Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Mark Suzman with farmers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

A letter from our CEO, Mark Suzman: Reflections to guide our next twenty years

My bosses, Bill and Melinda Gates, just celebrated their foundation’s 20th anniversary by assessing its performance in their annual letter. Others might mark such an occasion with a party or a slice of cake, but as they write in the introduction to the letter, “it’s important to share what we’ve learned.” 

For instance, they explain that the key to preventing more than 30 million deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria since 2000 has been the world’s willingness to cross borders, both those that run between nations and those that tend to keep businesses, governments, philanthropies, and community organizations from working together to solve big problems. They also argue that this unprecedented international and intersectoral cooperation has yet to dismantle the harmful gender norms that, to take just one example, make adolescent girls more likely to contract HIV and less likely to receive treatment for it. 

It is with a healthy dose of humility and excitement that I just took charge of Bill and Melinda’s foundation as CEO earlier this month – and the occasion has also made me reflect on what I’ve learned and how those lessons can make me better at my job.

I started my career in journalism because, growing up in my native South Africa, I learned to cherish the truth. Being white meant I was spared the horrors of apartheid, but my family made sure I never looked away from them. My great aunt, Helen Suzman, spent her life trying to tear down the regime. She served in South Africa’s parliament for 36 years, many of them as literally the only voice opposing apartheid. She was brave and she was brilliant.  

Helen believed that one had to see to understand, to talk directly to the people most affected by apartheid and see the human face of the injustices it perpetrated. She once told her colleagues in parliament that they should go and see a segregated township for themselves but suggested that first they should, in her words, “heavily disguise themselves as human beings.” Thanks in part to those lessons from Helen, my mission in life from an early age was to go and see – and to report on what I saw: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

One thing I got to see was the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. I had the opportunity to meet Mandela several times, and the lesson he imparted is that in many ways it takes even more bravery and brilliance to build a just new system as it does to tear down an unjust old one. That requires reaching out to enemies to build a new culture, one centered on equality for all. 

In 2000, while working for the Financial Times in Washington D.C., I published a piece about the UN. The gist of it was that a lot of people thought the organization was too rigid and resistant to change. A few days later, I received call from the new head of the UN Development Program. Instead of calling me to complain, he offered me a job. “If you think the UN needs changing,” he said, “come help change it.” When I took him up on his offer, I was acting on what I’d learned from Mandela. I wanted to play a small part in creating big, lasting change. And during Kofi Annan’s tenure as Secretary General I had the opportunity to do just that, playing a part in the creation and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, which for the first time galvanized the global community around a set of concrete targets for dramatically improving health and wellbeing for all people, no matter where they live.

I moved eventually from the UN to the Gates Foundation, where I have spent 13 years working alongside thousands of partners and colleagues, including Bill, Melinda, and my predecessor as CEO, the incomparable Sue Desmond-Hellmann. From them, I have learned that success depends not only on passionate intensity about making people’s lives better but also on a pragmatic strategy to do so effectively. Bill, Melinda, and their team developed their strategy by bringing together decades of experience in the technology industry and decades of learning in global development. Historically, innovation has followed a brutal, unfair pattern: it improves the lives of the best-off first – and then, only years later, the worst-off, if they’re lucky. We all come to work every day to turn that pattern on its head – to sponsor and support innovation for the poorest people in the world. The lesson from Mandela, which I carry with me and plays out across all of our work, is that if you want to create, big, lasting change, you need to build partnerships and alliances – or, as the ancient African proverb printed on a wall at the foundation’s Seattle headquarters states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

A few weeks ago, I took my first trip as CEO back to my home country of South Africa. Returning home is always a joy and provides a moment to remember those early experiences and influences that helped shape my values and my approach to leadership. 

There is Helen, of course, and during a moment while I was driving in Cape Town along what’s now named “Helen Suzman Boulevard” in her honor, I reflected on how her influence has shaped me. Her resolve to stand up for what was right and to speak up for those without a voice, combined with her unflinching commitment to a core set of principles around the equality of human beings and the simple, yet powerful approach to “go and see.” As part of my tenure as CEO, I have set a goal, which I hope would make her proud, to take the time to connect with colleagues and partners, listening to their experiences. 

Then there is Mandela.  “Like slavery and apartheid,” Nelson Mandela said, “Poverty is not natural. It can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” Our foundation has been and will continue to be audacious about the actions we take to overcome and eradicate poverty and suffering. (Or, as Warren Buffett encourages us, we will swing for the fences.) 

In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda write in detail about what the future holds for their foundation. Helping the citizens of low-income countries cope with the massive challenges of climate change and gender inequality, they say, will guide their giving for the foreseeable future. I am convinced that with the right approaches and the right partnerships the foundation can have an even more profound impact over the next decades than it had in the previous two, and I promise to bring all the lessons I’ve learned in my life and my career to help build on the success of the past 20 years in the next 20. It is a humbling and exhilarating responsibility.

To hear more from Mark, follow him on Twitter @MSuzman and LinkedIn.

About the Author

Mark Suzman
Mark Suzman leads the foundation's efforts to promote equity for all people around the world.

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