Ann Arborite Josh Greenberg
Med student and nonprofit CEO
by Jennifer Xu
From the March, 2014 issue
Josh Greenberg has just landed in Uganda. It's the summer after his sophomore year at Duke, where he founded a nonprofit called the Progressive Health Partnership. He's raised the money to start a small medical program in Uganda, enough to help 1,600 pregnant women for a few months. But, after conducting a few focus groups, he realizes that in the country's rural southwest, the villagers' main concern is not antenatal health, but something even more basic: access to safe drinking water.
Greenberg was taken aback. "We had no funding" for a water project, he recalls now. But he quickly changed the trajectory of his organization. "We had to emphasize to them that we couldn't make any guarantees. We told them, 'We're going to go back to the States and do everything we can to obtain funds for this, but we can't promise anything.' "
A year later, Greenberg was back in Uganda. He'd raised nearly $200,000 in funding from the Ronald McDonald House to launch a rainwater-harvesting program, installing seventy-six 20,000-liter collection tanks in public buildings throughout the region.
After unveiling the project, Greenberg stopped to see a local shopkeeper who had been a member of a focus group the year before. He says she told him: "We can't believe that you all are bringing this program here. We thought you were joking with us."
At twenty-five, Greenberg has a narrow face, dark hair, and a friendly smile. As CEO of Progressive Health Partnership, he's responsible for a six-figure budget, five workers in Uganda, five U.S.-based staff members, and twenty-six community health workers. He's also in his first year of a seven-year program at the U-M to earn both an MD and a PhD in economics.
Sitting in his apartment near the Medical Center, Greenberg, a high school debate star, converses carefully but earnestly. Though he has a few mementos of Uganda--a wood carving of the country's coat of arms, a cloth hanging stitched with a few words of thanks
from his employees there--Greenberg lives a life of asceticism. He devotes himself completely to his work, getting most animated when the conversation turns to the relationship between nonprofit organizations and their donors. When asked what he does for fun, he answers: "The thing I enjoy most is just talking to people."
Greenberg launched PHP in 2007 as a freshman at Duke with his friend and hall mate, Eddie Zhang. At first they were interested in getting mosquito nets to villagers in sub-Saharan Africa to combat malaria. But as the two learned more about the region, one of the poorest parts of the world, "we started to realize we wanted to do something much broader, much more long-term," Greenberg says. The friends eventually connected with a Ugandan physician visiting Duke, who told them firsthand stories of the country's struggles to reduce deaths from childbearing. For the last twenty years, maternal and neonatal mortality in Uganda has plateaued at a persistently high figure of about forty-nine per 1,000 live births, compared to about six in the U.S.
Greenberg and Zhang formed their NGO with a three-pronged approach of research, service, and advocacy. "To this day it still blows me away that Josh and Eddie had this vision as first-year undergraduates," Duke physician Alex Cho told Duke Today, "and found so many other committed undergraduates to join them."
PHP's major initiative in maternal and infant mortality is titled "Omukazi Namagara"--which in Runyankore, the official language of the region, means "the woman is life." In two years, the number of antenatal visits to PHP's health centers has more than doubled. Ultimately, Greenberg sees PHP expanding into other arenas of health care--and perhaps beyond that into economic and societal issues.
Greenberg has always been sensitive to social inequity. Hailing from Homewood, Illinois, a middle class suburb close to Chicago's South Side, he recalls driving past poverty-stricken neighborhoods on his way back from school events. He came to realize that many of the opportunities at his fingertips were a product of being born into affluence. Upon entering college, he resolved to throw himself into projects dedicated to reducing global inequity.
Family tragedy gave his idealism focus. Greenberg lost his older brother and sister to a rare genetic disorder called Canavan Disease. His parents became deeply involved in the research to find its cause, donating many autopsy samples to a scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago who was studying its genetic basis. The scientist soon identified the Canavan gene--then moved to a different medical institution where he patented it. Wanting the information to be freely accessible, the Greenberg family sued the scientist. Their lawsuit was a precursor to last year's Supreme Court decision that rejected a patent on the BRCA genes for breast cancer.
"That's what really showed me how medicine goes far beyond science," Greenberg says. "That's what made me realize there are these really significant policy issues" that affect people's health.
Despite his busy school schedule, Greenberg manages to devote about twenty hours a week to PHP, mostly on nights and weekends. It helps considerably, he says, that the medical school operates on a flexible time schedule. Most professors do not require students to attend lectures in person--they can just watch them online. Currently, he's working on restructuring PHP's board of directors (last month, he was planning a quick trip to Minneapolis meet new board members, applying for grants, and looking into the possibility of investing PHP's grant money in local Ugandan businesses.
Greenberg admits that it can be difficult balancing school with his nonprofit work, but he views his studies in medicine and economics as essential complements to his driving interest of global health equity. While medical care operates in the short term, to help individuals, economics is long term and focused on underlying causes. "When you feel that everything you do serves a purpose," he says, "it becomes much easier to do it."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the March 2104 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of PHP's maternal and infant health initiative and the purpose of his trip to Minneapolis have been corrected.
[Originally published in March, 2014.]