Friday, January 19, 2024
Season 3, Episode 2:
Women Entrepreneurs Changing the Game in Public Health
Season 3, Episode 2: Women Entrepreneurs Changing the Game in Public Health
Welcome to the Public Health Joy Podcast — the safe space for real and honest conversations about what it takes to transform public health research into life-changing solutions for our communities.
I’m your host, Dr. Joyee, a public health researcher, PhD survivor, and entrepreneur. In today’s episode, we’re talking with Jennifer McKeever about how women entrepreneurs are changing the game in public health.
This is the joy ride you’ve been waiting for. Join us as we revolutionize public health through research done … with … for … and BY our communities. Together, let’s create our Public Health Joy!
Many of us have experienced a pivotal moment in our lives where we couldn’t just keep talking, we had to take action. And sometimes the best way to ensure action takes place is to enlist the help of your community, rather than attempt to go at it alone. Such was the experience of Jennifer McKeever, Founder and Managing Partner of WE Public Health, a growing collective of women consultants, all of whom are committed to making a difference in their profession.
In today’s episode, we talk with Jennifer about the founding of WE Public Health, why she did so with a collective of brilliant women, and how they have set about supporting others in their profession. We discuss the many challenges women face, from the racism experienced by women of color to overall sexism, and why WE Public Health is dedicated to the idea of allowing women to lead on their own terms.
Jennifer also expands on how they run their operations at WE Public Health, the effort being made to truly embrace the cooperative model, how this sets them apart, and why our current systems make cooperatives so difficult. To hear the full scope of all the incredible things happening at WE Public Health, be sure to tune in to this important conversation!
For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit https://joyeewashington.com/researchconsulting/
- Get to know our guest, Jennifer McKeever. [0:55]
- How Jennifer and a collective of women first conceptualized WE Public Health. [02:25]
- Why so many women are making the transition to a solopreneurship. [04:30]
- How WE Public Health helps support women in the public health profession. [05:30]
- What Jennifer learned from initiating a collective of consultants. [06:51]
- An overview of what makes WE Public Health unique in its operations. [08:35]
- The cooperative spirit at the heart of their organization; why they are committed to it despite the challenges. [10:38]
- Why Jennifer is consistently blown away by the untapped talent in public health. [15:21]
- How different backgrounds and lived experiences contribute to public health work. [17:08]
- The story of how Jennifer was first introduced to public health as a profession. [18:41]
- Why you can’t have an optimal outcome if you don’t have good processes and relationships. [24:11]
- Unpacking how WE Public Health builds robust, lasting relationships between collaborators, consultants, and clients. [25:18]
- Insight into WE Public Health’s tailored approach to consulting. [0:30:46]
- Jennifer shares what brings her joy in her work and how you can get in touch. [32:42]
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[0:00:55] JW: Welcome to another great episode of The Public Health Joy podcast. Today, we have a very special guest, which is Jennifer McKeever, who is the Founder and Managing Partner of WE Public Health, which is a growing collective of women consultants, who support people in organizations to boldly create a more just an equitable world.
She is a creative relationship focused leader with over 20 years of experience guiding programs, policy, and operations to advance health, equity, and a workforce capacity. So, I have to tell y’all, Jennifer and I have been working together for a little bit now. When I came across WE Public Health, I actually heard about it from a colleague of mine. And that colleague was saying, “Hey, there’s this organization. They’re looking for consultants. I think you might be a good fit.” So, I looked at the website. I said, “This is interesting. I’m just going to apply and see what happens.” I’m a very just fly by the wind kind of person sometimes. So, I said, “You know what? I’m going to check it out.” And I will say, I have enjoyed being a consultant and collaborator with WE Public Health thus far. So, Jennifer, I am going to turn it over to you, to tell the folks who you are, what you do. Tell us all about WE Public Health and all the things.
