Phillipa Sibanda Mandisodza is a health professional and social impact entrepreneur who gave up her six-figure income in California to help rebuild the healthcare system in her home country of Zimbabwe.
She spent the past 15 years working in the healthcare field as a respiratory care practitioner and led healthcare projects such as clinic start-ups, robotics in intensive care settings and telehealth.
I reached out to Phillipa to learn more about the amazing work she is doing.
Tell us about yourself!
The bulk of my career has been in the state of California after getting an education and graduating from the state of Texas. Prior to healthcare, I led large teams in the BPO space supporting the telecommunications industry.
My parents, Mercy Jama Sibanda and John Mandisodza, were a source of strength and created a solid foundation for me during my early childhood in Zimbabwe. I then left the country around 19 years to pursue aviation in Miami, Florida.
Unfortunately, the industry was shifting during those years, and I adapted quickly by getting a business degree. After becoming a single parent years later, I chose to spend time in Zimbabwe to have more family support and also ensure my son was growing up with a strong sense of identity around the Shona culture.
While it has been hard to walk away from my six-figure healthcare career, I eventually felt my skills in respiratory sciences could be of great service to my country of heritage, especially in light of COVID-19 pandemic as well as the high incidence of death due to pneumonia.
I am best-known for the work I have done in the start-up space in Zimbabwe through Global Business Innovations (GBI). Some of the start-ups that have made a huge impact include Dominion Innovative Creations, which branded Tanya Muzinda and other platforms like DiasporaInsights, a crowdsourcing platform for diaspora issues.
At the end of it all, I am a Zimbabwean who is passionate about real change, and believe that only through dialogue, collaboration, and real elbow grease can there be a lasting and meaningful shift to transformation. I have a God-given gift of healing through respiratory sciences, and I truly believe while this is a science, healing itself is an art of understanding and welcoming the multiplicity of humanity.
These same beliefs flow into my work in the start-up space, helping entrepreneurs to really dig deep and use their gifts to amplify themselves and make a mark in their communities through business. My philosophy is that if you are able to help someone develop an idea to a business that in turn creates jobs and transforms a community, there is a certain healing that happens within all those that play a role in the process.
Self-actualization, while at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is really at the starting point of becoming a visionary entrepreneur. Our job at the Innovation Hub is not to go around and give handouts but to support the ecosystem and create value which is sustainable and enduring.
What was your upbringing like?
I am the last-born in a family of five. It was a blessing to be the last child because I believe my mother particularly was a seasoned parent by the time she had me and paved the way for a great childhood. My mother was at some point in her career a school teacher, and this made her have an understanding of the differences between her children. She allowed me to be a late bloomer, and up to Grade 6, I would still playing nhodo (a game similar to jacks) while my peers had already moved on to more sophisticated games.
My mother unfortunately passed away when I was around 10 years of age. I was never able to grieve at such a young age, so I held on to all my wonderful childhood memories to cope with her loss and reached out for support from my extended family, especially my uncles.
What drew you to aviation? What was that experience like?
My A Levels were not great enough to pursue my dream career, so instead of pursuing college, I fought my way into becoming a pilot. I started flying at Charles Prince Airport and got my private pilot license but quickly realized to get a career going, I had to become a commercial pilot, and that is how I ended up in Miami at Florida Memorial University pursuing a degree in aviation management.
Aviation fascinated me because of the convenience it offered to travel around the world. My family history has a lot of nomadism, and I just simply wanted to be nomadic conveniently. The truth is, I was young and enjoyed the all-boys environment aviation provided at the time.
What led to you changing to telecommunications? How was the transition?
The loss of my mum at a tender age made me adapt to changing circumstances – what we call pivoting or to be agile in today’s world. My change to telecoms was necessitated by a shift in economic forces with airlines struggling amid a hike in oil prices. The dean of aviation, who was also my mentor, recommended I pivot and use the business classes I already had to become a business major.
Pilots were being laid off at that time; it made sense to shift my path. I struggled with my decision, so like the kick of a dying horse, feeling defeated about changing my career path, I tried a semester of aviation maintenance and I just hated it. I resigned to the fact that business is where I needed to go. This decision is what led me to a leadership role in the BPO space at AT&T.
Is leadership an innate skill you have or did you have to develop it?
