Gov. Jay Inslee isn’t the only prominent Washingtonian who could work for the next president.
Steve Davis, chief executive of PATH, is considering federal service as a possibility after he leaves the Seattle global-health giant this year. That was one of several options Davis floated in a sort of exit interview with me recently, discussing his future, the evolution of PATH and new approaches to foreign aid.
Davis, 61, would be an intriguing cabinet member after decades leading Seattle tech and nonprofit organizations. The former Preston Gates & Ellis lawyer left the firm to head Corbis, the image collection and licensing firm started by Bill Gates, for 14 years. Then he moved to social ventures, landing as chief executive of PATH in 2012. He also teaches social innovation at Stanford.
PATH was formed in 1977 with a focus on reproductive health. It has grown into global-health charitable conglomerate, developing devices, medicines and services. It’s improving not only the health of individuals, but also the delivery of health care in developing countries. The latter includes helping build digital systems, such as mapping and data analytics tools the Democratic Republic of Congo is using to combat Ebola.
Half of PATH’s funding comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — it’s one of the earliest recipients of the family’s largesse — and the rest from other donors and government.
About 1,500 PATH employees work in Seattle and 70 countries around the world, directly benefiting the health of an estimated 100 million to 200 million people per year.
Davis announced plans to step down in April and will leave in October or November, after his replacement is hired. Having spent years shuttling from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and foreign countries, Davis could opt to work in his garden. But he is exploring ways to continue his civic engagement and activism in global development, climate and gender equity.
The next administration will need help restoring U.S. leadership in supporting global health. The nation remains the top funder of such work, but the current administration has sought to slash spending. Last week, President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to freeze much of its international development spending for the rest of the year.
Davis said this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Rising nationalism in the West is making government funding for global development less certain, and increasing the need for more and different donors to support nonprofits’ work. This inward turn comes as supportive countries and major charities like the Gates Foundation are trying to replenish the Global Fund to end AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Simultaneously, PATH and others are undergoing a major shift, Davis said, from a supply-side model of aid and development to a demand-side model.
This is an evolution beyond the post-colonial approach of “we’re going to come up with solutions in Washington, D.C., Geneva and now Seattle and shove them down.” That’s increasingly being rejected, he said, by countries such as Tanzania that have a good minister of health and strong views of what’s needed to solve their problems. Nonprofits must now start by understanding what these places need, the problems they’re trying to solve, “and create the value proposition with them.”
“It’s hard because a lot of it’s still funded with that supply side architecture in mind … but it’s somewhat the pivot that we’re in the middle of,” he said.
PATH is making this transition in part by drawing on Davis’ experience as a consultant and tech executive close to Bill Gates. It’s moving from developing products to platforms, creating centers of excellence and building innovation ecosystems. With public-health “impact labs” in Kenya and India, it’s looking to “foster others’ innovation instead of doing it ourselves,” he said.
An ambitious new strategy plan for PATH also has the brio of its tech-giant neighbors in South Lake Union, committing to scale up to serve 1.4 billion people in 2030.
Davis said that despite gloomy headlines, he remains optimistic, noting there’s been great progress globally in things such as mortality, morbidity and child safety.
To continue that progress and solving global-health problems, Davis said there must be a “strong trisector view,” with government, industry and nonprofits working together.
“We’ve seen when that happens it can be pretty magical,” he said.
PATH has numerous examples, he added, such as success helping develop meningitis and malaria vaccines, and digital tools to fight the spread of tuberculosis in India.
Big nonprofits have their challenges and probably deserve more scrutiny for the outsized influence they have on public policy.
But it’s hard to not be in awe of what Davis and PATH have done to help the poorest people and places on Earth.
Or maybe in this endless election cycle, I’m just relieved to hear fewer promises and platitudes, and more about actual progress solving the world’s biggest problems.