[0:02:25] JMK: Yes, I will. I’m going to be curious to know who referred you because I don’t remember. But you can tell me that offline, perhaps. So, yes, I’m Jennifer and I founded WE Public Health three years ago, a little over three years ago. It was in the summer of 2020, which was an interesting time for our country on a lot of different fronts, and I found myself in a position of needing a job for the first time in 20 plus years. So, I said to the world, “I’m going to take a personal sabbatical.” And what that really meant is, I need to take a minute and figure out what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life. And what happened surprised me a little bit, and that was that I actually already knew, I just hadn’t quite been able to say it out loud yet. And that was to embark on this world of consulting, not as a solopreneur, or an individual consultant, but as a collective with women who were in public health, and doing extraordinary things in public health, but sometimes found themselves limited by organizational bureaucracy. In some cases, by blatant or more subtle forms of racism and sexism and other isms.
So, we formed WE Public Health, a group of about 10 women came together to really kind of conceptualize what WE Public Health could be. Our goal is to really do meaningful work in public health, and do it in a way that honors the specific value and capacity that women bring to the field of public health, and acknowledge the talent, and allow women who are bringing that talent to lead and do the work on their own terms. To allow women to lead on their own terms while making a real difference in public health.
[0:04:30] JW: And I think that’s one of the things that really intrigued me about WE, when I first learned about it, because the solopreneur life is so hard. It is so hard, and yet there are so many of us who are now making that transition in public health to be entrepreneurs, and being a solopreneur is kind of the first step of that. So, as we are embarking on this new journey because we want to make an impact. We want to help our communities. We want to make a difference. A lot of times doing it in the way of working in the traditional workplace, or for a traditional organization has not served us well, especially for consultants, for entrepreneurs, for public health professionals, and researchers of color.
Black women, we have not been served well by a lot of these workplaces and toxic workplace culture. So, one of the things that I loved about WE was I said, “Oh, now when there is an opportunity, when there is an RFP, when there is an organization that needs assistance, I don’t have to try to tackle it by myself. Because I’m going to be honest, a lot of times, I just be like, you moved that file to the trash. It was nice reading that RFP. But I know I can’t do that by myself and I don’t even know where to start, or how to get help in order to tackle this RFP, or to address this organization’s needs.”
So, being a part of WE has allowed me to have more capacity, right? More capacity, and has allowed me to build relationships, because the solopreneur life is solo y’all, it’s lonely, sometimes. Okay. Especially, when you’re trying to figure out everything on your own. So, I don’t have coworkers. I don’t go into an office every day. I don’t have an office bestie that I chat with. Being in a collective and in a place with other women and other women who understand. Having that community of other women in the public health profession, who understand who are fighting to make a difference every single day. And we’re doing this together.
[0:06:51] JMK: Yes. So, I said, I knew what I wanted to do and that was to try to initiate a collective of consultants. That was born out of many years of talking with consultants. I did an inadvertent qualitative study in a way, and that I talked to a lot of people that had gone into consulting to find out why did you do it? What did you experience in the workplace? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? There were a number of things. But to your point, a predominant one was missing working in community, and in partnership with others, and not feeling kind of so alone. Whereas a consultant might work with, say, four different clients and have fantastic relationships with those four different clients, but doesn’t have a partner that is working across all those clients with them. So, what is a way to have all of the benefits of a consultant life and all of the benefits of being part of a team. I think that’s what we’re trying to build, in WE Public Health.
[0:07:55] JW: The other thing that I love is we public health is the workplace environment that I’ve never had. It’s the environment that fosters that collaboration and healthy relationships among the people that you work with. So, that has been one of the things that I have enjoyed most about WE Public Health. But I also want to hear from you. What else is it about WE Public Health that you feel, makes WE Public Health unique in how it operates? In how it works with clients? And how we as a collective, build relationships with clients as well?
[0:08:35] JMK: Yes. Well, first of all, thanks for saying that, because that is the evidence and information I need to reaffirm that we’re on the right track with where we’re going. So, it’s really helpful for me to hear that from you and from any of the collaborators. I think, a couple of things, when I mentioned that we had a group of 10 women that came together to conceptualize what WE Public Health is, and I had the fortune in my previous jobs where I had exposure to a lot of people across the country. So, that meant I had exposure to a lot of really fantastic women who were doing fantastic things, and were willing to be an advisor to me, and kind of conceptualizing what WE Public Health is.
