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Interview: Allen Wilcox of VillageReach on his post-Microsoft job: changing healthcare in Mozambique

,    /   Sep 15th, 2010International, Interviews

One of the toughest challenges facing social innovators today is attracting the talent needed to build world-class organizations. That’s why we feel it’s significant when a high-ranking business leader decides to redirect his or her focus to solve global problems. Allen Wilcox is a good example. Until a few years ago Wilcox was the Associate General Council at Microsoft, where he helped develop new distribution channels and supported international expansion for a gigantic corporation. But after a midlife career change, he joined VillageReach, which expands access to health care in some of Africa’s most remote communities. As the organization’s president, Wilcox oversees the distribution of vaccines, medical equipment and other essential tools to rural health centers in Mozambique.

Wilcox’s Microsoft experience helps him to oversee and manage VillageReach’s for-profit social businesses, VidaGas and Medical Information Systems (MIS), which provide health centers and other customers with affordable propane and analyze medical data to chart healthcare progress at the local and national level. These businesses not only earn profits that support VillageReach’s work, they fill in infrastructure gaps in the healthcare system.

Here, Wilcox describes VillageReach’s work and the benefits it brings to many people, including himself.

Dowser: At what point in your life were you drawn to the international social sector?
Wilcox: Upon retirement from Microsoft , and after a career in international business. I was very fortunate, because after retiring I had time and money. I had the luxury to do something that benefits someone else that really needs it. Why not turn to the people that could really benefit from my services in a huge way but can’t afford them?

Were you a lawyer because you didn’t know what else to do?
I don’t know. There’s a point at which you can work really hard and do all-nighters to close deals, and you’re proud that you’ve been able to bring all these people together, negotiate the arrangements so that everybody’s happy, but in the end, you wonder: does it really matter? For me, after a while it got old. Being a lawyer was a diversion and I always had a sense that I needed to come back and do something that mattered. But because of that diversion I gained a lot of experience and I can do things that people need, so it gave me the opportunity to step in and do that. And so I started looking for those opportunities.

Was there any fear involved in leaving such a high-level fast-paced job?
No, not so much. You’re so worn out, you’re ready to go. When you get up in the morning and you don’t want to read your email, it’s not exciting and you’re frustrated, it’s time to go ‘cause it’s a total burn out, and you don’t have the energy to be creative. That’s when it’s time to go do something different.

After volunteering with VillageReach for four years, how did you become president?
Village Reach was started by Blaise Judja-Sato, who ran it for a long period of time. At some point, I think Blaise probably burned out and went back into working in normal business. He just needed to disappear for a while.

Like many start ups, I think VillageReach had difficulty transitioning to Phase II. That’s where it’s helpful to bring new people in. I was asked to step in, to try to take it to the next level.

Are you worried about burnout?
I’m worried about that for everybody in the organization. The need is so huge and you can see that your work makes a difference, but people get pretty consumed by it. They can run themselves into the ground. I think it’s likely that at some point I will say, ‘O.K., it’s time for me to stop, bring in new energy.’

Does VillageReach meet any resistance? Are there some governments that just don’t believe it’ll work?
Typically, people welcome help, so usually there’s not a lot of resistance. The countries that we work with are generally open to work with us once we’ve established that we’ll do what we say we’ll do, and bring in expertise and resources. You have to be integrated with what they want to accomplish, which is the best way to be sustainable. We plan to ultimately turn our work over to the local government so they carry it on.

What is VillageReach’s ultimate goal?
The basic goal is to make sure that vaccines are being given to the population. You can’t vaccinate children if the vaccines are bad, or if they’re out of stock. If you’re a mother and you carry your kids five miles to the health center to get the vaccine that people say you need to get, and they’re out of stock, and they say come back tomorrow, your trust in the system goes way down. Your use of the system goes way down, and as a result, kids are not vaccinated. So what we do is make sure that those support systems are running and that vaccines can be given, so that kids are not dying from what are otherwise preventable diseases.

How is that accomplished?
The field coordinator who’s making the rounds has a form that they go through. They record information, they check the refrigerator, they check the temperature, they check the stock. They bring that form back and upload it into a database and it goes up on the Internet and it gets consolidated and it reports back. If that encourages them to do a better job then it’s going to have implications for the population. Ultimately, everything we do is that end result: to reduce mortality. We’re just a piece of all the things that need to happen. So we focus on our piece.

Talk a bit about your initiatives in Malawi, and how they reflect VillageReach’s approach to community health work.
In Malawi, the government had a program to train pharmacists. What they didn’t have were the resources to train assistants or others who need to manage the stock medical supplies.

What we are trying to do is start up a two-year internship program in which students spend six months in the classroom and a year and a half rotating between health centers. Our objective is not just to train the hundred, but to get the program running, to set up a system that you [can ultimately] turn over to the government. So if this [effort] is successful, and the government wants, we’ll carry it out to the rest of the country, and then we’ll be turning it over to them.

So your spread strategy is about turning over your programs to be run by the local government.

Who funds your work?
We get our money from donations, primarily from foundations. Like any NGO, funding is the major issue. We do have a social business aspect and I think there were high hopes initially that the business would generate funding for the program. It does supply some financial benefit to the program, but it doesn’t fund all of it and so there will always be a need for charitable donations.

Can you elaborate on the social business aspect of your program?
We identify, in the health system, the kinds of activities that need to be done: there need to be doctors, there need to be people to buy drugs, people to create new drugs, people to make drugs, people to deliver the drugs, people to build the buildings, all the different activities that need to happen for healthcare system to work. We identify a subset of those activities, and we create a program that provides a system that delivers all those services. Our idea is that the services need to be provided, and we can provide them as part of a program that’s charitably funded. For those services to continue to be provided, someone’s going to have to keep paying for them.

And how do you ensure that people will keep paying?
It’s a sustainability issue. Most funders want to see the change, and then go somewhere else, to work on another project. They don’t want to continue every year to keep writing checks to keep the services going. We’re looking for creative ways to get the services started and then hand them off to local ownership, to local control so they keep going.

But what’s the motivation for locals to keep it a social business as opposed to transforming it into something more profitable?
The key is to keep it connected to social benefit, because you don’t want [for the people in charge to be thinking,] ‘I can make more money selling to restaurants than I can to health centers, so I won’t sell to health centers.’ We want to protect the health centers through long-term service contracts that give them payable pricing and priority in times of emergency. In this way we can benefit the business because we’re giving them a stable anchor customer and we can benefit the health centers because we can give them, through these contracts, favorable terms and security.

What’s the best part of working for VillageReach?
The strength of VillageReach is taking business and nonprofit people and putting them together to try to blend and create things. This is one of the things that I like most about VillageReach. If I have a proposal to do and I have someone who has a very different view on the world take a look at it, they’re going to add something that I never would have thought of. It’ll look drastically different than my original concept, but the end result is so much better than I ever could have done myself.

Any advice for aspiring social innovators?
I think you just have to go out and look for opportunities and evaluate the one that seems right and go with it. And then keep your head up always looking for new opportunities that make sense. I don’t think there’s any one right way.

There’s nothing wrong with going off and having a for-profit career. What’s wrong is never doing anything with it to help people.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: VillageReach

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