One on One with ADA CEO Tracey Brown
A wake-up call
Tracey D. Brown is the CEO of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and has a history with diabetes that goes back 16 years. What started as gestational diabetes while pregnant developed into type 2, and Brown has been living with the disease ever since. Brown admits she didn’t take her diabetes very seriously for the first five years following diagnosis, and it was actually her daughter’s words that convinced her to take action.
“This one day, out of the blue, my daughter, then 5 years old looked up at me and said, ‘Mommy, are you going to die from diabetes?’ I’ll never forget how I felt, and there was just an immediate resolve that fell over me… At that moment I made a commitment to my daughter. I made a commitment to myself and my husband. I made a commitment to unapologetically tell my story as often as I possibly could. As my own form of driving awareness for this disease, I would do everything in my power to showcase how you thrive while living with diabetes, and that I would not give up on fighting to find a cure.”
From that moment on, Brown opted to take action and looked for ways not just to care for herself, but to give back to the diabetes community as a whole.
“I just scoured as much information from the internet as possible because I wanted to get as smart as I could. I’m pretty type A, I believe that I can conquer and do all things. This was just a matter of me getting smarter. And so, I got online and I reached out to understand what were resources in my community. And that was my first introduction, actually, to the ADA.”
Brown got more deeply involved in the ADA when she moved to Bentonville, Arkansas. Armed with the knowledge that Brown was living with diabetes, the local ADA chapter approached her and asked if she would participate in a competition called ‘Kiss A Pig.’ The competition was not at all what Brown was expecting…
“The competition is basically an ode to the pig being the first form of insulin, so they have a celebration around the pig. I thought that the whole idea would be that the person who raised the most money would not have to kiss the pig. They picked the predominant leaders in the community, and there were about 10 to 12 of us who competed in this competition. I ended up winning. I ended up raising the most money in the history of this event, over $300,000. It wasn’t until that evening that I learned that the person who raised the most had to kiss the pig because it was an honor.”
Brown did end up kissing a pig that night and continued to use her platform at Sam’s Club as the chief experience officer to spread awareness about diabetes. Her impressive fundraising caught the attention of the ADA’s National Offices, and they reached out to ask if she would join the Board of Directors, and in May of 2018, they asked if she would be the next CEO.
“This is an example of my life’s purpose—why God has put me on this earth —to use my passion to help people live their best life. I don’t think it’s an accident that I am actually living with diabetes. And surprisingly, I don’t think it’s an accident that I am the first CEO in the 79-year history of this organization to actually live with the disease.”
Sitting in the CEO chair
The shift from the corporate world to the nonprofit world was certainly a significant one. Brown wasn’t coming in completely cold having already been serving on the board of directors for the ADA, but as she told Beyond Type 2, “You never really 100 percent know what it’s like until you’ve sat in the CEO chair.”
She was instantly impressed with those inside the organization who have dedicated their lives to helping those affected by diabetes.
“The people who are working in this organization are working here because they have a deep calling for the mission, and they have been really touched and affected in some way by this disease. The level of commitment and the drive the employees here have is just incredible. All great organizations, all great change, all great impact really starts with people.”
One of Brown’s first decisions as CEO was to embark on a 100-day listening tour to understand the entire ecosystem and examine what the ADA should be doing differently to affect change.
“We started by talking to people living with diabetes. We went to our volunteer communities, donors, corporations, partners, lawmakers—everybody. What we learned during that listening tour is that we need to move a bit faster, that this disease is bigger than any one entity, and if we have any chance of taking down the diabetes epidemic, we’re going to have to do it collaboratively in partnership with others. And we need to think about partnering in new and different ways. We also heard very loud and clear from the people that we serve that we need to make sure that we’re adding value for them in demonstrable, measurable, impactable ways.”
As a result of the listening tour Brown and the ADA came up with three overarching goals: “Our first goal is to bend the curve of the diabetes epidemic. What does that mean? It’s pretty simple: Decrease the number of people living with diabetes. Our second goal is to help people living with diabetes and their families thrive, not just exist, not survive, but thrive. And the community told us if we want to help them thrive, we need to know them, know who they are and show them that we care… And a third goal for us is to be great business stewards.”
Brown explains that it’s up to the ADA to work tirelessly and optimally to make a change. This includes allocating funds and time where they are most needed.
“Listen, this disease state is growing at an alarming rate across the world. The American Diabetes Association—which is the largest credible authoritative source on diabetes—has to grow at a rate faster than this disease is growing if we want to be able to topple it. And so we’ve got to make sure that we are being great financial stewards of this organization.”
Improving lives today
Brown doesn’t mince words when discussing some of the biggest challenges people with diabetes in America are currently facing and how the ADA will address them.
“There are some very practical things, and then there are some more strategic things. People should not have to choose whether to put food on the table or buy the medicine that they need to live. That shouldn’t be the tradeoff that people are considering… All of the breakthroughs in relation to data, tools and technology are so helpful in this fight against diabetes, because they enable people to live easier lives.”
She also acknowledges that a lack of education and awareness remains one of the biggest challenges facing the diabetes community, particularly among people living with Type 2. Feedback from the type 2 diabetes (T2D) population has shown many are not equipped with the knowledge of what to eat or how exercise might affect management, as well as what mental factors might be at play.
“A lot of what we’ve heard from people living with type 2 is just a lack of awareness and understanding… The one area that I particularly believe we need to continue to focus on, which occurs in all people living with diabetes, is the very real issue around mental and behavioral health… People don’t like to talk about it, but it’s real and we need to help in this area. We can’t bury our heads in the sand around this.”
A brighter future
Brown remains hopeful about the future of diabetes care, the possibilities surrounding precision medicine and future collaborations with other organizations.
“We have been leaning into precision medicine and we have a new precision medicine and diabetes task force… I think this notion of being able to specifically dial in to customized care is going to be game-changing. I think the future of precision medicine is huge, and we wouldn’t be able to do it without the data and technology that is now available to all. That is one thing that I’m very excited about.”
The CEO is also excited about collaborations with other organizations. Most recently, the ADA has partnered with the American Heart Association on Know Diabetes by Heart, an initiative seeking to reduce cardiovascular complications in those with type 2 diabetes.
As Brown describes it, the initiative sees two behemoth organizations uniting to say, “We’re going to impact the world in a different way. We are not competitors; we are collaborators. We want to save lives. We want to help stop suffering, and so let’s bring our organizations together and figure out how to attack diabetes and heart disease together.”
Check out another great interview—The Future of Diabetes Care with AADE President Karen Kemmis.