Grand Challenges Canada

For the past 11+ years, Jocelyn Mackie has put her considerable talents to work at Grand Challenges Canada. For the past five years, she has served as co-CEO with Dr. Karlee Silver, drawing on her business acumen, legal training, and commitment to global health in service of funding bold innovations with big impact in more than 90 countries worldwide.  

As Jocelyn prepares to step down from her role, she reflected on her time with Grand Challenges Canada and the lessons she’s learned along the way. 

You’ve been at Grand Challenges Canada for 11 years, including 5 as co-CEO with Dr. Karlee Silver. What drew you to this work? What was it about GCC’s model?  

First, I had known from a very young age that I was put on this planet to have some form of global impact. I didn’t know exactly what that would look like — I did a Model UN competition as a teenager I thought I would go and work for the United Nations.  I felt that I had been given gifts and wanted to use them in service of making the world a better place.  

Second, I’ve always been interested in health and medicine. My father’s a physician – I considered going to medical school, like many young people do. The concept of global health unifies all humans because health is our greatest personal asset. Global health has always been important to me.  

Third, I’ve always resisted definitions and boundaries. I went to school for international development and then business school. And then when all of my friends were going off to do consulting and banking, I went to do a Master’s in bioethics and global health. And then when everyone around me was embarking on a PhD, I went to law school. I don’t like confined boxes. For me, the intersection of all those disciplines is where the magic is.  

There’s a theory that generalists can have an outsized impact. I’m not a specialist; I’m a generalist. For me, it really is the intersection between business and philanthropy and government and policy and impact and innovation. That’s what I’ve been drawn to, am excited about and that I think can effect real change in the world.  

I think GCC plays in that space. We are a not-for-profit, we steward government and philanthropic funding and have an impact mandate, but we often think like a business. We work with the private sector; we’ve been involved in funds that have a financial return and impact mandate. The fact that GCC brings those worlds together was really enticing and important to me. 

As you reflect on your time at GCC, what do you think the organization’s greatest contributions have been thus far? 

I would say that there are three things. First and foremost, it has been supporting more than 1500 innovators in 96 countries that are saving and improving lives. That is GCC’s core business and its number one contribution to the world. 

We focus on lives saved and lives improved, which is GCC’s North Star. But it’s also about the ripple effect of directly supporting an innovator or Principal Investigator. It’s about helping them to test their bold idea, especially if they’ve never had this kind of funding before. It’s providing the support so that they can engage and influence the community around them. For me, that really is GCC’s main impact.  

The second is our work on the three impact funds that we’ve helped support. There was the Global Health Investment Fund, where we provided a critical anchor investment; the incubation and spin-off of Cross-Border Impact Venture’s women and children’s health fund. And most recently, the Transform Health Fund, which is based in Africa and was created to support healthcare companies with health innovations on the African Continent. GCC was instrumental in different ways in all those funds, providing catalytic capital, and in some cases, sitting on investor and impact committees. It’s a way of crowding in different forms of capital with a social and financial return, which makes the models more likely to be sustainable. Not many not-for-profits in Canada engage in that kind of public-private partnership impact and return. 

The third is the innovation in how we do our work. It’s evident in our Risk Appetite Statement and our efforts to encourage funders like Global Affairs Canada to think differently about their own risk appetite. It’s in how we show up for our staff and try new ways of working together, such as the four-day work week. It’s also about how we fund. We have an Investment Committee with committee members from business and global health and the humanitarian sector, rumbling together to make better decisions.  It’s also how we are trying to change how we work to shift power and decision-making to the communities we’re trying to serve. 

You’ve been a Co-CEO with Karlee Silver for the past 5 years. Can you talk a little bit about the co-CEO model? What were the biggest benefits and the biggest lessons from this experience? 

We put in a joint application to become co-CEOs when Dr. Peter Singer decided to retire as GCC’s founding CEO. It was a deliberate choice from the beginning to co-lead GCC.  

When we were going through the recruitment process of the search, the search firm administered a leadership assessment.  We both scored very high on ambition and on collaboration. We were both very interested in the benefit of collaboration, and I think the model has allowed us to make better decisions for the organization.  

We’ve rumbled together and brought our unique expertise and different perspectives to our decisions. We were less afraid to be proven wrong or to think again because we were at the top together. We shared in the wins and the failures equally, just like in a good marriage. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that if you’re truly going to be in a partnership with someone, you take that to heart. For us, it’s been about what’s in the best interest of the organization. It wasn’t about our own personal agendas.  

One of the major benefits of the co-CEO model has been that it has provided incredible resilience to the organization. I gave birth to my last child two weeks after we were appointed as co-CEOs, which meant that Karlee started as co-CEO alone during my parental leave. Later, Karlee took a sabbatical and leave and is now returning from her first parental leave. To have two leaders who could run the entire organization (with some adjustments), provided continuity and resiliency.  

What prompted your decision to move on as co-CEO? 

As with any decision, it was a mix of the personal and professional. But it was also recognizing that the time was right for a change.  I had started to notice that while I was adding valuable context, the team members around me were increasingly bringing fresh ideas and insights. I love sponsoring new ideas, new leaders, and fresh perspectives.   

We’re at an amazing time where GCC is about to start crafting its next strategic plan for the future of the organization. This felt like the right time to transition out so that the Board could finalize the new leadership, and Karlee and the leaders within the organization can take things forward. 

During your time as co-CEO, GCC has focused on powershifting and localization as key parts of the organization’s strategy. Why has that been important to you? What lessons have you learned along the way?  

The belief that the innovators with lived experience are best placed to solve the challenges they’re facing has been core to GCC’s work from day 1. We have deepened that philosophy over the years but it has been at the root of our work. 

That said, we’ve been doing a lot of work as an organization to listen, learn and reflect on our role and responsibilities as a funder working in this space. It’s a journey and we still have further to go. 

Our focus on localization and powershifting has been a deliberate attempt to put the innovators and their communities in the driver’s seat. They don’t need lifting up; they need access to resources and opportunities that others have had because of systems of oppression that have existed and continue to exist today.  

There are certain parts of our work, in certain countries, where we should get out of the way and others could fund innovators locally and we could serve as a resource if they want our support. I believe there will always be a role for a platform like GCC, but one vision is that in time, we could really shift the power fully to decision-makers whose communities will feel the benefit of the solutions. 

As you prepare to move on to your next challenge, what has been your proudest accomplishment during your time at GCC?  

I think the incubation of the Cross-Border Impact Venture Fund and catalytic investment in Transform Health Fund are two top examples.  Our support was so aligned with my values and how I think impact and financial sustainability can come together.  They required a lot of dedication to make possible, so I am particularly proud of the role I played to make them possible.  

I think that the team that Karlee and I have built is another one.  I am proud of the team that I’m leaving behind. That extends beyond our staff — it also includes GCC’s advisors, the Board of Directors and committee and councilmembers. I’m proud of the humans we’ve brought together to effect change. 

I’m also very proud of the relationships that we’ve built with our partners and funders. I think we’ve built constructive, collaborative, and transparent relationships that were not there when I joined. When I look back, I know that we have had an influence on the innovation for impact sector and how this work is supported, and I am very proud of that.