Q&A with Louise Langheier

What experience made you realize that you wanted a career that focuses on creating impact?

My personal experiences as a kid growing up in San Francisco included learning about HIV and meeting people who were HIV positive. I felt sad and angry that people were sick with something often because they didn’t have access to the right resources—be they condoms, clean needles, or information about how to protect themselves. Like is true for most people, when I saw that issue personally affecting people I knew, I felt motivated to do something about it. I didn’t have a plan for my career per se, but I knew I wanted to work on this issue and do my small part to make it better.

Please describe your history and relationship with social innovation, highlighting your most transformative experience(s) in the social impact sector.

When I was a freshman at Yale, I tagged along with a group of students who were volunteering in a nearby public high school. We learned from a veteran teacher in that high school, Tom Sugrue, that they had lost their funding for health education. He thought Yale students might be helpful in filling the gap (and commented that we might be more effective at filling that gap than we were doing tutoring for his students, which he didn’t think was very effective). He came up with the idea for Peer Health Exchange; we were just there to implement it and make ourselves useful as college students. For me, that was a transformational moment in social impact. I don’t believe we are meant to impose social innovation on the world. I think we are meant to listen to those experiencing a problem and honor their solutions, stepping in to play our role alongside them. That shaped the way Peer Health Exchange began and when we’re at our best today it’s because we listen, learn, and respond to the community with whom we work.

Elaborate on a challenging situation that made you question whether you were headed in the right direction. What resources did you leverage and how did you keep pushing forward?

About six years ago, Peer Health Exchange launched a new strategic plan focused on improving our impact. We had grown quickly since our start, working to fill the gap for health education on which we were founded. Yet, we weren’t sure that we were having the most impact with our health education in actually empowering young people with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to make healthy decisions. We wanted to test the model and make it better before we grew a lot more. There were some that pushed back against this plan a great deal. We had grown a lot, why would we stop? When faced with that pushback, we went back to the mission again and again and drew upon our most trusted advisors and supporters to back our commitment to improvement. Eventually, many did, and did so in a really significant way. I am so glad we made the tougher choice to stop growing (and we have had other tough choices like this along the way). Today, we are working to improve and grow again, and start to change the system, and all are so critical to our success in our work.

What do you envision are some of the challenges facing healthcare? How can social enterprise help address them?

In health care and in other sectors, we have divided systems that work on behalf of themselves often more so than they do the people they serve. Today, young people are served by schools for their academics and by health care to treat their health. The reality for any one young person is that they show up in school a whole person, with health care needs. Schools need to invest in their wellbeing. Health care needs to go beyond the hospital walls to invest in young people where they are—in school, before there is a problem. I think we need to break down these silos between systems and create solutions for young people that serve them first. Social enterprises like Peer Health Exchange and our partners can help do that. For us, that’s about linking young people to health resources through our program, be that mental health counseling or contraception or otherwise, and helping them stay on track for whatever goals they want to achieve in life.

Who is a social innovator in the healthcare sector that inspires you?

So many! My husband runs an amazing company called Zipongo and is constantly pushing for the day when food is medicine. A Peer Health Exchange Board Member and coach of mine runs Evolent Health and is reshaping the way health care is delivered in this country. Those are two of the health care leaders I’m closest to and admire the most, though there are also many others.

Some individuals use metrics to evaluate themselves while others rely on intangibles such as reflection. How do you measure your impact and how does that inform your work?

Both are really important, I think. We measure our impact in a number of ways—summatively and formatively, to understand and improve our work. To me, the key measurement purpose is improvement. I believe deeply that you have to constantly improve if you want to really have an impact that continues beyond any one moment in time.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Dream up the best case scenario and work tirelessly to make it happen, but also plan for the worst case scenario and everything in between. In work and in life, I think you have to go for the world you wish to see or you definitely won’t get there. Life is too short to imagine something easy and conservative. That being said, once you’ve imagined your dream, you have to really work hard to plan for how it will happen and everything that can go wrong. If you prepare for what will go wrong, you won’t be as surprised when it does (because it will!) and you’ll be better able to be realistic along the way. I’ve learned this the hard way at times.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a budding social entrepreneur?

Surround yourself with the very best and most diverse group of people you can. Make sure they’re smarter than you (not hard to do in my case), care deeply about the mission, and are incredibly honest people who will tell it like it is. I am perhaps most proud that at PHE I had a co-founder who is still one of the most amazing people I have ever met and that she made sure we built something beyond what I could have done by myself. Equally importantly, I feel so incredibly lucky to work alongside my increasingly diverse current colleagues, board, and supporters who challenge me literally every day. We won’t get where we need to go without that.

Louise Langheier is the CEO and Co-Founder of Peer Health Exchange, Inc. (PHE). Founded in 2003, PHE strives to give teenagers nationwide access to the knowledge, resources, and skills to make active, informed health decisions by delivering a comprehensive health curriculum via a network of college students. PHE, which currently operates in 5 cities and 21 colleges, has already empowered over 115,000 high school students and trained over 8,500 college health educators. Louise graduated from Yale University, where she studied history. During her time at Yale, Louise co-founded Community Health Educators, a student volunteer group from which PHE was born. She continues to be involved with Yale’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice. Louise is a member of the 2011 Aspen Entrepreneurial Education Fellows, a 2012 Ashoka Fellow, and the Resolution Project’s 2015 Young Leaders Now Award Recipient.

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