So when a woman is rolling in millions and has no need to work ever again, what does she do?
Festoon herself with Birkin bags? Deck herself in Tiffany’s Gatsby baubles? Revamp a villa in Tuscany?
Not Patty Stonesifer, the former co-chair and chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and before that, senior vice president at Microsoft Corp.
Stonesifer could be found in a gritty alley in a downtown neighborhood in New York on Thursday morning last week, greeting a line of poor people who had been waiting in the heat for an hour — mostly older black women, some in wheelchairs, others leaning on canes.
“These folks are just waiting for a bag of food,” Stonesifer says as she looks over the mound of bags filled with vegetables and fruit, cereal and soup. “They come early because they believe there won’t be enough. It looks like the Great Depression, this long line. And they’re not sitting on their butts, waiting for a handout. They’re scrambling to meet their basic needs.”
After serving as the highest-ranking woman at Microsoft, Stonesifer helped Bill and Melinda Gates start their philanthropy in an office above a Seattle-area pizza parlor in 1997. With Bill Gates Sr at her side, she was its first chief executive, for 11 years, as it tried to eradicate polio; treat and prevent malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis; and reduce the US’ high-school dropout rate. They built the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into the world’s largest private philanthropic organization, with more than 500 employees and a US$39 billion endowment — a sum “higher than the GDPs of 70 percent of the world’s nations,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Now, as Bill and Melinda Gates offer a US$100,000 reward to anyone who can design a better condom that will promote “regular use,” Stonesifer is taking on a fresh challenge of her own as head of Martha’s Table, a Washington community organization that supplies food, clothes, daycare and educational programs for those in need.
“Having Stonesifer come run a small local charity is like General Electric business titan Jack Welch showing up to manage the corner appliance store,” the Washington Post said.
I talked to the 57-year-old with the Pynchonian name sitting in her tiny office at Martha’s Table, decorated with a caricature of her husband, the writer Michael Kinsley, and a group shot with former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“He flirts,” she says delightedly of Mandela. “He’s holding my hand, not his wife’s. Someone asked him why he was not more angry. And his answer was: ‘If I thought it would be useful, I would be.’”
Stonesifer wants to be useful. As she did at the Gates Foundation, she is working for free.
“I would love to call my mother and tell her: ‘Mom, I’m president of such-and-such,’ a university or a great NGO or a corporation,” she says. (There was talk about her becoming US President Barack Obama’s domestic policy adviser.) “But when I sat and really thought about what I wanted to do, I realized that the only job I was interested in would be one that would put me very close to the front lines, to go beyond white papers and PowerPoint presentations and get my boots dirty. I wanted to learn what it takes to change one child’s experience from a child born in poverty to a child that’s president of something.”