Robin Smalley

Robin Smalley has given birth to two children and life to many millions more. In 2004, bereaved by the death of her mother and her best friend Karen, Robin packed up her husband, two adolescent daughters and a pair of dogs and, with very little forethought and just a smidgen of planning, moved to Cape Town. There she planned on spending a year caring for HIV-positive women with Karen’s brother, Dr. Mitch Besser. However, this sabbatical from “real life” transformed Robin, introducing her to a new calling and her true life’s work. From the ashes of their mourning, Robin and Mitch created mothers2mothers (m2m), a nonprofit whose mission is to impact the health of mothers by putting them at the heart of improving reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health.

Robin had always planned on changing the world, but after graduating from Tufts University in 1977, she took a 15-year detour into television, producing and directing shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, Entertainment Tonight, George & Alana and Leeza. However, Robin felt trapped in this lucrative, Emmy award-winning, yet ultimately unfulfilling career. To feed her soul (if not her family) she consulted after hours, helping nonprofits with PR and video production. She finally cut the television cord completely when one of her clients, The Media Project, hired her as the executive director of its four-person staff in Los Angeles.

At The Media Project, Robin and her team provided accurate information on adolescent sexuality and reproductive health to television writers, producers and network executives for incorporation into their shows. Her efforts at The Media Project were recognized with a Telly Award, a Cindy Award, a National Health Information Award, a National Council on Family Relations Award and a Society for Adolescent Medicine Award.

While Robin had great success with The Media Project, she had not yet developed any experience in public health or social entrepreneurship. Not knowing what they didn’t know, Robin and Mitch started m2m from the trunk of Mitch’s ancient Mercedes sedan. The organization has now grown into a virtual army of local mothers (Mentor Mothers) living with HIV who are trained and empowered to be frontline healthcare workers in underserved countries. Mentor Mothers educate other mothers on ways to protect their babies from HIV infection and keep themselves and their families healthy. Their intimate understanding of the social and cultural challenges of living with HIV gives every Mentor Mother the unique ability to form trusting relationships with other women,  empowering them to overcome their fears and make life-saving decisions.

Headquartered in Cape Town, mothers2mothers employs about 1,800 people working in seven African countries and the U.S. This organization has been proven to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV to an average transmission rate of 2.1% in the mothers served over the past two years. In Uganda, an independent evaluation found that for every $1 spent on the mothers2mothers program, $11.40 is saved in averted HIV treatment costs.

Participating in the program also has a positive impact on the Mentor Mothers by enabling them to gain financial security for themselves and their families. Mentor Mothers are role models in their communities, proving that people living with AIDS can be empowered, employed and healthy.

Robin eventually returned to Los Angeles where she now primarily focuses on fundraising and communications for mothers2mothers and shares what she has learned in a Spring class at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. She has obviously taught her daughters well: Hannah already has a wealth of global health experience and is entering the University of Michigan for an advanced degree this fall; Sophia is a newly-minted University of Oregon graduate seeking opportunities in juvenile justice. And if her life weren’t busy enough, Robin also volunteers at her local animal shelter. She has most definitely earned a pint or two of her favorite indulgence, ice cream.


  1. How did you get your name?
    My mother wanted to name me Heather but we lived in a tenement in the Bronx and she was afraid everyone would pronounce it Hedda. So she settled on Robin Hillary…absolutely no idea why. mothers2mothers started out as mothers2mothers2be. As we added pieces to the core program it became The Mothers Programme. Then we went back to our roots and settled finally (hopefully!) on mothers2mothers. It says exactly what we do…mothers educated, employed and empowered to help other mothers and their families lead healthy, hopeful lives.
  2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
    I grew up with a nightclub singer mom and Broadway actor step-father so all my early memories involved a stage of one kind or another. No surprise that I started out wanting to be an actress. But as my mother transitioned into being a theatrical manager, I discovered early on what a brutal life it could be and how much I hated rejection, so I turned to my next great love, books, and decided the life of a librarian was for me. Given my inability to keep silent for more than 30 seconds, however, it became clear that being endlessly shushed wasn’t going to work out. It was then that my desire to affect social change kicked in.  With the most fervent wishes that Barbara Walters would adopt me, I turned to broadcast journalism.  Despite the extreme displeasure and disappointment of my college professors and advisor who thought I should pursue a master’s degree in journalism, I began my career in television. The rest is history.
  3. What do you want to be now?
    Social change is still part of my DNA so as I continue to “grow up,” I want to be a compassionate global citizen who brings people together to make the world a safer, healthier place for the next generations.  They deserve no less.
  4. If you could have a mulligan, what would you redo?
    I often say the only real regret I have is not spending more time at home when my first daughter was born.  I was directing Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and had no maternity pay and not a lot of job security so went back after only three weeks. My first interview after returning to work was with Beverly Sassoon at her Beverly Hills home and my breasts leaked and I cried throughout. It was a very wet day. Oh, and my other redo would have been joining the Peace Corps after graduating college. But there is still time for that!
  5. If you couldn’t live in America, where would you establish your home?
    Cape Town, my second home, and the most beautiful place on earth.
  6. What is the biggest challenge ahead of you?
    There are so many! Meeting the financial goals of mothers2mothers so we are able to grow to serve as many women as possible is at the top of the list.  Ending pediatric AIDS is a biggie, but entirely doable. And finding the energy to do both!
  7. What is your greatest extravagance?
    I am about to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary and bought my husband an insanely expensive watch….it was crazy but after 30 years with me, he deserves it!
  8. You’re invited to a state dinner at the White House and cannot take your spouse/significant other. Who is your date?
    I am blessed to have been able to take my whole family to the White House in 2007 when mothers2mothers was honored. I would have to flip a coin between my two twenty-something daughters. And find a REALLY good consolation prize for the one who doesn’t win.
  9. Assuming you had the talent, with what musical group/artist living or dead would you most like to perform?
    The Rolling Stones circa 1968…can’t imagine anything more exhilarating than singing and dancing with a young Mick Jagger.