From medicine to development
MEDA’s new president is first doctor, woman to hold the position
As a child growing up in Cameroon, Dorothy Nyambi wanted to pursue a career in medicine.
Initially, Dr. Nyambi wanted to be a pharmacist, as she believed pharmacists cured people. “I later found out the pharmacist fills out the prescription. They don’t really diagnose the disease.”
That insight altered the career path of the woman who will become MEDA’s president and chief executive officer in late November. Nyambi, a dual citizen of Canada and Cameroon, will succeed Allan Sauder, who is retiring from a post he has held for 16 years.Nyambi will be introduced to MEDA members at the annual convention in Indianapolis, Nov. 8-11. She will work closely with Sauder through a transition period to the end of the year.
Nyambi was concerned about caring for others from an early age. “I thought I’d like to diagnose the disease and take care of people. I went to medical school with that in mind.”
After graduating and beginning to practice medicine, she realized the reality was different.
Her work as a medical doctor in northern Cameroon, near the semi-arid Sahel region, convinced her that she needed to do “upstream” interventions to help people before they become sick. “You’ve got to intervene before they get to that stage.”
In the developing world, both upstream (preventive) and downstream (reactive) interventions, are solidly under resourced, and inadequate, she said in an interview at her home in Ancaster, Ontario.
By contrast, as a practicing physician, she found people were falling downstream at a rate that overwhelmed her ability to help. “I can only do one C-section at a time. If they are coming at a rate of 10 per hour, nine mothers and their unborn babies might not make it.”
After working as a medical doctor for more than seven years, she began to ask herself: “How can I still use my effort, my knowledge, my energy, to work in such a way that I continue to be more upstream (focused) rather than downstream?”
That reflection led her to a career in international development.She worked as a medical officer for the US Peace Corps, then as a regional director for Right to Play International, an organization that uses educational games to help children overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease. She later served as vice-president, international programs with the Canadian Executive Service Organization, which uses Canadian volunteers to work overseas with private and public sectors in all areas of business activities.
Her most recent role, as executive vice-president of AIMS-NEI (The African Institute for Mathematical Studies Next Einstein Initiative), saw her based in Africa for about nine months a year, first in Cape Town, South Africa, and for the past two years in Kigali, Rwanda.
AIMS is a pan-African network of centres of excellence enabling Africa’s talented students to become innovators driving the continent’s scientific, educational and economic self-sufficiency.
Once AIMS relocated to Kigali, she began considering returning to Canada, to be nearer family — husband David, a telecom engineer, and their three adult children, Trevor, Agatha and David Jr., who are all in Ontario.
Travel came early in Dorothy Nyambi’s life. She did some schooling and visited in the United Kingdom when her parents attended university there at different stages of their careers. After leaving home to do undergrad studies in Wisconsin, she returned to Cameroon to achieve her dream of becoming a medical doctor.
“Travelling is a wonderful teacher,” she said, expressing gratitude that her parents wanted to ensure that she and her two brothers were exposed to other countries, to learn more about the world.
“There’s no teacher in the world like travel, where you find yourself in an airport where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture. Travel takes you away from your comfort zone. “No amount of learning about anything can beat trying to get on a plane, a boat, get on the road even.”
Nyambi has experienced all those things in a career that has seen her work throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and North America.
She first heard about MEDA a decade ago, while doing consulting for a Canadian microfinance organization then known as Gems of Hope (later Impact First International) that was working in Latin America.
That wasn’t her first exposure to Mennonites. During a previous job with the US Peace Corps in Chad 15 years ago, she met Mennonite Central Committee volunteers there. “We relied upon and worked together quite a bit.”
Born and baptized Presbyterian, she and David have attended Harvest Bible Church and a Presbyterian congregation in recent years. “We just continue to pray that the Lord will have us in the right home church base.”
Her interest in MEDA was fuelled by an appreciation for how it brings business and faith together. “For me, the biggest drive is the approach of MEDA to development — using business to create those sustainable livelihoods.”
MEDA’s model and multiplier effect has been done very well, she said. “I don’t know if it has been announced enough. It is like a secret, because it just keeps happening, but people don’t know as much about it globally as should be known.”
“The impact and level of the work is really what attracted me to the position.”
She lauds MEDA’s value chain approach, which focuses on sustainability so that “when you leave, it is so structural, what has happened. It is about the whole combination between projects, and then you move on to investments, and so on. That is really what is going to uplift GDP and bring the (positive) changes.
“We’re talking about a more equitable world. I would certainly say that the model of MEDA, and the approach, is really effective, very well done.
“Now it needs to be really taken to scale.”
Biographical notes from speaking engagements show Nyambi describing herself as a social entrepreneur. “When you have that extra, it’s better to give it to the greater good than to keep it for yourself,” she said.
She believes in taking her talents and re-engineering them for the benefit of others, so profits are used to contribute to the greater good and for more social equity for all “For me, that’s what social entrepreneurship means.”
Nyambi says no one thing motivates her, rather a combination of things. “What can I do to contribute, to make somebody healthier, happier, to make somebody feel like they can do something better for themselves and others?”
She describes her management style by referencing a business book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.
The central metaphor of the book is that if a spider’s head is cut off it dies. If a starfish’s leg is cut off, the starfish grows a new one, and the separated leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.
Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world.
“It’s really working in a way so that everyone can function, that if someone were to leave, nothing falls apart,” she said.
“What I bring to the table is, if you know your job and have the tools, how can I support? I think as a leader, I am there to serve, so other people can do their job well.” ◆