Deb Dugan on Narrative and ‘Finding a Common North Star’

PHP profiles Deb Dugan, CEO of (RED).

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Read Time: 5 minutes



Deb Dugan is the CEO of (RED), an organization founded in 2006 by Bono and Bobby Shriver to engage businesses and consumers to help fight AIDS in Africa. Prior to (RED), Dugan was President of Disney Publishing Worldwide, generating $1.8 billion in global retail sales. During her eight years at Disney, she oversaw 275 magazines and published more than 4,000 new book titles. Dugan’s roots are in the music industry, where she spent many years as Executive Vice President at EMI/Capitol Records. She began her career as an attorney on Wall Street.

Since joining (RED) in 2011, Deb Dugan has been an instrumental force in Bono and Bobby Shriver’s mission to direct monies from the private sector toward the Global Fund’s fight against HIV/AIDS. As CEO of (RED), Dugan oversees “the big ideas” for products and experiences that, when purchased, raise both money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of providing life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment that prevents HIV+ moms passing the virus to their unborn babies.

Dugan explains that this brand of philanthropy is so impactful because the private sector — which includes (RED) partners like Apple, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola — wants to be “young and hip” and is forced to keep up with trends of youth. More and more, those trends include using “consumer power as activism.” (RED) harnesses the relationship between company and consumer to affect policy and save lives.

In her interview with PHP’s Madeline Bishop and Michael Stein, Dugan emphasized the power of common narratives to capture the attention of a wider audience and to inspire youth to become involved in this important fight. Here, we recount some of the narratives she shared with us about (RED)’s pioneering enterprise.

On finding a common North Star

DD: Our whole mission is to keep [HIV/AIDS] relevant. And how do you keep it relevant when you think of all the issues now that are going on, that are keeping people awake at night? We make it personal. We have a north star that every life has equal value. That where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live. And that it is not about charity, it’s about justice.

When we talk to people, we try to make it personal for them so that they realize that the same issues that a woman has because of inequality in sub-Saharan Africa, can be many of the same issues that affect women in other countries. But the truth is this… HIV is the leading cause of death among women aged 30-49, and in sub-Saharan Africa three out of four new HIV infections in 15-19 year olds are among girls. That’s an enormous inequality. We have find a common ground in that north star to help people understand that inequality impacts people in so many different ways… but it can be addressed.

On optimism and innovators: ARV ATM’s in Johannesburg

DD: I am an optimist. Sometimes people ask me, when you spend so much time on the ground in Africa, what’s the heartbreaking story that keeps you going? And it’s interesting — although I’ve seen many a heartbreaking incident, it’s the story of innovation that I can’t get out of my head. It’s the health care workers in Ghana that all of a sudden have an app that was created in this little lab with barely any electricity that’s letting healthcare workers get the information they need. In Johannesburg there’s a clinic that has an ATM banking machine [with] tellers that distribute the ARVs, alongside other prescribed medications. You put your social security number and you can talk to a pharmacist like you would a teller. I see that and that keeps me really, really optimistic.

We have a north star that every life has equal value. That where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live. And that it is not about charity, it’s about justice.

On showcasing your values: Converse on the dance floor

DD: Half the people that buy a (RED) product probably just like the color red. Yet we try to put on the packages something about [what (RED) is and does]. I love the idea that if you’re wearing red Converse shoes and you’re dancing on a dance floor and somebody says, “Oh you must care about AIDS” and you’re like, “should I?”  And maybe that would get you to come to our website. So it goes both ways — I think that the general notion of products for good is just so common in today’s generation. And why not do that? The (RED) products never cost any more than the non-(RED) ones. And so if you make a positive choice that makes you feel good. And, it’s come to you in an organic way. That’s a big swing of this generation. It’s almost an “of course.” And I think that you will demand that from every company.

Sixty percent of your generation will take a cut in pay to work at a job with purpose. So those brands want to get out there the good they do, which hopefully will motivate them to do more good.

On artists & ‘getting big swings’: Skrillex brings hope and music to youth 

DD: You know Skrillex? The electronic dance music pioneer?  He was in Liberia right before Ebola hit, and he felt that the youth had no hope – it was just incredibly hard for everyone. So we’re with all these policy people and we had this great dinner, and at the end of dinner when people were talking about infrastructure, he just got up and said that what’s missing here is engaging youth, and giving them hope. So in South Africa — a country with one of the highest burdens of HIV — he started Bridges for Music in a township outside Cape Town. Today, there is a school where kids can go, learn their music and have hope.

It’s all about doing something out the box that somebody like Skrillex could do… we’ve come across innovative ways to get big swings and people involved. And I think those stories are what really resonate now.

Feature image courtesy of (RED).