Claire Verhaeghe has a simple plan for her career: to enjoy her work and to make a difference, whichever direction that takes her.
As she was growing up, in a small town near Oxford in England, her parents encouraged a strong work ethic and Claire was among the first in her family to go to university—to Oxford’s rival, Cambridge University, where she studied history.
“I had a teacher who advised me to study something that I was passionate about and to think about what career it might lead to. He told me that if you do something you love, you will naturally strive to succeed, and will enjoy doing so, and ultimately it won’t be work. I always carried that.”
The skills Claire gained at Cambridge—such as reading and writing in an analytical and objective way, synthesizing key ideas, and constructing a balanced argument—have been indispensable and have led to jobs across the English Channel—from England to France—in education and in public health.
As a teenager, Claire had attended a summer school for children who had less access to quality higher education, which not only inspired her to want to pursue her own university studies but also to provide similar experiences for others. She later returned to the same summer school as a course leader and after university, she began work as an educator, in direct teaching roles in children’s learning centers, organizing language trips abroad for children, teaching English in French schools and arranging historical and cultural tours of the battlefields in Northern France for English schoolchildren.
Claire was initially drawn to France through her love of the language, culture and food. What was originally intended as a gap year—to build on her history studies before starting a “real job”—turned into a longer-term life decision when she met (and later married) a French man.
In 2009, Claire joined the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, the 100-year-old lung health organization, where José Luis Castro later served as the executive director and whose North America branch merged with the World Lung Foundation in 2015 to form Vital Strategies.
“Although I kind of fell into public health unintentionally, managing membership at The Union was really enriching and inspired me to stay in public health. Meeting these fantastic, dedicated and committed members from all different backgrounds who were doing such important work and were also voluntarily members of this scientific organization, participating in conferences, writing articles for journals and doing projects, was a real privilege and one of the reasons why I stayed so long.”
Claire worked for The Union for 11 years in several roles and on a variety of projects. She became known for her strong organizational skills, for remaining calm under pressure and for working well across cultures.
A central part of her work was producing the opening ceremony and other VIP events at conferences, including the annual international conference which grew in size, impact, scope of outreach and media coverage over the years, under José’s leadership.
“It was extremely fulfilling to see the physical product of our work—the result of the efforts of many different people over the course of a year. Being a part of that, being a small club in a bigger team, was really rewarding and also a lot of fun.”
Memorable moments included managing two of The Union’s annual centennial fundraising dinners. Together with her colleague Sylvie Drolon, Claire organized a dinner at the historic Ridderzaal in The Hague that was presided over by royalty from the Netherlands and Japan, and “all the stress and adrenaline that comes with that.” The other was an outdoor dinner organized at a spectacular palace in Hyderabad, India, which brought very different challenges as she navigated both the involvement of high-level Indian government officials and unpredictable weather conditions.
“About 95% of the success of the dinners came down to preparation. The majority of what was said and how things looked on the day is the work we did in the months leading up to the event. You get a great sense of satisfaction seeing it all come together,” she said.
Another important moment for Claire was when she visited an urban slum in New Delhi and met tuberculosis survivors.
“In my role at The Union I usually saw the back office and what we did every day behind the scenes. This visit gave me a glimpse of what happens on the ground,” she said. “People are going out and meeting people, and they explained how they marked the doors to indicate which houses they had been to. We also met TB survivors who told us about the stigma they had experienced. It was both inspiring and very humbling.”
Although Claire has always enjoyed being in a planning role that is a step away from work on the ground, she appreciates also having the opportunity to see the bigger picture.
“You need all the pieces of the machinery for something to work,” she said. “I have been someone who likes to do a lot of different things, and I enjoy making things happen, but not necessarily being on the stage. I like to understand how all of that fits together.”
A year ago, Claire left The Union to join Vital Strategies, as José was transitioning to lead Vital exclusively.
At Vital, she has two roles. First, she works in the Office of the President, where she managed the review of Vital’s values last year and is coordinating the development of Vital’s strategic plan.
“It was a crash course in understanding the organization and its priorities, and learning about the history and achievements to date as well as people’s vision for the future,” she said.
She is also working with Sylviane Ratte and the team in Paris to help build up Vital’s office and work in Europe by developing partnerships and connecting with other organizations across Europe that share common goals.
“We have an opportunity to build a real presence here in Europe,” she said. “We are in close proximity to World Health Organization, and I work on maintaining our official relations and many contacts there. I get to have interesting conversations with so many people who believe in social integrity and the common good.”
Claire began her work at Vital during her 15th year living in France and is impressed by the breadth of the programs and the diverse, talented, driven, smart people who work for the organization around the world. She lives in the suburbs of Paris with her husband and two young, energetic sons.
She looks forward to a day when work can again be conducted over food and social interactions in France, as it was pre-pandemic.
Professionally, Claire has not mapped out the coming years in detail, but she hopes to have an opportunity to get involved in more of Vital’s projects.
“I want to continue doing things that make a difference and where I feel I can add value,” she said. “Being open to opportunities that arise has so far led me on an interesting path and one that I don’t regret.”