So, right there from the beginning, it wasn’t something that I did in the solitude of my own home, in my own brain. It was something that I did in community and connection with other professional women. So, we had a good sense of who we want to be, what we want to be like, how we want to show up in the world, and how we really want to – I mean, I think an undercurrent to all of the conversations were we cannot keep talking and not taking action. Like, how do we really, really do something meaningful? So, there was a drive to kind of push away this – not the smoke and mirrors, but push away the BS, if I may say, and get to the heart of the matter. So, right now, what makes WE different is that we’re really trying to embrace a cooperative model.
In the first year, I actually did a lot of research about what are the different types of business models in the world? And what is a co-op? So, you have a co-op grocery store. What does that actually mean for people to get an individual benefit, a collective benefit, while contributing to something greater? I think that in the ways that we are building and growing, really trying to keep that cooperative spirit at the heart of it. It’s kind of hard, because our world restricts that, or it’s not natural. So, as an example, when we start talking about administrative details, like, okay, how are you going to decide what rate consultants get paid? How are you going to decide who gets what piece of work? Are you going to think about seniority? Are you going to think about who gets the right of refusal for a piece of work?
When we start getting into that level, which is, it’s real, these decisions have to be made, and I think, in creating a business. But we can spin out on those so quickly and instantly lose what’s in it for us, versus what’s in it for me. So, I think we’ve really tried to hold to the spirit of a cooperative model, which is, everybody has a say in where we go and how we go there, versus a select few. And to try to do that even when it’s hard, and even when it’s messy, which it is often both.
So, I think that’s sort of a general answer about what makes it different. But I would also say kind of on a more personal note is, before I started WE, I was having kind of a professional – I mean, it wasn’t exactly a crisis. But I felt a real difference in who I was and what I was feeling on the inside, and how I was expected to portray myself and represent myself on the outside. I’m certain that’s not going to be shocking or unfamiliar to you, and having to maintain a professional self, versus a personal self. I believe that in WE, we are really creating a space where it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be like, I feel like, whatever I feel like today, and that’s fine. We all have bad days, we all have good days, and we all have something to offer and contribute. I’d like to think that people feel comfortable in WE just being who they are.
[0:13:01] JW: And you bring two points that I want to bring out. Number one, of course, embracing the messiness, right? Because just in general relationships, I don’t care what kind of relationship you’re talking about. It can be messy. And so, in thinking about, in public health show, nothing is messy. Okay. We got a whole lot of stuff going on. So, taking the time to embrace the messiness and trying to understand how do we work through it, not ignore it, not push it to the side, not sweep it under the rug. But how do we address it head on and address it head on together? That means having some hard conversations. That means facing some uncomfortable truths. That means dealing with some things that maybe we haven’t forced ourselves to deal with before. But as a collective, if we know that we’re in this together, and having that workplace culture, where we’re tackling this thing together, and we all have a common goal. We all have a common vision. We’re all focused on how do we get to this more equitable and just world. That’s what we’re focused on. In order to get there, in order to achieve this goal, we’ve got to work through the midst, right? We’ve got to work through the midst.
And part of working through the midst, which brings me to point number two, is making sure that we lean on and embrace everybody’s individual talents and strengths. That’s the other thing that I love about WE, is that we have so many collaborators with so many talents. We’ve got evaluators. We’ve got trainers. We’ve got strategists. We’ve got thought partners, facilitators, researchers, community advocates, creatives. I mean you name it. It’s in WE, baby. It’s there. Okay. We’ve got it all.
So, whoever comes to the table, whoever is saying, “Hey, I have this problem, I need a solution”, we can pull it from any direction. So, that has been incredible to see this group of women who have so much to offer the world, so much to offer the world, and we’re doing it together, and we’re working through the midst to do it.
