How I Became a CEO: One woman’s faith-focused leadership journey

Martha Holley Newsome, Medical Teams International President and CEO, shares how her initial career plans as a young girl were molded by the Holy Spirit into something beyond what she could have imagined.

You can listen to more of our conversation with Martha on our podcast, Work, Love, Pray! Listen below or click here to find your preferred listening platform.

Martha, you are the president and CEO of Medical Teams International, and you lead more than 2,500 individuals around the globe. When you were a little girl, is this what you envisioned your life would be like? 

Not exactly. I’m an Army brat, because my dad was a military doctor. We lived in a bunch of different places and I was a pretty happy-go-lucky kid about it. We moved from Hawaii to Massachusetts to Vermont, so lots of big culture shifts, as you can imagine! Sadly, my dad and I went running when I was 12 and a half, and he had a very sudden and fatal heart attack while I was with him. I really think that experience spurred me on in a new way, because after he passed away, I really just wanted to carry on his legacy. He was a very beloved doctor. 

So I thought, “Well, I’m going to become a doctor.” I really started applying myself in a new way that took me to Wheaton College outside of Chicago, because they had such an amazing Pre-Med program. I started off college just doing all the things, and then I got to my sophomore year in organic—and they don’t tell you that 50% of all pre-med students drop out after taking organic. I just struggled and started to have an identity crisis. I had wanted to become a missionary doctor, so I started thinking I’m not even going to get overseas until I’m 35. Having a major meltdown, I just thought I was going to give up and not know what I was going to do with myself. 

The very next day, I ran into two fellow friends who said they were on their way to Cameroon with a program at Wheaton called The Human Needs and Global Resources Program. They were going to be joining North American Baptist missionaries in Cameroon with their public health program. I asked some more questions and signed myself up. The next year, I went to Cameron and spent six months in three little villages that you literally had to trek to get to. I just fell in love with public health and that led me to get my Master’s in public health and directed me for the rest of my career.

How did you come into your role with Medical Teams International, and why is it important for you to be with the organization? 

In my last role at World Vision, we had a partnership with Medical Teams International, which was great because that gave me a front-row seat to get to know the organization. Folks on my team supported the partnership, and I got to know the president that was before me, Jeff, and his team. Then, Medical Teams hired a recruiter that I knew really well because he was the son of our former pastor in Washington D.C. He wrote to me and said, “You know, Jeff is leaving Medical Teams. I really think you should apply for the CEO role.” 

I thought about it and considered where we were in Washington D.C. and the fact that our youngest son, Luke, was a junior and had just been pulled out of school when we brought our kids back from Southern Africa. Luke had the hardest time adjusting, so I really didn’t want to pull him out of school. So I wrote a letter back to the recruiter and was like, “So sorry but I can’t do it. I can’t move to Oregon, Luke has to finish school.” I gave the recruiter all my best contacts and spent a long time on my LinkedIn looking for really good people so that he would feel satisfied that I had helped him.

The recruiter wrote back again and said, “I’m praying about this and I understand.” And at the very end of the letter, I’m sure the Holy Spirit prompted him to say, “You know, it’s really interesting to me that men don’t use their families as an excuse to turn down an opportunity.” I don’t think what he wrote was quite that strong, but it caused me to pause. I realized that he was right, that I hadn’t even consulted my family.

So in good public health fashion, I decided to check with them individually to make sure each of their responses was unbiased. I started with my daughter Anya, and she was like, “Oh, Mom, Portland’s so cool. You should definitely go for it!” I went to my husband, Marcel, and he started Googling Portland, Oregon and told me he could totally live there. Then I went to Luke and he told me that I should apply. I just looked at him, and asked what about him?  And he said, “I’m sure it will all work out if it’s supposed to.”

I went back to the recruiter and told him to put my name in. It was a long and drawn out process. I found out later that one of the board members— an incredible business woman who was the president of a national food business—had a very pivotal role in very diplomatically ensuring that the board selected me over the other two male finalists. I’m incredibly grateful, and it shows that we need women in these powerful positions, right? We need women on boards, and we need diverse teams to get diversity in senior leadership. 

Why is it so important to have female leaders that are health advocates in the community? 

Because women understand at a very personal level why health is so important for their families. Women are often the caregivers of the little ones and the caregivers of the older ones. A fact that is not well known is that over 80% of all refugees and displaced are women and children, because the men often stay behind. So for the work that Medical Teams does, I think it’s even more critical that we have women on staff because many of the people that we’re caring for are women and children. Women are amazing health advocates for their communities, and we need women to be involved in advocating for health. 

Martha Newsome is the President & CEO of Medical Teams International, a global health and humanitarian organization. She has spent the last 30 years of her life dedicated to serving the health needs of others. In her current role, Martha leads more than 1,500 international staff as they restore health to three million people through medical and dental care, disaster response, humanitarian aid and community health programs.

Considered an authoritative global leader in international public health, Martha has a deep understanding of grassroots operations as she worked her way to senior leadership from the front-line realities of local community health. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wheaton College and a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. Martha lived in southern Africa for 15 years, and at the age of 33, was elevated to Country Director for World Vision in post-war Mozambique. Prior to joining Medical Teams International in 2016, she led World Vision International’s Global Sustainable Health team representing three sectors, over 3000 employees and a budget of $700M.

Martha is Chair of the Integral Alliance Board of Directors, an international alliance of 21 faith-based relief and development agencies, and is published in public health journals like the Journal of Mobile Technology in Medicine and Human Resources of Health.