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  Nora El Goulli '94
  Nora El Goulli '94  Photo © Michael Molloy Photography Limited

Nora El Goulli '94 uses Kellogg education to build pharmaceutical nonprofit in Honduras

By Amy Trang

Local healthcare officials gave Nora El Goulli a lukewarm reception when she started Medicines for Roatan in 2006, a nonprofit that provides medicines to a public hospital in the Bay Islands of Honduras. But this response didn't deter the 1994 Kellogg School graduate. She had already worked as a pharmaceutical industry professional in many developing countries, and knew the challenges of building trust with key stakeholders before entering the market.

"They needed to see drugs on the shelves before they believed things could change and became willing to help me," says El Goulli, Medicines for Roatan founder and president. "Partly because they had never experienced anything different, and partly because so many people had made promises in the past and had never delivered."

El Goulli, a doctor of pharmacy, first visited Roatan in 2005 on holiday. She found that the local hospital was turning away patients without treatment because of drug shortages caused by an underfunded healthcare system. Roatan, the largest of the Honduras Bay Islands, is known for its beautiful beaches, but more than half of its 100,000 population lives in extreme poverty.

"It was really heartbreaking," El Goulli says. "The hospital pharmacist said, 'It pains me have to turn these people away. A lot of them cry when treatment is not available.'"

El Goulli has extensive experience in garnering support under tough situations, having successfully lobbied for the adoption of the hepatitis B vaccine in child immunization programs for more than 80 developing countries during her 1984-1991 tenure at Pasteur Vaccins, where she was an international product manager, overseeing biotech R&D projects. Subsequently, she worked in business development for pharmaceutical companies SmithKline Beecham and Sanofi, roles that included identifying partnership opportunities in Latin America. For the last eight years, El Goulli has run her own consulting business, Team Strategy Ltd., advising biopharmaceutical companies.

One incident demonstrated to Honduran officials that El Goulli was serious about her mission there.

During an early visit, El Goulli was told that the hospital's inventory of insulin, a life-saving drug for diabetics, had dwindled to a week's supply, with no indication of when the next shipment would arrive. Through her pharmaceutical contacts, El Goulli secured a donation of a month's worth of the drug three days before the supply was to run out, likely saving 200 lives, she says.

"That was really a turning point," she says. "In hindsight, that initial stage was the hardest – overcoming skepticism, delivering results with very little support."

El Goulli established the Medicines for Roatan as a nonprofit with two divisions — pharmaceutical operations and fundraising — with help from the community.

Medicines are bought from international nonprofit drug suppliers who provide more than 100 essential medicines, such as antibiotics. To date, Medicines for Roatan pays an average of 60 cents per treatment. During its first year, the venture served more than 25,000 patients.

The start-up funds for the organization came from Global Healing, a U.S. healthcare charity. But for the nonprofit to be sustainable, it needed local financing, El Goulli says. This year's first local event raised $12,000, enough for 20,000 treatments. From the start, the goal of the program was to achieve self-sustainability within 3-5 years. El Goulli says she never worried about finding the money to fund the venture.

"If you are passionate, with a sound business plan, the money comes, that's been my experience," she says. "Your own conviction attracts the people and the resources you need along the way."

Next year, El Goulli will transition out of her leadership role at the organization, handing authority over to a local president. She plans to remain on the board as an advisor, while she looks to implement similar nonprofit pharmacy supply models in other developing countries.

El Goulli credits her Kellogg education and private sector experience for her ability to lead Medicines for Roatan to success in a short time. She also cites Muhammad Yunus, founder of microfinance pioneer Grameen Bank, as one of her inspirations in trying to solve the world's problems of poverty.

"We started delivering drugs the first year, we hit the ground running and we did it fast and really cheap," El Goulli says. "There is a lot to be said for applying private sector skills to Third World programs."

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