[0:15:21] JMK: Yes. I have been consistently blown away by the talent that is out there, and I keep seeing information and reports about the shrinking public health workforce, and we’re having a hard time recruiting people into the public health workforce, and Joyee, maybe you can help me do this research study, because I’m not sure that it’s not just shifting, and that people are leaving traditional work culture for the opportunity to work independently as a consultant. So, when we first started kind of putting the word out about who we were, and people like yourself reached out to us. As you know, I’ve had individual conversations with everybody and continue to do that, and I am consistently amazed by the talent. Not only is their talent, it’s untapped talent. It’s not being used in a way that could really make a meaningful difference in the world.
I believe – to the point about the messiness, I had a boss that used to say to me that, “Jennifer, you’re a process person. You’re great with process. But sometimes you got to think about the outcomes.” And that was really hard for me, because I believe everything is in the process. And it is in the relationships we have with each other and the building the trust, and that is the work. The work of the outcome, or getting to the outcome is not the work. The work is the relationships and building those. So, I continue to have that belief, I think, reinforced by the amazing people that are part of WE Public Health.
[0:17:08] JW: So, as you were talking, one of the other things that came to my mind is that we also come from so many different backgrounds. Not only do we have all of these talents, but all these talents stemmed from somewhere, right? And we have all these different backgrounds. So, for me, I’m in biomedical sciences. For someone else, they may have a different type of background, and even for you. Like I said, I was doing my research, prepping for this podcast episode, and I said, “How did I not know Jennifer had a social work degree? Why didn’t I know that?” It was interesting, because I don’t come from a background in social work. But I have worked for a social work department. And it’s so interesting how social work and public health are so connected. And the other part of that is we always say public health isn’t everything. Public health isn’t everything, right?
So, all these different backgrounds, all these people coming together. Like you said, we have these untapped talents, we don’t know where people have come from. We don’t know how their strengths developed. We don’t know how we can help each other without going through this relationship building process. So, I will be interested to hear how you put social work and public health together, because now it’s a little bit more common than it used to be. Now, we’ve got the dual social work and public health programs, and that wasn’t around when I was coming up. Back in my day, we didn’t have –
[0:18:41] JMK: Don’t talk to me about back in the day. We’re going to be pulling out the birth certificates. I think, I probably, I’m going to win that one.
So, your question makes me want to respond in one way too, about the different experience and talents, is that a lot of the experience that I think people are bringing to their work, and then making it richer because of it, is lived experience. We talk about that as sort of a, like, let’s bring the people who are experiencing whatever the issue is, or suffering from whatever the issue is. But I’ve sat at tables where people are talking about substance use and opioid addiction, and that’s something that I have a strong personal connection with, and that has really played a big impact in my life. At that table, nobody said, “Do we have anybody here that has family members, or themselves might be experiencing this issue? Let’s start there and learn from that.”
And I hope that for us, we are bringing that lived experience to the level, if not beyond the level of professional and educational experience. So, we do say that as part of our values at WE Public Health. But I did didn’t really know what social work was or what public health was until I was in my mid-20s. I knew after college, I wanted to do something that was to help people. But I didn’t know what that meant. I actually applied for jobs in human resources, because I thought I want to be a resource to humans. I quickly learned that that’s not exactly what that means. And I had an opportunity to volunteer in Honduras after college for about a year, and I was exposed there to public health and like, what is public health, that this is actually a profession that people can do, and make a living at.
So, that was my first introduction to public health as a career choice. Then also there, I started to understand how the way that I wanted to give back or help people seem to be well described in social work. While I was in Honduras, I actually studied for and took the GRE to apply for graduate schools. At the time, I think there were six schools that had a dual degree for social work in public health, and I applied to a few of those, and ended up going to Tulane University. I found that the complement, at least in that educational program, was on the side of social work, really learned a lot about like community development, relationship development, supporting communities to find their own strengths, and build on those own strengths. And in public health, I got more of the like process and science skills, like how do you design a program? How do you evaluate a program? How do you get funding for your program?
So, it was a little bit of a heart and mind kind of connection for me and it’s something that I’ve seen throughout my career, where I’ve felt that the heart is missing from public health, and that’s where I really pull from, I think, some of my exposure to social work education is really kind of the heart of what we’re trying to do with We Public Health, I think.
