Physician Leadership Tools for 2021 and Beyond with Dr. Kemi Olugemo

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD | Leadership, Podcast

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“Networks are so important in every industry. I mean networks are hugely critical because they essentially start with relationships which I believe are the building blocks of the foundation to what you need to be impactful in society.”- Kemi Olugemo, MD, FAAN 

In today’s episode, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD talks with Dr. Kemi Olugemo, a Neuroscience Physician Researcher and Healthcare Advocate, about her path in medicine and her take on leadership in 2021. We hear about two of the organizations she is very involved in, the important missions of those organizations, and the work they are doing. She speaks about situational adaptability, courage, networking and managing conflict. Dr. Olugemo also highlights the importance of mentors and sponsors on career advancements and the role it has played in her life. Tune in to hear more with Dr. Kemi Olugemo.

After earning her undergraduate degree in Clinical Laboratory Science from the University of Massachusetts (Magna cum Laude), Kemi completed her MD at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and remained in Baltimore for her Neurology Residency before undertaking an additional Fellowship in Neuroimmunology & Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at the Maryland Center for MS, also in Baltimore. As a staff Neurologist and partner in the Charles County Neurology Practice, Kemi introduced a number of novel infusion therapies for the practice’s patients which in turn brought her in contact with clinical research organizations, ultimately causing her to join the industry. 

Kemi draws on a diverse set of experiences including being the current Director of Communications at Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP), Board Member at Watermark (an organization with a mission to empower women to make their mark in their companies, careers and communities) and serving on the Scientific Committee of the International Society for CNS Clinical Trials and Methodology (ISCTM).  

She is currently Executive Director, Clinical Development at Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. 

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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Dr. Kemi: Networks are so important in every industry. Networks are hugely critical because they essentially start with relationships which I believe are the building blocks of the foundation for what you need to be impactful in society.


[DocWorking theme]


Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach at DocWorking, and welcome to DocWorking: The whole physician podcast. Today, I’m excited to bring to you our next guest, Dr. Kemi Olugemo, who is a neuroscience researcher, and a strong advocate for women in science. I want to bring her in to talk about her take of leadership in 2021 and beyond. Dr. Kemi Olugemo, welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Dr. Kemi: Thank you so much, Gabriella, I’m so excited to be here today.


Gabriella: Well, thank you for being here. We’re just going to dive in. You have one heck of a bio, and I’m going to let you tell your story a little bit. What is your story in medicine, if you can give us a synopsis? What motivated you to actually become a doctor to pursue this path?


Dr. Kemi: Oh, absolutely. I’m asked that question a lot. You may or may not know that I’m actually Nigerian, originally. I was born in Nigeria, and I immigrated to the United States in 1994. Typically, in our culture, a lot of Nigerian parents, they have certain predefined career paths that they think their children to take, you want to become a lawyer or a doctor. My parents weren’t necessarily like that, to be quite honest. Growing up, I really loved science, but I also loved literature and I loved reading and writing, and I wanted to be a reporter. But I came to the States, and I decided to study clinical laboratory science. 


While I was in my undergrad, I was working in a lab with a female researcher, and she’s the one who really sowed the seed of potentially going to medical school and become a physician. At that time, I hadn’t really given it much thought, but because I knew that career path for doctors really were quite broad, and there was a variety of things that I could do and I could incorporate my writing and research into that field, I decided to go to medical school. 


I ended up choosing neurology, just because I loved neuroscience, although a lot of medicine is interesting as you know, and I practiced. I actually practiced for a few years before making a pivot and going, essentially, back to the research in my mind, and I did both. I volunteered, I saw patients on a volunteer basis for a number of years after switching over to the pharmaceutical industry, but eventually I had to give it up. Even though I still have a medical license and active license, I’m not seeing patients currently.


Gabriella: Kemi, you mentioned something in what you just said, and I hope you don’t mind me asking a little further, that you had to stop the clinical work. Was there any particular reason? Or was just too much to handle? You were in research and seeing patients and it sounds like you had to make a choice?


Dr. Kemi: I did, but that’s a very good question. In addition to doing residency training in neurology, I did a fellowship in neuroimmunology and multiple sclerosis. When I was in private practice, I was seeing a hybrid of MS patients and then general and neurology, including adults and pediatrics. At that time, even though we were getting a lot of new treatments for MS patients, there was still quite a great need and progressive MS, for example. I had more than a handful of patients who would ask me repeatedly, when we would get therapies, disease modifying therapies for progressive MS. There seem to be a lot of focus on relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. There were people who even cornered me and said, “Listen, I know this is probably not going to work for me. But if I have family members develop this disease, I don’t want them to end up wheelchair dependent like I am.” 


For me, being able to work in research gave me the opportunity to make a difference, rather than one-on-one one patient at a time on a more global scale. As I mentioned, I still continued to see patients on a volunteer basis, I’d like to just do MS clinic at the VA and there are a few reasons for that. The biggest reason really is that I love the VA and I love veterans, so that was wonderful. 


