Gary Cohen: Applying Business-Sector Skills to Impact Public Health

I’ve always had a gravitational pull towards addressing the needs of low-resource and vulnerable populations.

-Gary Cohen, CEO and cofounder, Maternal Newborn Health Innovations (MNHI), a public benefit corporation; board chair and founder, Together for Girls; founder of the Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation; and executive vice president (retired), BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company).

Gary Cohen has dedicated his life to serving others with compassion and ethical leadership, leading public health organizations and agencies on projects spanning the globe. He is an expert on applying knowledge gained in the business sector to achieve tangible social change worldwide and has been a close collaborator with the CDC Foundation, where he has been a donor every year since 2006 and former board of directors chair and member.

Gary was born in Queens, New York, and grew up nearby on Long Island. During his early youth in the 1960s, he was closely attuned to the civil rights movement. “Together with our housekeeper, who was African American, my brother and I would listen to recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King. We followed [the movement] closely. That experience during childhood has influenced me to this day.”

Gary Cohen with locals in Mopti, Mali, 2002.

Gary Cohen with children in Mozambique

TIME Global Health Summit

Gary attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration. It was after college that his interest in public health began to take form, when he started to apply his business education to help advance major public health priorities. “Within the first six to seven years of my career, I was already working on projects addressing substantial unmet public health needs,” he explained. “One of them was enhancing the safety of mass immunization programs for children.” Specifically, Gary cites his work on ensuring that injections administered to children under World Health Organization's (WHO) Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) were done safely, by eliminating the potential for reuse of immunization devices, which was a leading cause of hepatitis spread among children in developing countries.

“The EPI was arguably the most successful intervention in the history of public health,” he expanded. “In 1990, there were 12.7 million children under age five who died from largely preventable causes. In the year 2000, it was 9.6 million, and by the end of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, that number had dropped to 5.9 million. The largest single impact on that reduction was from the EPI. It had a massive lifesaving impact.” Though an unintended outcome of that success was spread of hepatitis B and C that resulted from inappropriate reuse of immunization devices. Working with a team at BD, a new innovation was developed, the “auto-disable” immunization device, which locks after a single use, preventing the potential for reuse on multiple children.

Gary Cohen with a baby at the Nyumbani Home in Kenya. All the children in Nyumbani's care are HIV positive, including this little girl.

With Dr. Tedros in Washington DC, then Minister of Health of Ethiopia

Meeting with government and health leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam.

It took approximately 10 years for this new innovation to be widely adopted into practice. Gary and an engineering team at BD worked intensively on refining these innovative devices and getting the cost down to pennies each. In parallel, WHO, UNICEF and other agencies established policy guidelines for immunization programs that required transition to auto-disable devices, and GAVI (the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations) was launched, providing substantial funding for childhood immunization programs in low-resource countries. “Then things really went to scale,” he said. “By the time I retired from BD, over six billion immunizations had been safely administered to children with these auto-disable immunization devices, effectively eliminating an entire category of disease spread to children from device reuse during mass immunization.”

In parallel with these efforts on safe childhood immunization, Gary was also leading a massive strategy at BD to reduce the risk of sharp object injuries to health workers that may transmit hepatitis or HIV. This healthcare worker safety initiative was all-encompassing, requiring billions of dollars of investment in redesigning and retooling BD's high-volume, needle-based medical devices to add integral features that protect health workers from accidental injuries. Gary and his team led collaborative efforts to increase awareness of needlestick safety risks to health workers and change national and international policies to ensure they had access to safety-engineered devices. This culminated in a new national law in the United States in November 2000, and a similar set of policy regulations adopted by the European Union 10 years later. Gary was present in the Oval Office of the White House when President Bill Clinton signed the “Needlestick Prevention and Safety Act” requiring American healthcare facilities to protect their health workers by using safety-engineered needle devices.

