If you were the richest person in the world out to solve some of the hardest problems on the planet, who would you put on your team? The newest members of...


If you were the richest person in the world out to solve some of the hardest problems on the planet, who would you put on your team?


The newest members of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation include a World Bank vice president, a genetic engineer from seed giant Monsanto, the founder of an Internet company in Africa, and the former chief executive of a $100 million cattle-breeding company.


The Gates vision to remake the world has plenty of capital, flush with the first $1.6 billion infusion of Warren Buffett’s estimated $31 billion donation. Now the foundation requires experts to manage burgeoning programs and figure out how to spend twice as much money each year as it did before.


New hires are flocking to Seattle from around the country and the world, demonstrating the foundation’s ability to attract top talent.


But keeping them all focused on the same goals and values in the midst of such frantic growth is another challenge.


The foundation has hired about 100 people since January, 68 of them for newly created positions. It now has 319 employees, and the flood of job applications averages about 100 per day.

“Having the opportunity to be here now is pretty exciting,” said Martha Choe, a former Seattle City Council member who directs the Global Libraries Program. “We’re moving quickly, and we’re trying to get a lot of things done.”


Sometimes it’s hard to move quickly enough, she said. “I joke that I’m looking around for my motorized Rollerblades.”



About the foundation


Endowment: $31.9 billion


Annual spending: $1.36 billion in grants paid in 2005


Grants made since inception: $11 billion


Areas of focus: Global development, global health and U.S. programs (education, libraries and Pacific Northwest giving)


Source: Gates Foundation

No part of the foundation has grown as fast as its newest effort, Global Development, which aims to bolster the nonprofit’s work in health and education by improving food production, supporting small business through microcredit, and increasing access to computers and the Internet in libraries.


With the breakneck pace of a startup company, Global Development went from a strategic opportunity to be studied to a major program doling out $200 million in grants this year. Since its inception in May, the program has grown to 36 employees.


At its helm is Sylvia Mathews, the 41-year-old former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, who has been with the foundation since 2001.


Mathews said she looks for “people who are experts in their field but also have a proven track record of devising innovative solutions.”


Last month she brought in Geoffrey Lamb, a World Bank vice president who had led its Concessional Finance and Global Partnerships arm. Lamb joined the foundation as senior fellow, charged with guiding strategy and forming partnerships with governments. He will work to gather support for efforts such as a pilot program to provide free public Internet access in libraries in Eastern Europe and a major drive to improve farm productivity in Africa.


The foundation also has hired heavyweights from the agricultural industry, such as Monsanto vice president Robert Horsch, a scientist who led genetic engineering of plants at the seed giant. As senior program officer, Horsch will apply the technology toward improving crop yields in regions including sub-Saharan Africa, where the foundation recently launched a major drive with the Rockefeller Foundation.


Some high-profile hires



Sylvia Mathews


Was: Deputy chief of staff to President Clinton


Now: President of the Global Development Program


Amolo Ng’weno



Was: Co-founder of Africa Online


Now: Senior program officer for Financial Services for the Poor


Roy Steiner



Was: Founder of Cyberplex Africa


Now: Senior program officer for Agricultural Development


Bakari Bakari



Was: Manager of international HIV clinical trial at the University of Washington


Now: Director of operations


for Global Development


Martha Choe


Was: Seattle councilwoman, director of state Community, Trade and Economic Development department


Now: Director of Global Libraries initiative


Dr. Tadataka (Tachi) Yamada


Was: Chairman of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline


Now: President of Global Health Program


Sources: Gates Foundation, The Seattle Times


Lutz Goedde, former chief executive of Alta Genetics, the largest private cattle-breeding company in the world, also left private industry to join the foundation. His work as senior program officer will include expanding access to domestic and international markets for small farmers in Asia, Latin America and Africa.


Earlier this year, the foundation hired Tadataka Yamada, former chairman of research and development at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, to direct its Global Health Program. His experience developing new drugs is critical for understanding how to speed vaccine development for malaria and other diseases, said senior policy officer Monica Harrington.


Some people coming from private industries take significant pay cuts to join the foundation, Harrington said. Salaries are generally measured against comparable positions in the nonprofit sector, she said.


According to the foundation’s most recent tax filing, its highest-paid employee, Ashok Alexander, who directs the HIV prevention initiative in India, made about $400,000 a year.


Several new employees have backgrounds in Africa, including Amolo Ng’weno, a native Kenyan who co-founded Internet service provider Africa Online and worked for the Trust for African Rock Art; Roy Steiner, a Canadian transplant in Zimbabwe who founded Web development company Cyberplex Africa and helped run Africa Online; and Bakari Bakari, a native Tanzanian who directs overall operations for global development.


New employees have also come from local sources such as Microsoft and Boeing, government and other nonprofits. The foundation tends not to hire people just out of college. In fact, most come in with about 10 years of experience.


“We’re looking for people who are really driven by the mission,” Choe said. That means “a willingness to tackle some tough things with not a lot of road signs on how to do it. People who are very comfortable with change.”


Sometimes the growth borders on chaos. Staffers joke that there’s no need to get business cards — their titles and responsibilities change too fast. The foundation’s office space has been continually reorganized to make room for more employees. Bill Gates moved into Melinda’s office recently to share space, handing his old office over to four staff members.


To accommodate that growth, the foundation is expected to break ground next year on a new headquarters on a 12-acre site near Seattle Center.


One of the biggest challenges is “instilling the principles of the foundation” in its newest team members, Mathews said.


At the core is faith in the power of science and technology to improve lives.


Some of the new global development initiatives head into controversial territory, such as the debate over genetically modified crops. But the foundation says it intends to pursue any options that could help to reach its goal of increasing agricultural productivity in poor countries.


Free giveaways of Microsoft software to libraries in 35 countries, part of the Global Libraries Initiative, could face resistance in places like Europe, where the government has imposed antitrust sanctions.


Another challenge will be getting people with such vastly different backgrounds to embrace a common culture. It might not be so easy convincing high achievers with advanced degrees from Ivy League schools to be “humble and mindful.”


That motto, one of the principles said to reflect the Gateses’ views about philanthropy, originated with Bill Gates Sr., who is the “ultimate conscience” of the foundation, Harrington said.


As the new employees converged on Seattle, a scavenger hunt was organized in September to help them get acquainted. Teams raced around to find landmarks, donning ski jackets at REI, jamming air guitar with a Jimi Hendrix sculpture, heaving raw fish at Pike Place Market and searching shelves at Elliott Bay Book Co. to find a book written by Bill Gates.


While the foundation doubles in size up to 600 employees over the next two years, it will continue to juggle hiring with the business of giving away money.


“Getting new team members takes time,” Mathews said, “and so does the work of our grantmaking.”


Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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