Over time, as you mentioned, it just became too much, and my responsibilities increased and research and the time it took to commute to the clinic I was in and see the patients and maintain, a semblance of a normal follow up that a doctor would was just– it was too much on my schedule. And I felt like any patient that I was seeing deserve to have a doctor who was 100% available and dedicated, but I still have a license. I would love to be able to go back to volunteering, wherever there’s a need. 


Gabriella: Do you consult in Nigeria as well, because I know you still have ties back there?


Dr. Kemi: I still have family there. I would love to go either there or to another African country and just like a Habitat for Humanity type of assignment, something like that, and Doctors Without Borders, and just be able to get in there and actually contribute and volunteer my abilities. But I haven’t been able to do that so far. So, that’s one of my long-term goals.


Gabriella: Excellent. I’m impressed, and at times, I’m like, “How do you do it all?” To be honest, you are currently not only involved in clinical research, but you’re also in leadership in several organizations that advocate for women in science, and that advocate for Women of Color in Pharma, to give women a larger voice in some of these industries. There are two organizations right now that you’re actively involved in. One called Women of Color in Pharma, and you’re also a board member for Watermark, which also is dealing with women in leadership. Can you tell us a little bit more about each of those organizations? What makes that important to you to be part of that? 


Dr. Kemi: Yeah, absolutely. Women of Color in Pharma or WOCIP was created about five years ago, and the co-founder created this organization, because she realized that there was a specific need for black and Latino women, in particular, in the pharmaceutical industry, that there was a gap in terms of their visibility and leadership development, and that was really created to address those issues. I’m just really extremely proud of the work that she’s been able to do, along with the rest of the leadership team. Not only have we been able to show tangible results in terms of the careers that have been impacted by the organization. But now the organization has actually pivoted to focus on health equity, and looking at health equity in terms of the entire life sciences ecosystem. So, not just within each company looking at supplier diversity, looking at clinical trial diversity, with including clinical trial side, investigators, making sure that everyone’s voices represented, and everyone has the ability to participate in clinical research. When drugs are approved, we know that they’ve been tested in representative populations. I really love a lot of the work that WOCIP is doing.


I am currently serving as the Director of Communications on the board, as you mentioned. I myself have been able to notice what that has done for my career, both in my daytime job and in other situations. You’re more used to being seen and visible, you realize over time that what you’re doing has an impact on just many people that you don’t realize until they start to tell you, “Well, I saw you and I heard what she said, I didn’t realize importance of networks,” for example, or getting a mentor or getting a sponsor. 


Similarly, Watermark is another organization that’s focused on female leadership and empowerment. It’s a broader representation. It’s agnostic to any specific industry. It’s for all women, no matter how you identify. That’s a newer role that I have, but again, something that’s really important to me, because I’m here today, yes, largely from my efforts, but because I have a village of people who have supported me, given me opportunities, giving me direction, giving me counsel and continue to be there, as part of my community and networks are so important in every industry. Networks are hugely critical because they essentially start with relationships, which I believe are the building blocks of the foundation for what you need to be impactful in society.


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Gabriella:  You mentioned that you derived a lot of personal benefits from being part of Women of Color in Pharma, in terms of your own visibility, and realizing what impact you had, as well or like people coming up to you and saying, “I saw you here or I heard you there.” How do you think that that impacts? Or, how does that fill the leadership gap that you talked about for women of color moving in the ranks?


Dr. Kemi: Many times, you don’t envision yourself in a particular role, if you haven’t seen someone like you represented in that role. Having that representation there is so important, because people realize that, “You know what, this is not something that’s untenable or unattainable. I can actually get here. I can get to this position.” To me, that’s really important, as part of whatever I’m doing that makes me happy and gives me fulfillment, that I’m going as far as I can, because I’m reaching back and giving the same opportunities and making it easier. I don’t want my daughter to be having the same conversation that we’re having today, in terms of, it’s not adequate, female representation is not adequate, representation for people of color and leadership positions. I want her to just be able to be a leader at full stop, but we’re not going to get there until all of us are contributing and are addressing issues in a sustainable way.


Gabriella: Kemi, thank you so much for bringing those points up because I came up in medical school and medical training probably a few years before you did, and at the same time, the conversation around leadership and representation sounds eerily familiar, even with the difference in yours. What I see now, though, and what I’m very encouraged by is that there are more women in leadership, it’s a slow process, but they’re there. And you’re absolutely right, having more women of color in leadership means that somebody coming up can say, “Hey, this person is there, I can do it too.” “Hey, let me reach out, and maybe this person can be my mentor, because we can’t do it alone.” Nobody can do it alone. And that, I think are very important points that you bring up. Relationships, networks, mentorship.


Dr. Kemi: And I would add sponsorship. Sponsorship is different than mentorship as you know, a mentor is someone who is a resource and can guide you, but a sponsor knows you and uses their social capital to actually help you advance. They actually would speak about you in the room when you’re not there and would create opportunities for you. They’re both equally important, but I think sponsorship is critical to advancement.


Gabriella: Can a mentor be a sponsor, too? It’s a separate function, but have you met people do both?


