Public Health Institute’s Senior VP of HR Emphasizes the Importance of Self-Advocacy and Pushing Forward
Where you intend to go and where life ultimately leads you almost never coincide, and in the case of Valerie McCann Woodson, the direction that stemmed from misdirection worked in her favor.
A chemical engineer, a Howard University class of ‘80 graduate, and the current Vice President of Human Resources at the Public Health Institute, McCann Woodson is proof of the fact that when you stand as your biggest advocate, you can never fail.
The story of this phenomenal woman begins in Chicago, where she was raised alongside two siblings. Upon entering high school, she initially planned to attend school in Illinois and become a lawyer. Yet her love for chemistry and math, along with some advice from a teacher, pushed her on an alternate path.
“My teacher said, ‘[Law school] sounds like a good plan, but why not major in something in undergrad so that if you change your mind, you still can get a job?’,” Woodson said. “Because chemistry and math were my favorite subjects, I went into a pre-engineering program after my sophomore and junior year. You could select different places in the country to go do this, and I selected the one at Howard University.”
After two summers at Mecca, she intended to pursue chemical engineering but planned to do so with her two best friends at the University of Illinois. Howard, on the other hand, was an option for their pre-law program. Ultimately, she ended up attending Howard and switched to the chemical engineering program over the summer. She cites this experience as a great introduction to Howard.
“I learned that you just can’t take no for an answer,” she said. “You have to handle your business, you have to take care of yourself, and you just have to keep pushing. Howard was a great experience for me– I didn’t know how much I needed Howard.”
Howard served as her own personal haven of Black excellence, allowing her to feel comfortable in her identity, focus on her studies, and garner meaningful connections with her peers.
“I met my objectives: I have great friends, I grew a lot, and I learned a lot about myself,” she said. “When I graduated, I went to work at Proctor & Gamble in the Research and Development Department. At the time, Howard had a consortium with representatives that came to support the university, and I became the representative for Proctor & Gamble.”
As the first Black female chemical engineer at Proctor & Gamble, she spent much of her time recruiting other Black women and supporting her alma mater. After 12 years, marriage and two new sons brought her to California, as her husband started a Ph.D. program at the University of California at Berkeley.
“[When we moved], I was actually going to take some time off to be married, to be a mother, and to just enjoy California. I did that for about a year,” she said. “Through Howard alumni – one of the guys I knew through the Howard Alumni Association – I was offered a job. Back then it was called the California Public Health Foundation.”
Having been there now for 26 years, McCann Woodson has witnessed both the growth of the organization and the growing impact that the Pubic Health Institute had and continues to have on the public.
“The Public Health Institute is a nonprofit, but it’s a very large and stable nonprofit,” she said. “I am very proud to be working with a mission-based organization.”
Programs such as “Rise Up”, which worked to empower girls in Africa and push legislation to eliminate child marriage, along with initiatives that have pushed for curb pads for wheelchairs and universal genetic tests for infants in the state of California, are a few examples of the manner in which the Public Health Institute makes a difference.
“I don’t have the words to express how good it feels to know that I’m part of an organization that is improving the health of individuals around the world,” she said. “We have a mission we stay in line with. I love being part of the decision-making process.”
As senior Vice President of Human Resources, she helps determine the resources and partnerships needed. She also helps facilitate the organization’s compliance with its main goal, which is to provide fiscal sponsorship to public health programs around the world.
“We administer. We operate as the fiscal agent for the types of opportunities that come through our organization. I love figuring out how we think through [problems] and come up with a path forward,” she said.
The journey to this fulfillment was not an easy one, but she believes that her time at Howard University prepared her to take on challenges in the real world. Forever a proud Bison, McCann Woodson encourages others, especially Black women pursuing careers in STEM, to continuously be their own biggest cheerleaders and self-advocates.
“Do your homework now so you know your stuff when you get in the field. Do the work, and then also the work of making sure that others know your work and the quality of it,” she said. “As Black women, it’s not natural for others to showcase our work…so represent yourself. Don’t under-represent yourself.”
Valerie McCann Woodson is a woman whose success is a testament to trusting the process, believing in oneself, and embracing change. Not only does she represent the essence of the Howard legacy, but she serves as a grand inspiration to the Black women for whom she has broken the mold.