– By Lanre Solarin
Dr Ola Brown is a medical doctor, a trainee helicopter pilot and an entrepreneur who founded West Africa’s first indigenous air ambulance service, the Flying Doctors Nigeria which saves hundreds of lives across the region every year, especially in the oil and gas industry, rendering medical evacuation services.
She is extremely passionate about healthcare in Africa and works with various foundations, charities and governments to improve standards of healthcare. Dr Ola studied medicine and surgery at the Hull York Medical School after which she worked in Acute Medicine in the UK. She then went on to be awarded the Japanese MEXT scholarship which allowed her to further her studies in Tokyo, Japan. She also has a certificate in economic policy making from IE business school, Spain.
She has published two medical textbooks ‘EMQ’s in Paediatrics’ and ‘Pre-Hospital Care for Africa as well as articles in the British Medical Journal, New York Times and the Huffington Post. She has received multiple awards and nominations and is also a TED fellow, an Aspen Fellow and has been honoured by the world economic forum as a Young Global Leader.
She is a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, international editor of the Journal of Emergency Services and a LinkedIn top ten global Healthcare Writer.
In this interview, Dr. Ola Brown shares her perspective on what social entrepreneurship really is and a guide to building a sustainable social enterprise.
Solving Social Problems
Social problems have always been a part of my life. Looking at my trajectory in terms of becoming a Doctor, for as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in solving social problems.
At Flying Doctors Nigeria, we solve the problem of distance between locations where people have medical emergencies and the areas where they can receive treatment. We do this by providing air ambulance services that get the right medical patient to the right medical Physician and within the correct timeframe. This can be within the country Nigeria or internationally. And this has been a very exciting and rewarding journey.
On Making Profitable Impact
I’m passionate about profit and I’m also passionate about impact. I don’t think social entrepreneurship is any more difficult than someone who is in any business for profit. Here’s what I think: if you’re only in business for profit, then it’s a whole lot more difficult because your team is only profit-driven and not mission-driven. It is the combination of mission and profit that drives people to excel.
Notwithstanding, profit is also very important and I will not say that because we want make impact, we won’t be sustainable. Being mission-driven doesn’t give you the excuse to handle finances carelessly or decide not to pay your staff for 3 months.Profit is important. Profit allows us to make decisions. It ensures we are well paid. It allows us to function as a team and it impacts our bottom line, so it’s very important to us.
So far, we’ve made huge impact, especially in our region, in terms of the number of evacuations that we’ve done and the complexity of evacuations that we’ve done. This includes intensive care patients who are obviously not breathing by themselves and patients on life support. Our work in Africa will not be complete until not a single person in Africa dies because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We definitely have a long way to go to achieve that. We’re growing very quickly and I’m very proud of the progress that we’ve made so far.
I believe that in the coming years, especially with the increase in the cost of healthcare and the fact that certain specialist services can only be offered in certain large centres which may be many hours or days away by road, the impact of our services will continue to grow across the continent. It would be fantastic to believe that by 2030, I would’ve managed to cure all illness, with human beings living in sound health, and no more emergencies.
Sustainable Social Entrepreneurship
The term social entrepreneur is often interpreted to mean that profit is not important. So, one piece of advice I would give is to make sure that you’re financially savvy with what you do. Make sure that you save and that you can always pay salaries at the end of the month. And ensure that the business is sustainable. Don’t think that because you’re operating in the social space where you have impact, that you have a right not to pay people commensurate salaries, or that your organisation does not need to function as well as any world class organisation. You have to set yourself at that same standard and obviously make sure that the organisation is sustainable.
When I first started the company, I thought that I was the ‘Oga’ and my job was to tell everybody what to do and dictate what should be done. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned now is that my job is more about listening to people’s suggestions. It’s my job to understand what people are thinking and to be more of a servant leader, serving and helping people reach their true potential. I’m to train, coach, cheer-lead people and I wish this was something I knew at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.
A Business Funding Opportunity for Entrepreneurs
Along with some of her friends, Dr. Ola setup a venture capital fund where she invests some of her profit every year. This goes towards investment for start-ups that hopefully would become successful businesses. She has been doing this for the past 4 years and along with her board, they’ve been able to not just run a successful organisation but also be part of the success stories of some of the most ambitious and largest tech start-ups in Nigeria.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spark magazine. Find the magazine here to read more articles.