Mihaela Geoană is the founder and president of the Renasterea Foundation for Women’s Health, vice president of the European organization Think Pink Europe, and former president of the Romanian Red Cross. Mihaela Geoana is also one of the 100 examples of female civic involvement in the book Women’s Civic Force.
It has been over 20 years since the Renașterea Foundation has been campaigning for the better health of women in Romania through campaigns dedicated to preventing breast and cervical cancer, oncological diseases that cause many victims. In 2001, you founded the Renașterea Foundation for Education, Health and Culture, initiating the campaign to fight breast cancer with the annual pink enlighting of the most beautiful buildings in Bucharest. Since then, the foundation promote women’s health through programs dedicated to the early detection of breast, ovarian and cervical cancer. You are a point of reference in any pertinent debate on public policies related to women’s health, or social entrepreneurship developed for women in distress.
What are the sources of this care for women? Was it something you learned from the civic spirit of America?
Indeed, we started this process with a team of dedicated, soulful, passionate women; I mention Cristiana Copos, with whom I started. The idea came to me as a result of my experience in the United States, where civic activism is highly developed and where women in public life or in the media or spotlight are using their voices to advocate. It is true that it was also a personal experience, a fear. It was not a real health problem, but I realized how much can be done for women’s health in Romania.
It was 2001 when we returned to Romania, and my husband, Mircea, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania; there was a lot of pressure to talk in public about family life and other interesting topics for the press. And because I was aware of my public voice, I chose to talk, especially about women’s health. We started with breast cancer and for seven years we focused only on this topic to create awareness, to get women used to talk about it and to urge them to go to annual medical check-ups. After seven years, we have expanded to other female cancers: cervical cancer. This is one of the few cancers that can be prevented and detected before it turns into cancer, it can be stopped and treated. I think it’s great to be able to do that. It breaks my heart every time I hear about advanced cervical cancer, something that happens less and less in civilized countries.
When you started in 2001, cancer was a word that Romanian people used to avoid, not to attract misfortune, and the cancer survival was somewhere around 20%. We now have testimonials of a lot of cancer survivors, some the public persons, celebrities, and people who write books based on their experience, most of them women.
This was a trigger element that made me choose to militate against breast cancer. In America, there were statistics that reveal a survival rate of over 70%, while in Romania the survival rate was only 30%. It was exactly the opposite. Analyzing the detection methods, the treatments, the doctor’s experience, we found that there were no big differences. The big difference is the addressability to the doctor, that prevention I have mentioned before, those habits to go to a regular medical check-up, even if nothing hurts. It is a different mentality and we want to create awareness among Romanian women.
Sometimes you have mentioned that when you were young, even though you studied Architecture, your soul urged you to write „the architecture” of a concept for women’s health.
It is true and I would mention the pink lighting of the most famous buildings worldwide. Being an architect made me choose some Romanian valuable buildings and value them. Once a year, important buildings around the world are lit up in pink to remind women to go for a medical check-up. In October it became a tradition. Some doctors have told us to do such campaigns more often because there is a huge wave of requests for medical check-ups in October. So, we initiated campaigns also in March and we ended up doing it four times a year. A message for all women to go to see a doctor regardless of the month.
In your vision, which are the values of female leadership?
The values of female leadership or the values of feminism are very important. They helped us both within our organization, but also in the relationship of our NGO with the authorities, partners, and sponsors. Cooperation is very important. We did not position ourselves as critics of the government, any government; on the contrary, we always asked how we could help. We have been transparent, we have shown our results, we have appreciated the efforts and the progress, and we have been encouraged to do things even better. Another important value is the empathy you can notice in any organization in which women are included – inside the team or on board. Then fairness, justice, intuition, sensitivity. All of these values have helped our organization grow in a healthy way.
How important is women’s solidarity in creating and developing social entrepreneurship such as the Renașterea Foundation?