[0:22:16] JW: And I can identify with that, because when I went through my public health program, that’s what I noticed as well, was that you have the folks who do the epidemiology, and they do the bio stats, and you got the health policy folks, or you got the environmental health folks over here. You kind of have all these different areas, but my area was health education. That’s where I first made the connection that, “Oh, I can still do research, because I came from” – that’s a whole another podcast episode. Y’all go listen to all episodes and learn my story about that.
But I learned that I could still do research, because I was kind of transitioning out of this biomedical sciences space. But I’m like, “I can still do research and build relationships.” That connection had not been made for me before. Now, when I am doing my work, when I’m working with clients, when I’m working with organizations, I have a totally different lens on which I can approach things. Because do we have the science and the rigorous scientific methods and all of that stuff? Yes, that’s great. Those are tools. That’s awesome.
But the heart of the matter is, we have to build the trust and the relationships with our communities if we want these tools and these resources and things regarding the research to work the way that – and I have to catch myself, because I started to say the way it was intended to work, but it wasn’t intended to work. The way that we want it to work. We’re shifting the intention. We’re shifting how we want this to work. So, we have to do that internal work and have it show up in all the things that we do across the board.
[0:24:11] JMK: I really value what you’re doing with research and bringing the human side of that. It’s where I saw in social work. Sometimes we share too much about ourselves, or we’re a little bit freer with our boundaries. In public health, I think sometimes it’s almost too much in the opposite direction, where it feels like we’re hiding behind the science, and the statistics, and the numbers, and we’re using terminology that is acceptable to the masses instead of just talking about what we’re really talking about. I think what you just said, it’s reminding me of when I was talking about the outcomes earlier. It’s like you cannot have a good outcome if you don’t have a good process and aren’t building good relationships. And what I’m hearing from you is, in order for research to be as effective as it can be, we have to have the community involved and have relationships with the community and be guided by the people who are researching, trying to understand. So, I appreciate that.
[0:25:18] JW: Yes. And in thinking about our work through WE Public Health and what that looks like, what do the relationship – we’ve talked a lot about the relationships between us as collaborators and consultants, right? But can you paint a picture for – I’m going to try to help you out too, and share my experiences. But paint a picture of what it looks like to build those relationships with the clients? With organizations? What does it look like when organizations come and work with WE Public Health? What does that look like? What does it feel like? And kind of what’s your perspective on seeing the impact of what we have, the culture that we’ve cultivated within WE, and how that transfers to our work with clients or with organizations?
[0:26:07] JMK: Well, I think the thing that we would put in our promotional materials, and that is true about what clients can benefit from, is that when you come to WE Public Health, you can have a single contract with a consulting group, and we’re going to find the right expertise at the right time to support you with your work. So, I’ll give you an example of, we worked with a health department to go through a strategic planning process and the health department is really thinking about after COVID, what is going to be their role in health equity, and in community health going forward, and looking at some really big shifts.
So, as we worked with them, we were able to bring in a qualitative researcher who could help do some interviews, and really bring some rich meaning to the data that we were collecting from staff and others as part of the process. We were also able to engage a local consultant who had worked in the area and had great familiarity with their partners, so she was able to come in and support pieces of the work. We were also able to bring in a master facilitator who helped the group have some difficult conversations and work through some difficult issues. Then, we also pulled in experience from other health departments. What have they gone through? What have they learned? What have they experienced? And how can we help bring those lessons to this one health department?
So, that’s the value of having access to several different kinds of pools of experience and talent at national, kind of state and local levels, that can support an agency. What that means for an organization wanting to work with WE Public Health is we are not delivering a cookie cutter approach to any of the work we do. We say that the how is as important as the what. So, while we’re happy to talk about some of the specific services we offer, that’s not the focus of our work. It’s the how we connect with clients to really understand what they need, what is success going to look like for them, and how can we help them get there as a partner. We are more inclined to partner with clients to help them reach success than to deliver kind of standardized products for folks. So, working with us looks like building a relationship, and allowing us the time to get to know you, so that we can really understand what’s going to be most helpful to you, and build an approach that is going to help you achieve the goals that you’re seeking to achieve.
