taught me also to never say “soon” (laughs). I have to say, I’m having a lot of fun getting to deal with the guts of the needs here at ADA, and that’s what is important right now.
As interim leader, I am driving the Strategic Plan forward and I want to really prepare the groundwork for whoever may be the next CEO to be successful and jump into the role quickly, because there is no time to lose.
Thank you for taking the time to speak, Martha! We appreciate the perspective you bring to ADA, and are eager to see how you help guide the group forward.