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The Conversation, with Karen Hitschke

Karen Hitschke COO WHO Foundation
In our new blog series, “The Conversation”, we will discuss how we can co-create agile and impactful interventions for a healthier world.  Meet Karen Hitschke. Appointed Chief Operating Officer of the WHO Foundation just two months ago, Karen is a trained biologist and a certified executive coach who brings over 25 years of experience in the Biotechnology, Venture Capital, Consulting, Social Business, and Impact Investing industries. In this conversation, we explored what it means to be impactful, what Karen sees as her biggest accomplishments, and what she hopes for the future with the WHO Foundation.

Tell us more about your experience. After over two decades of extensive and diverse experiences in different global organizations, the question one could ask is why the WHO Foundation? 

I actually started out studying biology with a strong will and motivation to save the world from famine. My vision was to develop drought-resistant crops that could be planted everywhere. I soon realized that I lacked the research passion to go through with it and was lucky enough to be offered a job at McKinsey straight out of university. I took a chance and went into business, and got a MBA from INSEAD. To this day, 25 years on, I still rely on the school’s vision of bringing together people, cultures, and ideas to transform business and society.
I then spent about ten years working in venture capital, startups, and early-stage investing, in the field of life sciences, which is my main focus area. This provided an exciting way to combine my biology and business backgrounds. Building projects, systems, and organizations is still something that carries through in what I do, and I’m also still active in this space; I enjoy helping to make things move. 

During my career, I had the opportunity to live in Japan with my family for five years. When I came back to Europe, I really wanted to see how to combine my purpose-driven mindset with my business acumen. This is how I started working with Yunus Social Business, one month after its inception, which was created to fund and support social businesses in emerging economies. During my time, we built it into a multinational organization covering five countries in Latin America, East Africa, and India, and have funded close to 100 social businesses.
This experience essentially taught me how to build an organization from scratch. As I stepped away from the day-to-day operations last summer, I endorsed a more strategic role as a board member.  

Last year, I decided to take a sabbatical to allow more time with my daughter, who was about to graduate from high school. I also enjoyed this low-intensity period of my life to hone my skills and to become a certified executive coach. This experience gave me so much insight in understanding myself, as well as what drives others, how to listen better, and how to manage differently. 

When I was approached for the role of COO with the WHO Foundation early on this year, everything aligned—from my experience in building up organizations from scratch, all the way back to my biology diploma, and my initial hunger for more impact.
Combining my key skills with the opportunity to work under the umbrella of WHO and the WHO Foundation to make a major impact, I was once again given a chance to connect the dots in a significant way.

What do you think the WHO Foundation can do to transform global health?

If anything, it really can be a connector to bridge the gap. 

There are a lot of big players out there. From the likes of WHO, which plays a huge role working on the governmental front, to players like the World Bank, the Global Fund, or NGOs like Medecins Sans Frontières in the health field, a lot of organizations contribute to the conversation within the ecosystem, including the private and corporate sectors, the entire startup environment, social enterprises, grassroots organizations, and more.
As supporters of the WHO Triple Billion targets, it is beyond important for us to be that connector, with innovative programs that are developed with a more integrated approach. We need to make sure that the different stakeholders are really working together, under the WHO umbrella. We need to bring everyone together and look at how we can find and fund interventions that really offer scale and reach people to improve health so everyone can reach their potential.
We also have to make sure that we share learnings and translate these multiple approaches to work in sync, rather than subscribe to a unique perspective. 

Karen Hitschke COO WHO Foundation Quote

What is different about the WHO Foundation and how it can convene partners and supporters to power global health? 

I would emphasize the complementarity of roles. WHO is really a staple and masters a normative role, by putting up frameworks and working with governments. Its ability for high-level conversation and technical leadership is an immeasurable asset. We support this by building a diverse network of partners and supporters to global health response with additional concepts and an open approach.

In terms of funding, we manage to reach individuals and the private sector in a different way. Our collective experiences at the foundation, working with for-profits, NGOs, non-profits, and startups allow us to create innovative funding channels with a social lens, and from various stakeholders. We have the power to mobilize more funds in the health sector from different avenues as a bridge-builder between WHO’s mission and multiple organizations’ willingness to get involved.

What is your vision for the future of our Foundation’s programs?

To create a difference, we need to have comprehensive programs. We want to serve areas that are underfunded, and find a systematic approach to implement for countries and partners that need it most over the next three to five years. 

Whether it’s structural inequities, mental or digital health, we have to integrate government frameworks and public health initiatives with private sector innovations and civil society solutions.
In collaboration with WHO, it is our ability to have a cross-cutting role, but to also develop tools and programs that are well funded, efficient, implementable, and replicable in different regions and environments that will be a game-changer.

What is your biggest achievement to date – personal or professional?

I would say, professionally, my biggest achievement has been building up Yunus Social Business, a sustainable organization that will live on and scale beyond its original founders. It has revolutionized the social impact investing sector, along with other pioneers. It also put impact investing on the map, which was nearly unheard of ten years ago.

And on the private side, no surprise here, I would say my children. At 18 and 20, I am very proud of them, mainly because I am confident that they will make their way. They are responsible and independent… and it takes a village!

What is your motto or personal mantra?

Live and let live.


Laura Eboa Songue

October 6, 2021, 14 min. read
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