Remembering his roots

He’s known to many as the innovative leader and CEO of  Northwell Health, New York’s largest private employer with 61,000 employees. But Michael Dowling has a story not often heard among high-ranking executives. 

Before he sat at the helm of a company that draws in $9.5 billion annually, Dowling was just a kid growing up in Limerick, Ireland, a farming village that is home to a church, a post office and a pub — the pub typically being the busiest, Dowling quipped. He spent his childhood in a three-room house, with a thatched roof, mud floors and no electricity or plumbing.

Things were tough for Dowling and his siblings. His father suffered from a severe case of arthritis that ended his working career at the age of 42, and his mother was hearing impaired.

“We were not a middle-class family,” he said. “We were a relatively poor family in the community.”

But even from his humble beginnings, Dowling dreamed of getting a higher education, even though he was mocked and ridiculed for entertaining that sentiment.

“People would tell me as a kid — it was great motivation — that somebody from my circumstances would never be able to go to college,” he said. “My attitude was, ‘I’m going to beat the odds.’”

Despite the naysayers, Dowling was undeterred. After years of simultaneously studying and working in area farms to provide for his family, he was able to score high enough on his high school exams to be admitted to college.

But his hard work was far from over. During his time at University College Cork in Ireland, he spent his summers working various jobs in the United States — from laboring on the docks to construction.

After graduation, Dowling settled permanently in the U.S., earnings a master’s degree from Fordham University before becoming a professor of social policy and assistant dean at the college’s Graduate School of Social Services and director of its campus in Westchester County. He later moved into the public sector and worked in state government in New York for more than a decade, including seven years as director of Health, Education and Human Services.

Dowling said he was drawn to the field in particular because of his impoverished upbringing and his parents’ health problems.

“I’ve always had an inclination toward the area of health and human services. I always had an interest in it, and I always felt we should be doing more to help people, but also that people had a responsibility to help themselves.”

Both Dowling and Northwell place a strong focus on giving back to the community.

“We want to make sure that we provide the best care to everyone despite their circumstances,” he said.

The company runs a Medical Scholars Pipeline Program though its Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. The program provides health-care skills training and instruction to high-achieving students from economically disadvantaged areas.

“It’s important that we try to make sure that we’re incredibly responsive to the diversity around us,” he said. “You have to understand the culture, religion and background of people different from us so we can relate and provide services for those people.”

Dowling takes that message to heart with his Monday routine. Each week, he spends part of his mornings meeting all of Northwell’s roughly 200 new hires.

Dowling said he puts a focus on helping those that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten.

“That’s where I’m kind of naturally driven toward,” he said. “In many ways, I look for those areas where you seem to think a lot of other people are not that interested.”

Dowling is also involved with Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides corrective surgery for children across the globe with facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates.

“Sometime when we look at what goes on around us here, we think people are in dire circumstances, but it’s nothing compared to what you see abroad.” he said. “It gives you perspective. You realize how fortunate those of us are (in America). We forget that so easily.”

But he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Each year, Dowling funds a trip for a group of Irish students, allowing them to live, work and study in the U.S. 

“The U.S. is a great place,” he said. “It has its failings but the wonderful core human aspect of the U.S. is a great source of opportunity.”

Dowling credits his success to a mixture of hard work, perseverance and plain old luck.

“It’s been a very interesting ride that I’ve had,” he said. “You never know where you will end up.”

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