I believe leadership can be innate and also taught. Leadership can start at a very tender age if the surrounding environment is nurturing to those leadership traits.
When I was pregnant with my son, I was fascinated by epigenetics, and seven out of nine months, I was religious about strapping classical music to my belly during my sleeping hours. I bring this up because my son plays the violin, loves to sing and enjoys Kenny G at 10 years of age.
There is something an environment does to a child. In my household, I let my nieces and kids lead. It allows them to see their points of failure and learn early in their lives, helping them to make good decisions.
This being said, I think being encouraged and supported at an early age helps to foster leadership qualities in a way that an MBA may never achieve. There isn’t one-size-fits-all for leadership, so when you meet a great leader, you know it, and the best is to get to know their background and story.
Let’s talk about your transition into healthcare. How did that come about?
My childhood and watching my mum raise five children as a single mother helped me define my happiness. She was a very happy person despite having so little, so I knew that I needed a career change when the corporate world became unbearable.
The shift happened when Bob Weidman walked into my anatomy and physiology class and offered me an opportunity to apply for the respiratory care program. I honestly did not know much about the profession nor could I even pronounce it, but he looked honest and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It seemed like he was on vacation all the time, so I was misled to one of the most challenging academic programs I had ever been through. We started with 22 students. Let’s just say about 12 graduated successfully; many could not cope along the way. This program was one of the best decisions of my life.
What were some of the challenges you faced shifting into the healthcare industry?
One of the biggest challenges was letting go of a leadership role and taking a pay cut to pursue a new career. Purpose, happiness and fulfilment is an important aspect of life.
After a while, I questioned myself, whether I was doing the right thing working for a pay check. It was clear I needed more out of life, so the shift was necessary to improve myself and usher a different way of life.
After becoming a mum, however, the long hours in hospitals became unbearable, and that led me to project management in the healthcare space.
Can you tell us about the work you are doing in Zimbabwe?
On coming back home, I knew going into healthcare right away would be a huge commitment, and I felt I would be limited to explore my creative side. I wanted a break from healthcare, and this led me to be an angel investor and begin to seed start-ups in our Innovation Hub. I founded the GBI Hub, and that journey took me by surprise as I longed for something like this to happen in Zimbabwe despite the hardships.
The focus for The GBI Hub (www.gbihub.com) is to have a vertical structure in terms of a group of companies that support each other and work in synchrony with each other. I wanted the companies that could feed on each other. For instance, the design company Dominion Innovative Creations feeds into pretty much everything we create; it is the creative channel where ideas are conceptualised.
DiasporaInsights is a platform for crowdsourcing and eventually funding. It gives an opportunity to learn about different markets, what the different tastes and desires of diaspora are as they are thinking of coming back home.
In 2021 we want to roll out our women-centred network (PROLIFIC), and we have been researching on who the Zimbabwean woman is, what are their needs, what social networks do they need, and this will be active in 2021.
The Angel Investment Group is yet to commence, which is all about seed funding and raising capital for seed investment to grow our start-ups and help them scale.
Through multiple channels, I am now back in the healthcare space, and I have a private entity which focuses on advisory work, group practice and healthcare education, bringing in programs that enhance the healthcare space as well as products and services that save lives.
I am a member of the Harare Central Hospital (now SMCH) board and we have projects like The SMCH Center for Innovation and Simulation, which I have championed and led to help the hospital in problem-solving locally in a simulated environment. It is challenging, and every day is a new lesson, but I know from being an entrepreneur that it is better to have the few milestones we have than nothing at all, and I am grateful for every opportunity I have to lead.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue their passion?
The only advice I can give is to have a clear understanding of who you are. It’s easy to be drawn into spaces which you do not want to be.
As a female leader, be clear about your own self-identity, biases, blind spots. Do not follow my passion; follow what is inherently who you are and what you are meant to be.
To put this in context as a Christian, the story of the talents says it all. These are God-given talents, and we all [have] at least one while others have ten. These talents will give birth to your fulfilment. So, finding yourself should be your priority because what you enjoy will drive you to keep going when the going gets tough. It will also help finding the right channel to put your energy into and pursue what really fills you up. When you are fulfilled and happy, you are a better woman, wife, mum, sister and just a great person to be around.
I am a believer in gender equality, but I feel the work still needs to be done and performance matters. So as women, while it is harder for us, we must produce results because our children are watching.