Press Room




Building Our Region’s Global Health Future

January 13th, 2011
Prepared remarks by Martha Choe, Chief Administrative Officer

Thank you.

I am so pleased that this conference is highlighting global health.

I just can’t believe this is the 39th anniversary luncheon. Wow, 1972.

That was the year after I graduated from Roosevelt High School, and entered the University of Washington.

How many of you were here 39 years ago? Let’s see a show of hands.

Today’s economy is downright rosy compared to back then, right?

Boeing’s payroll had bottomed out in 1972 at about 29,000 workers – down from more than 106,000.

A national magazine profiled Seattle in an article titled: “City of Despair”.

  • The city has become a vast pawn shop.
  • Unemployment officially stands at 13.1%, but some say it is more than 20%.
Few were spared. My own family experienced it.

Four years earlier, in 1968, Boeing had recruited my father away from a New York City engineering firm. My parents were Korean immigrants, and they packed us up moved us to Seattle because they wanted to live the American dream and give us a better life in the Pacific Northwest.

Times were good. My folks bought a house and a second car and we were settling in.

And then the Boeing bust came.

My dad was among the 60,000 engineers laid off. My mother, with a college degree from the best women’s university in Korea, had to find work as a cook at Virginia Mason. I was able to stay in school – because my parents placed a priority on college and because I had financial aid to make tuition affordable. I also worked as a sales clerk at Nordstrom.

Today we are enduring another deep economic recession, and another new generation of families and businesses are being hurt.

But today, our local economy is stronger and more diverse, thanks to decisions and investments that were made by people before us.

Boeing continues to have a huge and important presence, but it is a different company today in a fiercely competitive environment.

Seattle is now host to other power house companies, some of which were not in existence 39 years ago, including Microsoft, Amazon, Costco and Starbucks, all globally recognized companies.

The economy will recover again, there is reason for optimism, but there are also some huge hurdles we have to overcome.

I want to talk with you today about how our economy is changing, and about how global health is emerging as an economic opportunity, and about what we need to do to capitalize on the changes that are coming.

Years ago, the Pacific Northwest was a resource-based economy that relied on farming, forests and fish. Manufacturing came later, and it is still important today, but it is the knowledge-based sector of our economy that offers great promise.

The plentiful jobs in the future will be in life sciences, global health, aerospace, software, technologies, engineering, and clean energy.

We’re never going to be competitive as the lowest wage state and we don’t want to be. But we have the opportunity to compete with any area of the country or the world for good paying jobs in the new economy.

That’s great news, of course. But the problem is that not enough of our kids are qualified for the jobs that are being created. Not enough of our kids are getting a college education, and fewer of them are getting degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

Companies and institutions are importing workers from outside the state and outside the country to fill job openings.

We are not moving in the right direction.

The U.S. once led the world in providing its young people with college educations. That’s no longer the case. Today, the U.S. isn’t even in the top 10.

Here’s another way to look at it. Washington is among the top five states when it comes to producing jobs that require a bachelor’s degree. In the coming years, 67% of jobs in Washington state will require some college. But our state is at the bottom third of the scale when it comes to graduating our kids from college. Even worse, 25 percent of our kids aren’t even graduating from high school. And it’s lower yet for low-income and ethnic minority kids. Their unemployment rates are twice as high as college graduates and their incomes are half as much.

That’s not the future we want or can afford for the next generation.

This is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is focusing so much energy on education – from early learning to college readiness.

Over the past 10 years, the foundation has invested more than $4 billion to help students, particularly low-income and minority youth, get ready to succeed in college.

Education is a paramount responsibility of society. Most of us in this room – including me – benefited from the decisions that were made, priorities that were set, and the investments that were made by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Our two great research universities – the UW and WSU – and are the most important economic engines in our state. They employ tens of thousands of people, they attract leading scientists and innovative thinkers from around the world that bring hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, they file patents and spin off commercial ideas, and they prepare our next generation for jobs.

We must keep investing in our universities.

Global health is a big part of the emerging new economy and holds tremendous promise for this region. It’s not something most of us ever envisioned 39 years ago.

But we had trailblazers back then who did have a vision:

  • PATH – the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health – was founded more than 30 years ago and has grown to operate in 70 countries around the globe. Chris Elias spoke earlier today.
  • Seattle BioMed – the region’s first global health organization – was started in 1976 by Dr. Ken Stewart as the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.
  • The Hutch, a world-renowned institution with more than 2,300 scientists and staff. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center opened its doors in 1975, but its roots go back more than two decades earlier.
These and many others are making huge contributions today. More recently, organizations like the Washington Global Health Alliance and Global Health Nexus, have emerged to encourage collaboration and broader access to the sector.

