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.”
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.