Gates Foundation CEO: Northwest Is Our Learning Lab

May 24, 2016

At a May 24 Seattle gathering of four dozen social media influencers, dubbed a #GatesSocial, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann answered questions about the foundation's views of taking risks and applying new knowledge to solve some of the world's biggest problems.

Most questions focused on aspects of Desmond-Hellmann's recent open letter to the community, her first such message since joining the foundation two years ago. "I want this letter to be the start of a new dialogue with our partners, followers, and fellow optimists about the inspiring and humbling challenge of navigating the path to possibility," she writes, sharing examples from the foundation's work on curbing global tobacco use, fighting African sleeping sickness and supporting U.S. teachers implementing Common Core lesson plans. "What if?" she asks, throughout the letter.

As a participant on behalf of Philanthropy Northwest, I had an entirely place-based query: "I'd like to hear more about the foundation's home being here in the Northwest. How does that influence the culture and what kind of risks are you able to take here at home?" Our exchange, starting at 46:50 in the video, and transcribed below:

Sue: Seattle and King County are our home town, and we're happy about that. I think you see around you, for example the place we sit is a center where people can convene. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a beautiful foundation with artwork and a Visitor Center, so it starts with feeling like we want to be part of the community and part of what people and their kids can experience as part of that community. The Visitor Center is a really important part of that.

Beyond that, we have a Pacific Northwest program for philanthropy that is specifically aimed at philanthropy in our region. That partnership has focused on things like family homelessness, early education, violence against women over the years. In fact, we're looking at that strategy right now and just in the next several weeks I'll hear an update on our future plans for our Pacific Northwest strategy.

Here's what I like about our Pacific Northwest strategy. One, it anchors us in our local community and two, it's almost like a learning lab. So when we looked at things like early education, we learned a lot that we can export to our more national programs on education. So it's a huge opportunity for us.

And the other thing that we have done at the foundation, I hope you guys have read about our new parental leave policy? 52 weeks of paid parental leave — that's 5-2, and it's for parents, moms and dads. So as an employer, we can live up to our values here.

Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann answers questions at the May 24 #GatesSocial.

Nicole: It also makes for some interesting "away" messages!

Sue: It does make for some very interesting away messages! And it makes for some really great career opportunities for people who are filling in for mom or dad. It's been great at the foundation. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also has a wonderful matching program. All of us as employees, we have a wonderful opportunity to learn about local charities and local causes, and when we donate to those causes, we have a great match from Bill and Melinda.

I hope we're a good citizen. One of the things that I've also participated in is Challenge Seattle, which is looking at our region and challenges in the region — everything from education to traffic, traffic, traffic — and other things that are opportunities for us to get better as a region.

#GatesSocial participants at the conclusion of the May 24 social. (Nicole is wearing the pink scarf.)

Nicole Neroulias Gupte is Philanthropy Northwest's senior communications manager. She can be reached at