Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

My Personal Journey into Working to Improve Education for All

May 20, 2014

People often ask me how I became involved in the work that we do in the U.S. Program. I often explain my arrival at the foundation seems to have come by a series of unexpected circumstances. My journey here is not entirely unique, I suspect many people have had similar journeys that have taken them down an unanticipated path. But the way I arrived here might be interesting to some as it greatly informed my thinking on our approach to our domestic strategies.

Life sometimes causes us to change course

I grew up the oldest of three boys—in Denver, where my mother was a nurse. That’s when I got a close up look at inequities: who gets good health care, and who doesn’t. My father was a postman. My parents both worked two jobs to provide for us, so we could live in a zip code with good public schools. They understood that education was the best ticket to more opportunities and a better life.

I did well in high school, applied and was accepted to a number of fantastic universities, and after careful consideration enrolled in a prestigious university in California. I could not wait to go there, and I had a very generous financial aid package. The week before my high school graduation, I was told my parents were getting a divorce. Unexpectedly, everything changed.

At the time, my younger brothers were 8 and 13 years old, and they did not take the family change well. The divorce affected them significantly and ‘home life’ for them was in turmoil.  I had to decide: should I go off to California and leave them behind, or should I stay at home and help support them through this difficult time?

I decided my family needed me more than I needed to go to California. So I stayed in Denver. Even though I had turned down the University of Colorado, right near home, I went back to them. They accepted me but did not offer nearly the same amount of financial aid. So I attended college full time, to cover tuition I worked nearly full-time, and this made me exhausted full-time. There were days when I thought: “It’s too hard. I don’t know if I’m going to make it through.”

I was able to stay on track and graduate despite my family and financial stresses. Our foundation’s postsecondary strategy is focused on creating support systems for people to get their diploma or certificate when life challenges get in the way. I feel fortunate—I found great mentors and supporters and received a postsecondary degree despite many odds. Our postsecondary strategy  is designed to open more doors so thousands of others can stay on track. When the postsecondary team and I work on shaping the strategy, I often think about the way I managed back then and how we can help make a diploma or credential a reality for more people.

Feedback makes us all better

Several years later, I was living and working in Denver when I was asked to be an adjunct professor at a local community college. I wasn’t entirely interested in leaving my software job, and I didn’t really know much about teaching or teaching accounting, but I thought it would be an interesting opportunity so accepted the challenge. I asked the professor who had reached out to me if I could observe two or three of his best and worst instructors. I wanted to sit in their classes to gain some framework for how to best engage with a class and how to most effectively deliver content.

The variation between the sets of instructors was breathtaking. In just my sample of six, I saw an incredible spectrum - horrendous teaching and teachers so brilliant I would have followed them over the cliff. The inequity of instruction was undeniable as well as the potential for learning. Some students were getting excellent instruction and some clearly were not. Unfortunately this still occurs today in all grade levels throughout the country.

I accepted the teaching opportunity and while it was amazing an experience, I was surprised I never once received a peer or administrator evaluation. Nobody ever audited my class to see how well I was teaching, or how well my students were learning. Teachers need feedback mechanisms and should have resources and supports so they can develop and improve. Today, when our college ready strategy  talks about the need for teacher feedback and teacher evaluations, I think back to my teaching experience. Every student deserves quality instruction and as a society we shouldn’t settle for less.

Constantly in learning mode

After my time teaching at the community college, I focused on finance management. My mother dedicated her life to the healthcare industry, and still does, and being a part of an industry focused solely on improving the quality of life for those sick or injured was profound. I became the finance director at an academic medical center in Denver and focused my time on dissolving insurance inequities, increasing investment portfolio returns, and improving employee morale and retention. I spent every opportunity listening and learning. I moved to Seattle’s Swedish Health Services and continued to introduce systems wide changes.

The opportunity to join the Gates Foundation as the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer back in 2000 was pretty incredible. I was responsible for building processes, systems, and tools to support a $25 billion endowment, a $1.2 billion annual payout, and with roughly 200 employees. It was an incredible situation. BIG moments for learning would be coming. When I became president of the U.S. Program, it was a perfect culmination of my life experiences, my learnings, and my core values. When we focus on understanding inequities, refine ambitious goals and strategies, identify systems wide solutions, and identify pathways to achieving the greatest impact, I often think back to all the experiences that lead me here.

That is my story.

What’s yours? Please share them below.

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