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To Succeed in Global Health, Women Leaders Must Leave Fear Behind

Four questions for Maqsoda Maqsodi, IntraHealth’s interim president and CEO.

We sat down with Maqsoda Maqsodi, IntraHealth International's new interim president and chief executive officer, to talk about her vision for the organization and the women who've inspired her to succeed in the field of global health.

1. What drew you to global health and development and how have those experiences shaped your leadership style? 

My background and childhood experiences drew me to global health and development.  I am the daughter of an incredible Afghan woman. Widowed at a young age, my mother took a leap of faith and smuggled her 10 children (including me) from Afghanistan into the United States. She is my role model because she didn’t have any fear in the face of so many obstacles. She raised all 10 of us in the US and now we’re all thriving because of her. She knew she had to take chances in life, that she couldn’t be scared of what was ahead.

So when I’ve faced challenges and opportunities, I’ve learned from her that you have to face them head on. You can’t fear challenges. You have to rise to them.

I witnessed firsthand the dedication and empathy health workers have for their clients.

When we arrived in the United States, my sister was diagnosed with cancer as a result of undetected and untreated Hepatitis B. Her diagnosis altered my life and provided me with insight into the tremendous impact health workers have on their clients. My sister was one of the first liver transplant recipients at the University of Virginia Medical Center and she spent four months at the hospital recovering from the transplant. I saw the tireless efforts of the health workers, the amazing nurses and doctors who cared for her and helped her regain all of her mobility. While my sister would go on to lose her fight against cancer, her diagnosis and treatment forever altered me. I witnessed firsthand the dedication and empathy health workers have for their clients. Learning about the importance of empathy so early on led me to be successful in my career. I genuinely care about people and take the time to listen to them.

In 2004, I graduated from college at American University in Washington, DC—around the same time Afghanistan was re-liberated from the Taliban. Watching, reading, and hearing about what was going on in my country, especially from the family I still had there, made me realize how privileged I was. I was able to come to the US (thanks to my mom) and have a totally different outlook than my cousins who were still living in Afghanistan.

These three experiences shaped who I am today. I’m bringing what I learned from them—empathy, fearlessness, and humility—to this new leadership role at IntraHealth as we go on a journey together and push for a transformational agenda that will lead to a strong organization that can help save more lives.

2. What advice do you have for future generations who want to pursue meaningful work?  

I think it’s important for everyone to know they are capable of creating change, even and especially at an individual level.

You can get involved and help shape the future of global health. And the work you are doing is in some way helping to save lives, whether by providing better health services today or building the infrastructure for stronger health systems tomorrow.

You have as much to say as anyone else does. Speak up. Be heard.

But to build stronger health systems, we need strong leaders. And that’s where young people come in.

I would advise our future leaders, and especially young women of color, not to get intimidated. You have as much to say as anyone else does. Speak up. Be heard. You are more capable than you think. Don’t be afraid of what you have to say.

If I could go back and tell teenage Maqsoda anything, it would be don’t be afraid. Take chances. It’s not terrifying. Believe in yourself and move forward.

3. Are there particular women who have inspired you and helped you get to this leadership position? 

My mom is most certainly my inspiration. She singlehandedly raised 10 children in northern Virginia after fleeing Afghanistan as a single parent. You can’t get any more powerful than that.

I’m also so inspired by the women I work with every day at IntraHealth. For example, Lavinia Shikongo is one of my colleagues who works at IntraHealth Namibia. She is such a dynamic, supportive, and inspiring leader. She’s an example of someone who has a clear vision for the organization and has charted a successful path to growth, priming IntraHealth Namibia to the prime recipient of USG funding.  And because of that, Namibia has more high-quality and accessible health services.

As women, we have to help each other to thrive and grow in this field.

I’m also inspired by Lucy Mphuru, IntraHealth’s director of strategic information and previous country director for our Tanzania projects. She led our CDC-funded Tohara Plus project in Tanzania, which had unprecedented success providing voluntary medical male circumcision services in the country and achieving tremendous health outcomes. She has such a strong work ethic, effective leadership style, and she is a mother balancing everything.

I’m fortunate to be working with so many women who inspire me. And I’m proud that women hold 52% of the senior leadership positions at IntraHealth. They all encourage and motivate me. I know that I have a community that supports me and every other woman in our field. It’s a sisterhood. I can share my vulnerabilities and show my weakness with them. We support each other and amplify each other’s voices.  

As women, we have to help each other to thrive and grow in this field. We must be advocates for each other.

4. What are your hopes for IntraHealth's programs over the next 5 years? 

I’m so proud of the dedicated professionals who work at IntraHealth. We have such strong, dynamic leaders across all of our projects and the countries we work in.

With these strong teams in place, I know we can continue to find new ways to fulfill our mission to support health workers and the systems in which they work. We can be more efficient, sustainable, and local. And we can do it, not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do.

If we do it right, we’ll be able to help even more communities, families, and health workers to thrive, not only for the next five years, but for decades to come.

Learn more about Maqsoda Maqsodi here.