Meet Class 12: Unni Karunakara

laurel dault
August 15th, 2017
Article by: Laurel Dault
Meet Class 12: Unni Karunakara

Unni Karunakara is writing his next chapter.


Born in India, Unni holds an MB, BS from Mangalore University in India, an MPH from Yale University, and a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Until recently, Unni was International President of Médecins Sans Frontières.


“Even during my university days, I was interested in practicing medicine that was more social in nature. Medical humanitarian work allows me to work with some of the most vulnerable populations in the world and provide quality medical care where very little exists.”


Unni’s journey with Médecins Sans Frontières began over two decades ago when he set up a tuberculosis control programme in Ethiopia. His life was changed by what he saw. “It made it impossible for me to practise any other kind of medicine. The needs were immense.”


When I caught up with Unni for our interview, he was about to head off to the Democratic Republic of Congo to continue his work with Médecins Sans Frontières. In September, he will travel straight from the Congo to join the latest cohort of the THNK Executive Leadership Program in Amsterdam.

How he found THNK

Unni first heard about THNK from a colleague who had participated in the program. “Kate Mackintosh and I are old friends and we worked together at Médecins Sans Frontières. We were catching up one day and she told me about this fantastic thing she was a part of.” When his term as president ended and he began exploring his next move, Kate suggested that it might be a perfect opportunity to join THNK.

Although he’s no longer president, Unni is still in a position to shape the organization. As a member of a committee dedicated to innovation and transformational thinking at Médecins Sans Frontières, the timing is perfect to learn new creative collaboration skills at THNK. “I have something that I’m engaged with which forces me professionally to think about transformation, innovation, and creativity. THNK is a good program to accompany me on that process.”

Unni Karunakara

In 2013, Unni cycled 5,500 kms across India in 112 days. In addition to sparking a dialogue with the general public, medical students, and healthcare providers on health, healthcare, and humanitarianism, he raised over 120,000 dollars for Médecins Sans Frontières.

Seeking simplicity

With many years spent in the field, Unni is not afraid to talk about the dark side of his work. “In my 20 years as a humanitarian worker, a lot of what I dealt with is not very inspiring. It’s all about the dark side of humanity. Of course, there are flashes of great inspiration and empathy and hope, but most of it has been rather dark. I work in an area where burnout is quite a problem, and over the years I felt the need to take some time off to focus much more on creative things.”

Unni is inspired by Japanese architect Keiji Ashizawaby’s DIY furniture workshop-turned-social enterprise. Following the earthquake and ensuing tsunami which devastated the Tohoku region in 2011, Keiji founded the Ishinomaki Laboratory as a way of helping community recovery. Community members build simple furniture needed for temporary housing. The locals have learned new skills, raised funds for rebuilding efforts, and improved morale through the act of creation. Unni admires this principle and has been exploring how he might apply something similar in the troubled regions where he has worked in Africa and Asia as a way to promote long-term healing in these populations. “Working with your hands, you’re creating. You can shape the outcome. It’s like a surgeon doing a surgery and then the patient walks afterwards.”

Coming from an organization whose mandate is to provide healthcare for people in crisis, it’s no surprise that Unni is ready to take a step back and to find a new way of interacting with the world. “I’m at that personal point in my life where I feel like I need something that I can control the outcome of. When you’ve done 20 years of humanitarian work, you start thinking about these things- about being able to be more in control of something. Not in a ‘being in charge’ way, but the whole simplicity of things. Simplicity of working with your hands, a thing of beauty and it is of use. Simplicity is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a long time.”

Unni is one of the many inspiring leaders who participated in the Executive Leadership Program.

To join the upcoming class and develop your own initiative, visit the program page.