With thousands of children in Rwanda, many of whom lost their parents during the Rwandan genocide

Gary Cohen and family in Masai Mara, Kenya

Gary Cohen with CDC in Kenya

In the late 1990s Gary and a team at BD entered into a unique public-private partnership with UNICEF (via the U.S. Fund for UNICEF) to eliminate Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus (MNT). At that time, MNT took the lives of approximately 200,000 newborns and 30,000 mothers each year. MNT is entirely preventable if three vaccination doses are administered to women and girls of childbearing age. This public-private partnership, one of the earliest on record in global health, was highly successful. Following BD's initiative, other leading organizations such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and Proctor & Gamble became engaged in the global effort to eliminate MNT.

Gary started traveling in Africa in 2002. As he explains, “My first trip was with UNICEF to Mali, to immunize women and girls against maternal neonatal tetanus.” This mission solidified his interest in focusing on unmet health needs in low-resource countries. In 2003 he was invited to join a delegation of the world's foremost health leaders to experience first-hand the impact of the HIV & AIDS pandemic on sub-Saharan Africa. The delegation included the leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health, President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund, the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS.) Following this trip he established Global Health as a new focus area for BD and initiated multiple public-private partnerships focused on addressing major unmet health needs. The largest of these was a publlic-private partnership with the U.S. Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator/PEPFAR and CDC known as Labs for Life, which focused on strengthening laboratory systems in African countries. It was cited by the U.S. Department of State as one of the most successful and longest-running collaborative initiatives with a company.

Marching with nurses in Uganda

Gary Cohen with former President George W. Bush in Lusaka, Zambia

Gary with former CDC Director for Kenya, Kevin De Cock and BD colleague Renuka Gadde launching a new training school under the Labs for Life public-private partnership

While working in Africa, Gary experienced first-hand the impact HIV and AIDS was having on girls and young women. Among HIV positive young people he met, about three out of four were female. This inequity caused him to start focusing on the spread of HIV from sexual exploitation and violence. After consultation with leading health agencies, including CDC, in 2009 he founded Together for Girls, a nonprofit organization focused on stopping violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls. The organization brings together the effort and resources of multiple UN agencies, the governments of the United States and Canada, and private foundations. CDC is a major partner, leading the work on data collection through Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS). Together for Girls is presently active in 24 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

In his present leadership role as CEO of MNHI, Gary and his team are focused on innovating to reduce maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity worldwide. Maternal health is a major area of unmet health need worldwide, including in the United States, where health inequities and disparities have resulted in mortality rates far above other industrialized countries. At a point when most people would retire, Gary co-founded a start-up public benefit corporation to help address these needs.

Through all these experiences, Gary has come to a unique appreciation of the importance of cross-sector collaboration in the field of public health and beyond. “Public-private partnerships are an art, not a science,” he said. “They are absolutely necessary if you want to try to tackle some of the most challenging, deeply embedded problems that happen on a global or a regional scale, because those problems are too difficult for any one organization—or even any one sector—to address on their own. The integration of capabilities, skills and resources enables incredible things to happen.”

Together for Girls launch at CGI Annual Meeting September 2009

Gary Cohen and Ashley Judd speaking about sexual violence at CGI annual meeting

Ringing NYSE Bell with Together for Girls

Public-private partnerships are among the key core competencies of the CDC Foundation, as it was founded with the mission of forging a wide scope of partnerships like the ones Gary describes. Gary recognizes the importance of these partnerships—as a means for enabling organizations in the private and nonprofit sector to support public health goals established by CDC. “They provide a means of collaborating with an organization that really can enable positive interventions to go to scale.”

Gary also applied his time and skills to the CDC Foundation directly. He served as a member of the CDC Foundation board of directors starting in 2006 and was appointed as chair in 2011, a position he held until 2014. This did not mark the end of his tenure at CDC Foundation, however, as he also continued as chair of the CDC Foundation's Corporate Roundtable on Global Health Threats, a responsibility he held until early 2024. Across nearly 20 years, Gary supported the CDC Foundation through stock donations, a donor advised fund and other means.

Even though his official responsibilities at the CDC Foundation have come to a close, Gary sustains the relationships he formed there and incorporates them into his other endeavors. He speaks highly of his involvement,

The opportunity to engage with the CDC Foundation, and through the Foundation with CDC, is a privilege and ought to be regarded as such.

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