It matters a lot. On the one hand, we have seen a lot of solidarity among women who are leaders for their organizations; they have chosen to support women’s causes – either to recommend them to go for medical tests or to help us in fundraising. On the other hand, we noticed solidarity in the implementation of the specific legislation – there are members of parliament who helped us to promote specific legislation. There is also solidarity among cancer survivors. They received training and founded an association of cancer survivors. In return, they help and support any woman who is diagnosed with cancer; they are living proofs that this disease can be defeated.
How do you identify and support female talent in your organization?
In our team, we combined pleasure and usefulness. Empathy, the ability to develop relationships is important. For example, at each board meeting, the first 30 minutes are allocated to the conversation – we talk about family, children, cosmetics. That creates a bond, a deep connection. Sometimes we have informal board meetings – go out on a terrace, where we socialize and work together. In the executive team, we are lucky to have loyal employees; for example, Cătălina Negară, the executive director, is like my second daughter. Lately, it is more and more difficult to find new people for our team, who believe in our values, to integrate into our positive atmosphere.
What are the main challenges you face in managing a women’s NGO that employs mostly women?
We haven’t experienced major problems in our team composed mostly of women. We also have a male colleague, now two, one of them works online. We have experienced some financing panics during the economic and pandemic crisis, that’s why we developed our NGO as a social enterprise; we have a medical center where we offer medical tests at lower prices compared to private clinics, and the extra income goes to team wages. It’s the right strategy for funding our team.
20 years ago, when you founded the Renașterea Foundation, cancer was a taboo word, difficult to pronounce and assimilate. I remember writing in magazines about testimonials of some patients who only signed with initials; they were afraid and ashamed to assume their experiences. We now have testimonials from cancer survivors, public persons who write books based on their experience, and who use their notoriety to help raise awareness of the importance of health and prevention. It is their commitment to tame this disaster.
What have you learned from cancer survivors in terms of resilience and female leadership?
It’s an extraordinary life lesson we learn from every cancer survivor. It’s a tough fight, all resources are being tested. But you get resilience and a joy of living that you don’t see in other people. They are reborn people, they enjoy every day as a gift. They know how to be better, they know how to prioritize, and they learn how to be supportive of patients who are diagnosed with cancer. They help them, support them. One of the most appreciated programs was the one in which we created a team composed of a cancer patient and a cancer survivor. No matter how much we advise them, whatever we recommend, what a cancer survivor can teach them is much more important and relevant. Seeing the cancer survivors being well with their families gives them the greatest strength to fight. Friends are made for life.
A few years ago you were awarded the Pearl of Wisdom at the European Parliament in Brussels. What is the Pearl of Wisdom that has been „settled” all these years?
No project is impossible to complete if you have the determination, focus and correctness of each step you take. Determination is the most important thing.
From your experience, what specifically encourages women in decision-making positions?
I have a warm, friendly but firm approach. I focus on the destination and purpose of the project.
How do you see in Romania the evolution of public policies for women?
Even though we have progressed slowly, I am referring to national screening projects; it is not only about female cancers, but also about lung and colorectal cancers; if detected in time, many lives can be saved. We are working on two regional projects – one on cervical cancer, and another on colorectal cancer. If these projects are successful, they will be developed into national projects. Our goal is access to free screening for the population.
How did you experience feminism in your personal, professional and social life? How has America influenced you?
The most important to me was the appreciation of the woman’s work by the society, but also within the family. My husband also expressed publicly his gratitude for my support in his work. I would like this kind of appreciation for women’s work to be more and more common in Romania as well. The same for public recognition of domestic work, of women who are totally dedicated to raising children. I also want equal pay for equal work, and the presence of women on companies’ boards. A combination of male and female leadership is good for any company. We have the ability to achieve this balance. We have a huge plus – in Romania women are very educated. We are fortunate to have female leaders who promote such values and who are role models for the younger generations.
Let’s not forget the voice of public figures and celebrities who use their notoriety for social causes, to create awareness for health among people. Celebrities, actresses and singers become credible influencers for the communities following them.
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