Fighting for Health Equity From Inside the Health Care Industry

Carmen Villar, vice president, social business innovation, always defended the underdog – now she leads a team solely focused on reducing health disparities
Dec 3, 2021 8:15 AM ET
Photo of Carnen Villar

Fighting for Health Equity From Inside the Health Care Industry

For as long as she can remember, Carmen Villar wanted a purpose-driven career that allowed her to give back to the community. She attributes those lofty goals to the influence of her parents, who were her greatest role models.

“My mother is Japanese and was born in an internment camp during World War II. My father is Mexican and grew up living in the projects in East L.A.,” explains Villar.

Despite their hardships, both of Villar’s parents are college graduates, having completed their degrees while working full-time and raising Villar. They understood the value of hard work and perseverance and passed that down to Villar.

“My father recently said, ‘I was hard on you and set high expectations because I knew that you would face a lot of challenges as a woman — especially as a woman of color,’” says Villar.

The expectations to be successful and independent drove Villar to aim high, and being a woman of color motivated her to pursue a career in which she could fight on behalf of others for fairness and equity.

“I had a debate teacher in high school who told me, ‘You’re going to be a public defender when you grow up, you’re always taking the underdog’s side. So I think that’s always been a part of who I am.”

Defending health equity

Villar began her career at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she was trained in the management of public policies and programs. Over the next eight years, she took on different roles and responsibilities until moving into the HIV prevention division.

There, she jumped at the opportunity to help run the Presidential Emergency Program for AIDS Relief in Zambia, Africa. This three-and-a-half-year experience in Zambia helped Villar grow both professionally and personally.

“I was making daily decisions that significantly affected people’s lives,” says Villar. “And I really had to trust my instincts and make decisions on my own. Reaction time was crucial, and any delay could impact not only the work but also the people and their safety.”

After taking on a similar role in Nigeria, she returned to Atlanta as chief of staff to the CDC director and was involved in public health issues like the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

Helping communities through social business innovation

In 2017, Villar jumped at a new opportunity: to work at Merck with Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief patient officer, and lead the social business innovation (SBI) group. It allowed her to continue promoting health equity while also advancing the public health goals she’s been so passionately working toward for 20 years.

SBI supports Merck’s business by strengthening health systems in select markets and testing innovative approaches to improve patient and business outcomes.

An important aspect of Villar’s work is influencing what we do as a company to support society and the communities in which we live and work.    

“We ask ourselves ‘How do we better support communities and co-create the work that will help solve challenges?’,” says Villar.

Talking to the communities firsthand to learn about their challenges and needs helps guide the actions we take to help address them.

Achieving a successful and satisfying career

“Applying the knowledge I gained internationally to our work to promote and advance health equity — and what it means to a health care company — is one of the best experiences of my career,” says Villar.

During her time at our company, SBI has expanded with employees now working in Brazil, the Philippines, Switzerland, India, and Nigeria.

Villar is hopeful for the future of SBI and ensuring that our investments are not only good for the business but also good for communities.

“We’re changing the way we think about innovation. It’s not just about making money, but it’s about doing it in a responsible way.”

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