Thu, Jun 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Former Microsoft CEO not afraid to get her boots dirty for charity

By Maureen Dowd  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

There is a picture in the lobby of Obama, who has talked about his mother’s stint on food stamps, from when he and Michelle came to serve dinner at Martha’s Table.

Before she started her job eight weeks ago, as Republicans waged their war on food stamps, Stonesifer tried living for a week on a food-stamp budget of US$4 a day.

“If you’re relying on food stamps to eat, you’re in real trouble,” she says. “Carbs are vastly cheaper than nutrients, so it was easy for me to see why hunger and obesity can coexist in the same household.”

What did she learn from Bill Gates?

“The biggest thing is to study hard, but think big, right?” she says. “Risk failure in order to try to make the biggest change possible. I had a lot of products that bombed at Microsoft, like Microsoft Bob, those little dogs that told you how to use your software. But other products, like Expedia, really addressed a big need because we thought outside the box.”

“So here, instead of simply figuring out how to move from providing 60,000 meals a month to 66,000, I want to think about how to end child hunger in DC,” she adds.

I first met Stonesifer in 2001, when the divorced mother of two began dating my friend Kinsley. She is warm and laughs easily, still the down-to-earth Midwesterner from a big Catholic family, the daughter of an Indianapolis car salesman and a physical therapist.

“The No. 1 lesson you learn, being sixth out of nine children, is: It’s not about you,” she says. “Our family didn’t talk about volunteerism. It was just baked in. We went down and put the new missals in the church pews, and we volunteered at the Sunday soup kitchen, and we went with my dad to pick up the deaf children for church. We had foster children a significant part of the time that I was growing up.”

Her dad got a used school bus, took out half the seats and put in flowered wallpaper, and in the summer, they all piled in for camping trips to state parks.

Our culture, from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, is focused on what Time calls “the glittery trappings of wealth.” However, bling is not Stonesifer’s thing.

Her 89-year-old mother started a Bread for the World chapter in her retirement community in Indianapolis and, until just recently, continued to do volunteer work for St Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity. With her family, Stonesifer created a program in her hometown to make sure every child went home from the hospital with a crib, an effort to curb infant deaths.

I ask if her two passions, improving technology and lessening poverty, are at odds, given that some researchers believe that technology short-circuits empathy.

“We have students out every night feeding the homeless,” she demurs. “Young professionals out driving the vans, fourth-graders coming in to read to toddlers. We have 50 percent more requests for volunteering than we can absorb. People give cocktail parties and send us money raised; people have weddings and tell their guests to give to us instead of them.”

Stonesifer is concerned with dignity. She worries about the women in line in the alley who are her age, but look older from stress. She has arranged to share space with the nearby Latin American Youth Center. That way, the alley line can end and those needing food will have a more self-respecting, and self-serve, grocery experience.

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