Dr. Margaret-Mary Wilson is the epitome of hard work, grit and perseverance. She was born and raised in Nigeria, by a single mother who taught her to never put a limit on her goals.
“My mother could not read or write and had only completed one or two years of grade school,” Dr. Wilson said. “She was functionally not literate, but the one thing she did say to me was that I could do anything I set my mind and my effort to.”
Those words have guided Dr. Wilson throughout her career — now serving as the chief medical officer and senior vice president for UnitedHealthcare Global. She enrolled in medical school at just 16 years old and graduated by the time she reached 21. Her work in health care has taken her across Europe, Africa, and North and South America — working in a frontline clinical role to eventually serving as a senior leader for UnitedHealthcare Global.
In her current role, Dr. Wilson partners with business clinical leads and teams to provide clinical governance and drive clinical transformation within global health care benefits and clinical care delivery. The organization has more than 70,000 employees, serving more than 7 million medical members worldwide. At the core of her leadership is advocating for diversity and inclusion in the workplace — something she champions for everyone across the enterprise.
The National Diversity Council recently named Dr. Wilson one of the top 100 most influential African American leaders in business. The award recognizes professionals, like Dr. Wilson, who have established themselves through their resolution and achievements to make a significant impact in their workplace. Dr. Wilson shares her reaction to this recognition and how she views her role as a leader in diversity and inclusion.
What does being named one of the top 100 most influential African American leaders in business mean to you?
As I think across my career and my professional life, this is probably one of the most meaningful awards that I have ever received. I received the award on behalf of the teams that I work with; particularly on behalf of UnitedHealth Group that I have been privileged to be a part of over the past 12 years. UnitedHealth Group has emerged as a champion of inclusion and diversity. The enterprise has really leaned into that and provided the opportunity for us to become an inclusive organization as we collectively work together to transform health care and to help the people that we serve.
What does diversity in leadership look like? What has it looked like for you?
Diversity in leadership for me does not have a look. Diversity in leadership for me is about diversity of thought, which is really not a concept that can be seen, but it is a concept that can be felt. It's a concept that can be experienced.
The power behind diversity and inclusion lies not simply in bringing people together who look different or who claim different status group affiliations, but the power of diversity lies in pulling that through to inclusion and harnessing all that to drive diversity of thought. As we drive diversity of thought, one of the statements that was made by an enterprise leader, that has always remained with me, is that we would not have delivered on diversity and inclusion until every single member of the team, every single member of the function, every single member of the business, every single member of the enterprise feels fully included. In my mind, that is what diverse leadership should look like. It really should also feel like equitable advancement and professional development opportunities for all, regardless of status group within the enterprise.
What have you learned through your life experiences that has helped you become a better advocate for diversity?
I describe myself as standing at the intersection of multiple status groups. I am black, an African immigrant, a female, a lesbian and a female physician. My accent and cultural expression stand out. I am the child of a single mother who grew up in, what I would describe today, as a lower socioeconomic household after my parents separated. I stand at the intersection of multiple status groups. This has helped me appreciate the experiences that members of each of these status groups experience.
I have been paradoxically fortunate to experience life from multiple different perspectives and understand the challenges of multiple sub-groups. It has really helped me lean into a commitment to being respectful of status groups, trying to understand the other, and most importantly, having the courage to be authentic. At the end of the day in my mind, that is the vital ingredient to understanding and demonstrating diversity and learning how to be more inclusive.
Why does diversity and inclusion matter in health care?
The most important reason is the impact on the consumer. Equitable health care for all and making health care simple and affordable for all is a fundamental part of our mission. If you think about building up a health care model — that is affordable, simple and accessible — we recognize that we will be unable to get there unless we truly address and build out health care models that are diverse and inclusive.
If we look at the data, nationally and globally, it is readily evident that certain minority groups are adversely impacted around certain disease conditions more than others. One example is the neonatal mortality rates amongst African American mothers. There are numerous other examples — some dealing with diabetes and outcomes in African Americans. We also have examples of challenges with health care access for the transgender population. Examples go on and on. As we think broadly across our population and as we think of all the different subgroups, some of which may be adversely impacted by the models that we have in place to date, if we are to get to health care that is truly equitable, we really do need to start by thinking through how we enhance diversity and truly drive inclusion through health care.
How do you advocate for equality within UnitedHealthcare Global? What steps can others take to become an advocate?
Advocacy for equality, within UnitedHealthcare Global or any other business or enterprise, starts with self. I believe in the power of personal example. I believe in the power of demonstrating one's leadership shadow. Inclusive leadership is a journey and none of us — definitely not me — are experts in this, but leaning into the principles of inclusive leadership and practicing them visibly is really powerful advocacy for equality.
Ultimately, however, it is absolutely critical that I recognize as a leader, that I also need to hold myself accountable. If each and every leader committed to leaning into inclusive leadership in our daily walk, I think that would be a significant advancement and that to me is a simple step that I can advocate to others.
What advice would you offer others in finding their voice and advocating for diversity in the workplace?
I don't want to leave the impression that the walk to inclusion for members of minority status groups is an easy walk. It can be very challenging, and it can be a pretty emotionally taxing walk. Here's what I would share, having walked that path myself: One of the lessons that I've learned is the power of courage, authenticity, vulnerability and, most importantly, the power to raise your hand; the power of having the courage to raise your hand when one feels excluded.
In my experience, one of the biggest drivers of lack of inclusion is not necessarily intentional malice. In most cases, it is unawareness. I think one of the things that we need to do more often is educate and inform about the personal impact of situations where we might feel excluded. I have found that once I built the courage to be able to do that and have a difficult conversation sometimes with a particular individual, one-to-one, we both come away with a better understanding of our perspectives.
For me, it boils down to the courage to raise your hand and speak up, the vulnerability to share your story and the authenticity to be yourself and bring your real self to everything that you do.