by Frank Murtaugh
Rola Obaji grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and Amman, Jordan, where her father, Ali Alhindi, ran travel agencies. She and her two younger siblings traveled the world for what amounted to business trips with their dad. As a result, Obaji’s world view comes from a variety of perspectives, from Paris to Istanbul, from Los Angeles to New York City. The new CEO at McDonald Murrmann Women’s Clinic has called Memphis home for more than a quarter-century now — she fell in love with her husband, Dr. Suhail Obaji, on a visit to Memphis in 1989 — but continues to draw from her global journeys in raising a family and running a business. Perhaps most poignant are her memories, not that long ago, of college life in Syria, at Aleppo University.
“My mom is Syrian, my dad Jordanian,” explains Obaji. “I was born in Aleppo, but I lived between Jordan and Saudi Arabia during my school years [before college].
“Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon . . . these places are beautiful. We have beaches, mountains. It’s very European. It’s nothing like what you see [in the news today]. It’s like judging the United States on the worst neighborhoods in Chicago or Memphis. My kids love to go to [the Middle East]. It has a lot of history, and for all religions. It was inspiring, growing up there. Traveling as I did, it made me more open-minded, more accepting.”
Syria’s five-year civil war — with all its death and displacement — has weighed heavily on Obaji’s heart. She finds comfort the only place one can: hope for peace and stability. “I’m an optimistic person,” she says. “Will Syria come back [to its previous state]? I don’t think it can, because of the destruction of historical places. It’s going to take generations to recover. It’s a holocaust. A couple of my cousins still live in Aleppo, on the west side, where it’s stable. But my husband’s former neighborhood is completely leveled. It’s so chaotic; nobody knows the answer.”
Obaji’s journey to Memphis became a matter of the heart after she met her would-be husband (Suhail is now an oncologist with the West Cancer Center). But it began with a connection to the Mid-South’s most renowned crop. “My mom’s family had a cotton business in Aleppo,” she says. “Memphis had a famous cotton school in the Sixties and Seventies, and my uncles came here to learn how to grow and harvest cotton. Well, they stayed here. When one of my brothers wanted to go to college in the United States, my mom preferred that he go somewhere we have family. That was Memphis. My brother graduated from the University of Memphis and is now a mechanical engineer in Dubai. My sister graduated from the U of M and now lives in Jordan.”
Obaji began her career in medical-group management in 1994 alongside Suhail, serving seven years as an administrator for his growing practice. She then spent eight years with the Family Cancer Center — first as marketing director, then vice president of administration — before becoming CEO at Integrity Oncology, where she served from 2009 to 2016.
In some respects, Obaji became a business leader by default. “When I started, it was our own business,” she says. “I’m all in. I educated myself about how to lead a medical practice. A business background from Aleppo is different: more accounting, more marketing. Implementing that in a small healthcare practice [became my job]. The relationship between physicians and hospitals . . . how do you market yourself, make yourself stand out? Every time our practice grew, I learned something new. And I’ve never been ashamed to say, ‘I don’t know this. I need to learn.’ Annoyingly, I ask a lot of questions.”
Managing a healthcare business requires a delicate balance between compassion and the same bottom line — profitability — every company must prioritize. “I feel empathy for other people, so I put myself in a patient’s position,” says Obaji, who was a patient herself at McDonald Murrmann long before she became an employee. “How would I want to be treated? That can be good and bad, because there are times you have to make tough decisions.” She cites the challenging transition for many physicians from private practice to affiliation with a larger hospital group. “You have patients who are seriously ill, and you also have to make decisions that make financial sense. You have to pay rent, pay employees, and pay physicians so you can continue to provide the best care.”
Obaji oversees seven physicians (all female) and a total staff just under 50 at McDonald Murrmann. As a private practice, the clinic — Obaji in particular — has to monitor costs that are influenced well beyond the walls of any exam room. “Safety regulations drive costs up,” she says, as well as ever-developing, often-expensive technology. “I’m big on embracing new technology, but too much of it can strip the human touch we all need.
As she takes the wheel at McDonald Murrmann (founded in 1996), where does Obaji see the clinic a decade from now? “I’m a big believer in more comprehensive care under one roof,” she says. “I’d like to introduce more services, which I can’t discuss until we finalize. Our patients feel comfortable with our staff and doctors. Instead of going somewhere else for more testing, hopefully we’ll have more in-house. Our physicians and I believe in cutting-edge medicine. Practice administrators can have greater challenges if they have different visions than their physicians. Here we agree on growth.”
In terms of leadership style, Obaji mentions her dad’s approach to running his business, and the importance of establishing a comfort level — financial and otherwise — for employees. “Happy physicians will produce high-quality care,” she says. “With all the challenges, with more regulations, sometimes it’s frustrating for them. Maintain trust, and help with the challenges they face. I have my [leadership] style, but I’m not scared to say I’m going to change. Let’s see what works.”
Having lived in the Bluff City more than a quarter-century, Obaji has come to embrace a Memphis lifestyle, even if she’s yet to master the proper use of y’all. “It’s home,” she says. “My two kids were born here. My daughter is in law school at the University of Memphis, even after her father pushed her to go up north. My kids are loyal Memphians. It’s a great medical center, with a lot of services that other cities don’t offer. Safety is the number-one issue. But with the Greenline and Shelby Farms, it’s becoming a more attractive city.
“Growing up in different countries, I never had a city I could claim,” says Obaji. “Memphis is the only one. I still love to travel, even for a long weekend. But then I come home.”
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