In 2007, Sandra Mullin left her job in New York City government, where she had at one time managed a team of 50 as a part of the 6,000-person health department, to come to the World Lung Foundation, where there were four people in the entire organization.
In the 12 years since she arrived, Sandy has played a central role in building the organization as one of the earliest members of our executive team, and has created a policy, advocacy and communication team with world-renowned expertise in delivering high-impact strategic communication campaigns. Sandy says she feels “astonished” when she looks out at the size and scope of the organization that grew out of the 2015 merger between World Lung Foundation and Union North America. She is proud that some of the very first excellent hires on her team are still here, 10 years later and counting.
“It’s unbelievable, the range of people and talent that are part of our organization now,” she said. “To think we have grown to more than 400 people in just 12 years is breathtaking. The number of programs and the breadth and depth of what we do has continually grown, making this job feel as fresh as it was the day I arrived. I love new challenges. And I feel the same degree of excitement and energy that I did when I walked in the door over a decade ago.”
While Sandy acknowledges that Vital can feel like a start-up, given that we changed our name to Vital Strategies (a name she helped to come up with) less than four years ago and moved into a brand-new New York City office only about a year ago, she reminds new staff that the organization was born in 2004, three years before she joined.
Sandy is most proud of the big policy wins that Vital Strategies, and before that, World Lung Foundation, has contributed to, including the passage of laws that made Beijing 100% smoke-free, successful advocacy for policies to reduce sugar consumption in Mexico and South Africa, and significant drops in fatalities on the roads in Addis Ababa and Bogota. She is passionate about the intricate advocacy and communication work that helps advance policies and by extension, save lives.
Sandy attributes her interest in global policy to her roots. She was born in England to immigrant parents—her mother from Jamaica and her father from Ireland. Sandy lived in London until she was 9, when she and her family moved to Jamaica. She left Jamaica at 17, when her parents moved Sandy and her sister and brother to New York to seek out more opportunity. It is where she has lived ever since.
With a white father and an Asian-black mother, and as a child of poor immigrants who moved countries not once but twice to improve theirs and their children’s lives, Sandy describes herself as deeply conscious of social and cross-cultural issues. In part, she says, this is a credit to her parents, who always found ways to reinvent themselves and adapt to new circumstances, whether geographic or work-wise. “I grew up in a place that also made me much more aware of difference and multiculturalism and race differences and how they can influence your life,” she said.
She also excelled in athletics from a very young age, often “better than the boys” in a range of sports including tennis, football (soccer), table tennis, badminton, martial arts and cricket. “There is lots of evidence that playing sports as a kid instills confidence in you as an adult. It did for me. And I still try to be athletic as much as possible though, alas, not nearly as much as I should.” She was a Caribbean champion in Taekwondo when she was 14. And she has played competitive tennis, soccer, table tennis and badminton. She remembers saving up for her first purchase when she arrived in New York: a new tennis racket. When she travels for work, she often brings a squash or tennis racket, hoping to pick up a game.
Sandy’s strength and industriousness also developed out of necessity, as she had to help her family get by financially. “When we moved to the U.S., I worked as a waitress, I pumped gas, I delivered FedEx packages, I stacked periodicals in the library, I was a salesperson in a department store, a teller in a bank—all before I was 18. This was simply to make enough money to take the bus to school, to buy lunch and schoolbooks, and to not have to be completely dependent on my hardworking folks.”
Sandy loved her adolescence in Jamaica for its culture, its natural beauty and the kindness of Jamaican people. Witnessing the country’s economic and political challenges drove her to seek a career where she could work for greater equality and justice.
In college, Sandy majored in political science, with minors in philosophy, English literature and history. She went on to graduate school where she furthered her studies in political science for a few years and decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work with a focus on community organizing. One of her first professional “jobs” was an internship at the U.N. Development Programme. “As a young idealist who wanted to change the world, I was so horrified by the U.N.’s bureaucracy and its inertia that after nine months, I decided it was not for me.” She also had jobs running an internship program at Barnard College, managing a public affairs program at City College, doing tenant organizing in the Bronx and working at a community organization in Manhattan.
“I saw what people without health insurance struggled with, how people juggled to make ends meet and get their kids into school. I saw elderly people with physical challenges living in fifth floor walk-ups, people with health problems unable to afford to go to the doctor, and mentally ill people struggling to live in their own homes. That was as much an education for me as anything I learned in a classroom.”
Sandy’s 12 years in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene included roles leading the city’s communication response to West Nile virus (“a trial by fire”), SARS, and the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. She also contributed to efforts to enact the historic 2002 New York City Smoke-Free Air Act that spurred countries like Ireland to brave the controversy and follow suit. She describes working round-the-clock during her city service, always being available to colleagues and reporters, delighting in being part of a team and being inspired by her colleagues’ deep commitment to public health. “I feel privileged to have worked as communication director at the DOHMH for nearly 10 years and am thrilled that so many colleagues I deeply respected for their character and their commitment to public health have also joined Vital.”
At Vital Strategies, Sandy seeks out that same commitment to results, work and camaraderie that she did when working for the city. She strives to hire people who really believe in and care about what they do.
“I love being part of a great team, and am thrilled we get to work across all of Vital’s divisions. I’m energized by great minds coming together to get the work done smartly and with an eye to effective results. I encourage my team, maybe even push at times, for them to be excellent. I try to give people the trust they deserve to thrive.”
Sandy gets satisfaction from supporting Vital Strategies’ President and CEO José Luis Castro in strategy and communication, and she enjoys untangling organizational challenges alongside her executive management colleagues.
She is so proud to have created Vital Talks, a breakfast series that invites leading thinkers to come together to grapple with some of the leading public health challenges of our time. “This has been a labor of love. My team and I see this as an important opportunity to deepen and widen our place as thought leaders on so many critical issues.”
When she is not working (which she says she does almost all the time with perhaps an unhealthy relish), she has a variety of hobbies. Gardening, going to museums and galleries, cooking (her cod fish fritters are legendary) and learning about things beyond public health and politics. Sandy describes herself as a “vacuum cleaner for information and tidbits,” and has a wide range of interests. She voraciously listens to podcasts and music and immerses herself in art and culture. And she loves reading —“real books with real paper and all!” Her favorite books of the last few months? Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Guy Gunaratne’s “In Our Mad and Furious City,” and “Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyassi, which she says everyone should read. “On my recent trip to China, I picked up Nien Cheng’s stirring memoir, ‘Life and Death in Shanghai,’ and I can’t put it down.”
Vital Strategies is such a great place to work, she said, because it attracts people from so many backgrounds who are united by the possibility of improving prospects for global health. “In addition to the important work we do together, we share tips on books and movies, recipes and restaurants both in NYC and abroad. Most of all, it is filled with smart, compassionate and kind people who are open to learning and sharing ideas.”
“I have been here for 12 years and I am still thoroughly enjoying my job. A meaningful mission and delightful colleagues in a great organization: What else can one possibly want from one’s life’s work?”