Claire Bonilla Key Messages – December 2018 | OWL Cary, NC | OWL

Claire Bonilla Key Messages – December 2018

Interview with Claire Bonilla

Outlet: Ophthalmic World Leaders (OWL): Advancing Diversity in Leadership – Blog

Interviewer: OWL

Interview Date: December 13, 2018, 1:00 pm PT

Publication Date: January 8, 2019


Claire Bonilla, CEO, SightLife | OWL Champion Member

Claire Bonilla, CEO, SightLife | OWL Champion Member

OWL: How did you hear about OWL and what inspired you to get involved?

Claire: In 2015 it was impossible to enter the ophthalmic world as a female leader and not hear about OWL. As I learned more, I was drawn to its cultivation of professional potential and focus on industry collaborations. I was particularly heartened when the name changed from Women Leaders to World Leaders, as this reflected SightLife’s approach to fulfilling its mission to serve as a global leader and partner to eliminate corneal blindness worldwide by 2040. All global health issues that have been solved – from polio to river blindness – were through global partnerships among health care providers, for profit, non-profit and government organizations. Corneal blindness will be no exception. In OWL, I saw a network of individuals and organizations with the passion, products, and know-how to join us on our mission.

OWL: How do you foster professional development and diversity as a culture at SightLife?

Claire: Like OWL, I believe that diverse leadership results in better outcomes. It’s not the CEO that grows the business, the CEO helps grow the people. 100 great ideas will have more impact than five of my own. It’s about creating development opportunities, creating risk-taking forums, and sharing diverse ideas. If you are providing forums that allow people to be exposed to new ideas and leverage one another’s resources, you will create solutions that you didn’t have the means or the vision to create in isolation. “Inclusion and diversity by design” is fundamental to all SightLife’s efforts whether it’s working with donor families to improve how we steward the gift of sight, or ideation with Allergan or Alcon, top corneal surgeons from the US and India, and local stakeholders from the low- and middle-income countries we focus on. It helps us ensure that as we build capacity to eliminate blindness in India we are doing it in a sustainable way for the country, not just implementing solutions that work in the US.

I’m personally driven by my desire to help people reach their full potential—I was able to break through glass ceilings in my career path and I want to help others break their own. As a collaborative leader, my philosophy is empowerment, accountability and performance-based management. Individual potential aligned with a good strategy and a compelling mission will ensure the organization reaches its full potential. A rural female community health volunteer preventing infectious keratitis in remote villages in Nepal knows her role and impact toward our mission at the same level of clarity as my VP of Operations, thanks to the intention we put into alignment from individual responsibilities to organizational strategy. It allows for innovation and diversity at the local level, fueled by a common, global mission.

OWL: How are you working with ophthalmic leaders to achieve your mission of eliminating corneal blindness by 2040?

Claire: We partner extensively with OWL members and sponsors to address the 12.7 million people around the world suffering from corneal blindness. OWL organizational sponsors like Allergan, Bausch & Lomb, Alcon, and CorneaGen have long been partners in our mission, providing grants or gifts in-kind to help us provide more than 100,000 transplants in low- and middle-income countries.  

Surgeons and surgeon organizations associated with OWL such as Dr. Audrey Rostov, Dr. Kenneth Beckman, the talented surgeons of Cedars Aspens, and many others have joined us in improving surgical capabilities and outcomes in countries all over the world through our surgeon training programs.

Ophthalmic leaders have become advocates of our work, connecting us to innovative partnerships and philanthropic funds allowing us to grow our work from the US, to India, Greater Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Just recently in October, SightLife and women leaders in ophthalmology traveled to Nepal to raise awareness and funds for SightLife’s prevention program. To eliminate corneal blindness by 2040, we need to not only treat 1 million cases per year, we need to prevent an additional 1 million new cases. The Village Integrated Eye Worker (VIEW) program is comprised of 117 female community health volunteers in Nepal and 282 in India focused on identification and treatment of eye health issues in rural villages. Treatment is specifically focused on applying topical antibiotics to corneal abrasions to heal the eye and avoid the complex and costly cycle of infection to transplant. For more complex cases, the volunteers are trained on how to appropriately refer to the right treatment facility.

The purpose of the October trip was to immerse these amazing ophthalmic women leaders – who we call SightLife Advocates – in the prevention program through active participation in refresher courses with the community health volunteers and visits to their homes to learn about their lives and impact within their villages. So far, our Advocates have raised more than $110k which exceeds their original goal of $80k – just truly amazing!

OWL: What can the ophthalmic community do to continue this momentum?  

Claire: There are a myriad of ways to join our mission. First, you can help open the door for SightLife with individuals and companies who might have an interest in investing in our mission. You can also join our Clinical Faculty using your ophthalmic expertise to build curriculum for training surgeons and ophthalmic professionals in low and middle-income countries.  Another way to get involved is to give the gift of sight by personally investing in our surgeon training program, covering the cost of a sight restoring transplant or supporting a prevention program in a low- or middle-income country. The best way to find out more about any of these options is by getting in touch with Justin Marquart, our VP of Philanthropy at

OWL: You are an admired and accomplished leader. If you were to take on a mentor who is just starting out in their career, what are 3 leadership lessons or pieces of advice you would give them as a mentee? 


  1. Change jobs every 2 years. When you are just starting out, diversification is key. Move jobs every two years within the same company, and then in time within another company. Breadth of experience and perspective leads to better decision making. As you become more senior and oversee multiple programs or organizations, then it’s important to stay longer and learn how your strategies and tactics land and how to course correct.
  2. Use the 3 mentor model. #1 mentor selected to help you grow a specific capability you need to succeed. #2 mentor selected to help you overcome your biggest challenge or opportunity in your current job. This could be the head of a difficult internal department you need to partner with, or a senior decision maker at a key customer or partner. #3 selected to help you position yourself for a move to your next job. Always have your eyes on what’s next and finding a leader in that future job/company willing to mentor you, helps you ready yourself for that move and gives you an internal advocate.
  3. Be open. No one’s 5 year plan plays out just like they thought. Anchor on things that are core to who you are – competencies grow and change, but your top 3 values, strengths and passion tend to remain true. Use those as your ship to navigate waters, don’t stray from them, but let your compass bearings take you to new and exciting places.