[0:29:01] JW: I think the other thing that is poignant about the work that WE Public Health does in working with clients, organization, like you said, that partnership, and there’s a phrase, I don’t know if it’s coming to me. I don’t know if I saw it on the web, on the WE Public Health website or somewhere. But it said walking hand in hand. That’s kind of like the visual that I get, because sometimes when people come to consultants or you’re trying to work with public health professionals, or researchers, it’s like, “Oh, we’re just going to take the thing and we’re going to do it, we’re going to implement it, we’re going to get the thing done.” So, like you said, we can get to the outcomes. But it’s really that process of walking hand in hand when things get messy, when things get hard, we are in the trenches with you. So, that is a different approach that can be super beneficial. Because at the end of the day, we want to help you achieve the same goal. Making a positive impact in your community, achieving that equitable and just world, making sure that we have the people and the resources in place, so that your community can thrive, and that requires a different approach. Because if we do the same thing that we’ve always been doing, we’re going to get the same results that we’ve always gotten.
[0:30:32] JMK: What I’m learning is not everybody wants that. There are some organizations that would prefer to say, work with a consultant that does strategic planning for a living as their primary business, and they have the same tools that they use, and the same process they use, and it’s tried and tested, and will get results that hopefully are useful. But what we offer, and for an organization that’s willing to kind of go on that journey with us, is a really tailored approach. I’ve had conversations with a client or two, and they’ve said, “Well, what are we going to do next?” And I’ve said, “I don’t know. I actually don’t know. We need to work through this together. And then we’ll take the time to, like, really think about it and do some research and come back with our best recommendations.” A lot of issues are not easily solvable. They’re complex, and it requires trying some things and failing, and trying some other things, and creating an environment where it is safe to do that. That’s what we try to bring in our partnership to organizations.
[0:30:46] JW: That approach, or you say, realizing, everybody don’t want that, and that’s cool. If you don’t want it, that’s fine. This is just about for those organizations that do want a different approach. This as a resource that is available to them. And we want to be in a position to be able to experience the joy of what it looks like, right? When your community is thriving, when your community is doing well, when you have all the things that you need, when you’re able to access the services that you need, it makes a difference. It makes a difference. So, in that, as we are getting to our wrapping up point, I do want to ask you this question, which is, what brings you joy in your work?
[0:32:42] JMK: It’s funny, I had an email exchange with a colleague, a longtime colleague the other day, and she said, “It looks like things are going well with WE Public Health. I hope you’re having fun.” I was like, “You know what, that’s it.” It is bringing me joy, this work. So, I think if I had to kind of narrow it down, I could have conversations like this one all day long, and I’ve learned something from you. In the next conversation, I’m going to be able to take what I’ve learned from you and share it with that person, and they’re going to take it and move it along. So, I think it’s that getting to connect with people and having less of a distinction for me, between my personal self and my professional self, really brings me a lot of gratitude and joy.
[0:33:28] JW: Love that. And for those who want to get in contact with WE Public Health, wants to learn more about WE Public Health, see what else we have to offer. How do they get into – what’s the process? What does it look like?
[0:33:44] JMK: Yes. Well, we’ve got a website, which is wepublichealth.com. And on that website, there’s a few ways that people can contact us. There’s a button to submit an email. There is a form to fill out if you’re interested in being a part of WE Public Health. And look up me, on LinkedIn, look up Joyee on LinkedIn, because she is also noted as a WE collaborator. So, get in touch in any way, shape, or form you’d like.
[0:34:15] JW: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for being a part of this conversation. I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to share my experience with we public health and just share the amazing work that we are doing together.
[0:34:31] JMK: Thanks, Joyee. It’s been a pleasure.
[0:34:33] JW: Absolutely. And this is going to wrap up another episode of The Public Health Joy podcast.
[0:34:42] JW: I am so grateful for this time we got to spend together. If you enjoyed this episode, I need you to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit www.joyeewashington.com. This is where research meets relationship. I’ll see you next time on The Public Health Joy Podcast.
© 2024 Joyee Washington Consulting, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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