Born in Canada and raised in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, Vidya Vasu-Devan earned a B.A. in astrophysics and mathematics from Columbia University and an MBA from Stanford. She worked in investment banking and hedge fund investing before coming to the foundation to focus on making equity, debt and guaranty investments across the foundation’s program areas. Previously, Vidya was one of the first interns in the foundation’s pilot internship program, which seeks student interns from a select handful of graduate programs.
I had an amazing internship experience. It was essentially Global Polio Eradication 101. I got a great taste of what the foundation does, who does what, who they do it for, and why.
The big difference between my past and present work is the complexity of the problems and the number of stakeholders. In investing, there was a singular goal—to generate returns—which involved hard work but wasn’t overly complex. In physics, we solved complex problems but there were fewer stakeholders. Here, the goals are complex and the stakeholders are numerous.
One thing people don’t understand is how we’re different from other charitable organizations. We don’t have labs, and we don’t build things. We fund things—from improving existing products and services to inventing new products that don’t yet exist —and make them affordable for developing countries. The actual work is done by the organizations we partner with, and a lot of the innovations come from the private sector. We don’t achieve if our partners don’t achieve. We benefit from the strengths of our partners.
Of course, there are very smart people here who can come up with solutions for the problems we’re trying to solve, but some of the best thinking comes from people who live in developing countries who look at problems and solutions within those unique contexts. For example, if we’re considering something as common as the toilet in the context of a rural village in India or Africa where there is no sewer system or plumbing infrastructure, the entire concept—even the aesthetics—of the ideal toilet is vastly different. So working with a partner based on the ground that is focused on things like composting or fertilizer, rather than Western plumbing, is very beneficial.
A lot of people don’t work here for their entire careers, but when they leave, they tend to still work on the mission, just somewhere else.
This may sound cheesy, but I feel that the number-one trait required to succeed here is humility. The problems we deal with are complex and long range, and sometimes we fail. Humility helps us focus on the mission and the populations we’re trying to serve and that when we fail, we need to do so gracefully and continue to learn while staying optimistic.
I’ve spent a lot of time in India from a very young age, and I saw the contrast between the haves and have-nots and realized the role that luck can play in what side you’ll be on. That’s a big reason why I wanted to come here—to help improve the odds at that intersection.