We’re probably best known for our investments in global health; more than half of our giving every year goes to global health. But what is less well known is that much of that investment is made in partner institutions that are based right here in Washington state.

Over the past 10 years, the foundation has committed $2 billion to more than 40 of our local partners involved in global health pursuits right here.

You may have heard this statement before, and I hope you have, because it’s the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation mantra:

“Every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

This principle guides everything we do at the foundation and is why the foundation is so focused on global health. As Bill Sr. puts it, human beings should not have to win a “birth lottery” to have a healthy and fulfilling life. It shouldn’t matter whether a person is born in Seattle or Sudan. Every person deserves a chance to be healthy and productive.

It’s the basis for our funding priorities – global health, global development, and our U.S. programs.

We look for large-scale problems; problems that afflict millions of people; problems that have been ignored, forgotten or seem intractable; we work in areas where the foundation’s efforts and resources can be leveraged with partners and governments to make the most difference.

Our approach to giving emphasizes innovation, risk, and, most importantly, evidence-based results. We look to deploy new technologies and test new strategies. We recognize that some efforts will take many years to succeed. We’re willing to try big ideas, knowing many will fail, because big ideas can also produce game-changing solutions.

Polio is an example.

Polio is a highly contagious, crippling disease that continues to afflict young children. Polio is a vaccine preventable disease.

Vaccines are a miracle – they are highly effective and very inexpensive, just 13 -50 cents a dose. They’ve saved millions of lives. But we and our partners are pushing hard for the ultimate success – eradication.

Polio eradication is like fighting a fire. If it is not completely put out, it can simmer and spread fast in places where it previously was eliminated. In Russia, for example, the country was polio free for 20 years until it reappeared last year.

The world is so close to eradicating polio, we’re down to a few cases in about 20 countries, but success is still far from assured and rather than relax, it’s time to redouble our efforts.

The difficulty of ferreting out every last polio virus in the world’s most remote places, areas plagued by armed conflict, poverty, other disease, and the lack of any effective government structures, is staggering.

It requires a massive political, logistical and financial effort.

Rotary International has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and championed the cause for many, many years. Our own Seattle Rotary #4 is a strong partner. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are also long-time leaders.

No child deserves to face the threat of polio, or any other vaccine-preventable disease. We are committing to fighting polio to the end.

And we hope that polio eradication can pave the way for an even larger goal of universal access to routine vaccines, as well as new life-saving vaccines for pneumonia, diarrhea, and hopefully soon for malaria and HIV.

It is amazing how fast things can change. Seattle’s economy has been transformed in just 39 years. Polio is nearly wiped off the face of the earth.

Just 15 years ago the Gates Foundation was born in the basement of Bill Gates Sr.’s home. He would open the mail himself, sort through grant requests and personally respond to the letters.

Today, through the generosity of Bill, Melinda and Warren Buffet, we’ve grown to become a much larger operation.

So we are excited to be moving into our headquarters this spring. All of our employees will be together in one place, and I’m certain it will create a new sense of collaboration that will make it possible for us to do our best work.

If you have been by the eastside of Seattle Center at any time over the past two years, the campus is pretty hard to miss.

Dozens of local companies have been involved in creating the headquarters – led by NBBJ, Sellen Construction and the Seneca Group.

Beyond simply being a place for our work, we hope the headquarters will be a place that inspires both optimism and resolve – that progress is being made and that tough problems can be solved.

We’ll host experts from all corners of the world – at more than 900 meetings a year -- in our new conference center.

And for the public, we will have a visitor center, where people can learn about issues and become inspired to get involved.

Bill and Melinda chose this location, right next to Seattle Center, because they wanted the foundation to be in a vibrant neighborhood, close to downtown and our Seattle-based partners.

The Pacific Northwest is the Gates family’s home and the focus of much of the foundation’s giving.

We support those who have the fewest resources – mainly through our education and family homelessness grants. In 2009, our total community giving in Washington state amounted to $82 million.

Our 1,000 employees are also actively contributing their time and money as well, and I know they are so excited about the move and about being involved in the community.

Currently our employees serve on 64 nonprofit or public sector boards and advisory committees.

And last year, they gave $1.5 million to charitable causes in the Puget Sound region, which the foundation matches on a three to one basis – bumping the total to more than $6 million.

So I see opportunities and challenges for Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

I am disheartened by how the current recession has harmed so many people, but I am heartened by seeing so many that are continuing to step up to help families.

During the Boeing bust, Seattle’s economic future didn’t seem very bright. Today, despite the recession, the opportunities for Seattle’s economy – for the next generation – seem endless. But we cannot take opportunity for granted. Economic vitality is not a foregone conclusion. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of catching up to do on education and other issues. We need to set priorities, stay focused, and work together.

As a region, we pulled together and made good choices before. I believe we can do this again.

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