Leadership Trailblazer Spotlight: Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer of Google

April 28, 2022 | ASTHO Staff

Public health has a rich history of women in leadership. Are there any figures who inspire you most?

Judith Monroe is a classic, collaborative public health leader who epitomizes Chief Health Strategist. She has dedicated decades of her life to public service at the local and federal level and, in that time, Judy has weathered countless public health crises. Every time I watch her bring energy, creativity, and compassion to the work of helping public health leaders on the ground. She is literally available every day of the week for people who need her, helping us see over the horizon to what is going to be needed in a crisis or for public health in general in the next chapter. She serves an important role of convener of stature in our field and has been wise and thoughtful in her use of her role as CEO of the CDC Foundation to do good for as many people as possible.

How have you been able to elevate other women in public health?

This is one of the most essential roles that all leaders have to play and that is to see that our field is not only diverse, but inclusive. Women make up a significant proportion of the public health workforce but are a paucity of the leadership historically. This dynamic is changing, but it requires all of us who have the opportunity to not only serve as role models, but to mentor with intentionality and to be a sponsor for emerging or sometimes invisible talent. People have helped to elevate me in my career and I know it’s important to give back. For me there is so much joy and professional satisfaction in seeing leaders I helped to elevate make a significant impact.

Who has been most supportive of you in your leadership journey?

I have had countless role models, supporters, and mentors at all stages of my career—and indispensable peers who helped me on the hardest days and encouraged me to celebrate the best days. My mother, Elaine, was my first supporter. She loved me and everyone unconditionally and taught me to believe in myself from an early age. For the past nearly thirty years, my biggest support has been my husband. At all steps of the way. He helps me when I have to make hard choices by reminding me of our family motto: “Do the right thing until you get fired.” He supports me when I am doing hard things like rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, or doing new things like taking the mantle of public service leadership or navigating a pandemic for Google. He knows just when to push, when to offer ideas, and when to simply give me a celebratory or comforting hug (as the case may be).

Describe one of the most meaningful accomplishments of your career.

My journey in public health has been broadly meaningful work and rewarding at every step. I worked at the Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health State Laboratory Institute to support myself through college. In addition to watching incredible role models put community first, I got an early education about trust from people I served as an HIV Testing Counselor. I stepped back into public health service as New Orleans Health Commissioner. The career professionals there helped me see my city and our population's challenges in a new way and build with them not for them. Along the way, we were proud to become one of the first PHAB accredited health departments in the United States—the team is now reaccredited! That experience working to modernize our health department to address not only the challenges the city faced post-Katrina, but the growing need for infrastructure and resources and relationships to address the social determinants of health inspired my work on Public Health 3.0 while at HHS.

The public health workforce has been under immense stress. Who—or what—motivates you to persevere through tough times?

It is no wonder they are under stress. The lives of front-line workers are riddled with crises every day as they do their work to protect the public’s health. They have been working full tilt for more than two years against unimaginable obstacles and resistance. For me, when I have faced such times, I am relentless about prioritizing based on my own north star and seeking the camaraderie of peers who fuel my resilience.