Dr. Kemi: Absolutely. I’ve had people that have served in both roles for me, who initially were mentors, and actually pushed me to apply for roles that I didn’t feel ready for. And reminded me that this is why I think that you’re capable of doing this position. Absolutely agree. The key with a sponsor is a sponsor has power, and they’re using their power on your behalf.


Gabriella: Excellent distinction. Thank you for bringing that up. What’s interesting, as you talk about that, is that sometimes somebody on the outside can see certain things about you that you don’t see in yourself. When you mentioned being pushed into like, is somebody saying, “Hey, I believe you, I believe in you, and I think you’d be a great fit for this role.” I may not see it that way, it’s like, “Well, I’m not ready,” but the other person sees something in you that you may not see in yourself, so I think that that, too, brings up a good point. To anybody coming up after, anybody looking at leadership, it’s like, sometimes, if somebody pushes you out of your comfort zone, go for it, because you already have it in you to make this happen. Thank you for bringing that up.


Dr. Kemi: Yeah, and growth comes from discomfort. So, you’re not going to grow if you’re comfortable. Absolutely agree.


Gabriella: Very, very true. And knowing what you know now, and through all the experiences in research and medicine, what do you think are the key ingredients for being an effective leader in 2021?


Dr. Kemi: That’s a great question. I think about all the disruptions that we’ve had from the COVID pandemic, and the people that have really stood up to lead in these particular crises that we’ve had. Many of the traits and competencies that leaders have had through the pandemic, I think are relevant to really every facet of society and vocation no matter what your role is. What are some of those competencies?


Being able to adapt. Situational adaptability, I think is really key for any leader to have. I think courage is sometimes lacking and being courageous enough to take the first step, to address a problem, being courageous enough to point out inequities when you see them. Courage at the top of leadership, especially for issues that may be very difficult or sensitive, is critically important. I think that’s a skill that every leader just needs to have. 


Being able to manage networks effectively is also important, as we’ve mentioned. And then the last one I’ll mention is being able to manage conflict, which will arise and being able to do that, without letting emotions take over and do that, from a balanced perspective, I think is important.


Gabriella: If I’m hearing you correctly, courage, you put that at the top of your list. The courage to have hard conversations, the courage to point things out that need to be pointed out. The courage to take action around those sometimes uncomfortable situations, adaptability. And I’m going to ask you a little more about that. What does that mean for you, and what does that mean, in general, to be adaptable?


Dr. Kemi: I think about different situations that you’re going to find yourself in. One of the things you have to do to adapt last year was to adapt to working in a different environment that you normally would be used to. If you’re a physician working at a hospital, there were certain engineering controls that were put in place because of the pandemic that normally would not be in place that you had to adapt to, you had to adapt to the new rules in terms of the way you interact with patients, and anybody else within the ecosystem, because of the risk of subtracting COVID. 


Similarly, for someone like me, who was not working in a hospital, or used to working and commuting to an office, and then you have to convert that to a home office, and then that’s taken care of children, family, loved ones, pets, whatever your particular situation is, handling all of that, in addition to your daytime job, in addition to whatever else you’re dealing with on a personal basis, if that’s what I’m referring to. Adapting to any scenario and being able to do it and continue to do your work in that scenario.


Gabriella: Thank you for that. I’m going to say one phrase that may oversimplify what you just said. It’s like, with the circumstances, to be able to keep it moving, and to move with what is presented in front of you. I don’t know if that would be an accurate summary of adaptability. But adaptability, courage, as we talked about, networking, as you mentioned, so well, how important is to continue building on relationships, and conflict. Conflict resolution, facing conflict, dealing with conflict, rather than just leaving it and fester, which is, a lot of times what happens, it’s avoided. But this is the day and age when we can’t avoid that anymore. For the benefit of our patients, to the benefit of all the people that we serve in all capacities that we serve them. 


Dr. Kemi Olugemo, thank you so much for being part of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you for bringing these wonderful takes on leadership and women of color and leadership in 2021, and what that means, and our responsibility for the young women who are coming after us. Any closing thoughts?


Dr. Kemi: Thank you so much, Gabriella, it was my pleasure to chat with you today. In closing, I would just say, it’s important to give yourself grace in whatever situation you find yourself in. I think that it as much as I’ve talked about leadership and advancement and empowerment and moving ahead, there are many times in which we need to step aside and gain perspective in terms of what we already have, and what we’ve accomplished. And I think being able to be still and to be grateful, is equally important, in addition to everything that I’ve mentioned, because that’s going to set you up for success and whatever you decide to take on next. Definitely use the networks that you have, recognize that you have power, recognize your purpose, and give yourself grace while you’re doing the best you can because if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else.


Gabriella: Thank you. Those are wise words to conclude the podcast recording. Thank you so much for being here, and I hope we can bring you back as a guest later on, perhaps next year. I appreciate all your words and your contribution today. Thank you.


Dr. Kemi: Thank you so much.


[DocWorking theme]


Amanda: This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe. Thank you for listening.


Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

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