July 10, 2019 / 11:00 AM / 4 months ago

CORRECTED-Saving the world is on Sue Desmond-Hellmann's to-do list

 (Corrects Desmond-Hellmann's title to chief executive from
president in 2nd paragraph)
    By Chris Taylor
    NEW YORK, July 10 (Reuters) - If you had $50 billion to try
to solve the world's worst problems, what exactly would you do?
    That is the daunting challenge that faces Dr. Sue
Desmond-Hellmann when she walks into her office every morning as
chief executive of the Gates Foundation - the largest private
foundation in the United States, set up by Bill and Melinda
    For the latest in Reuters' Life Lessons series,
Desmond-Hellmann talked with us about the winding path that took
her from the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, through years in
Uganda, to the top of the philanthropic world.
    Q: When you were a kid growing up in Reno, Nevada, what
money lessons did you learn from your parents?
    A: Two things made huge impacts on me: One was that my mom
and dad were both children of the Depression, and the first in
their families to go to college, so they really knew the value
of education. I was one of seven kids, and every night at dinner
we talked about nothing but homework and school and books.
    The other thing was the importance of values and faith. All
the way through 12th grade, my life totally revolved around
church and Catholic school.
    Q: What was it like to begin your medical career in San
Francisco in the 1980s?
    A: I started at UCSF as an intern in 1982, and if you look
at the history books, the first descriptions of HIV started
appearing at that time. So I was literally becoming a doctor in
the epicenter of the epidemic. In fact, my specialty was
Kaposi's sarcoma, which you see in a lot of AIDS patients.
    Q: After that you treated AIDS patients in Uganda. What
lessons did you take away from that experience?
    A: We were approached by the Rockefeller Foundation to study
heterosexual HIV transmission in Africa, so my husband Nick and
I sold our Honda Civics, sublet our apartment, and hopped on a
    We were extremely isolated. When we came back from Uganda,
we never complained about anything ever again.
    Q: How long did you and your husband grapple with student
    A: We were paying those off for the longest time. I still
remember the coupons you had to rip off, and send in with your
check. We had a lot of debt we had to get rid of, so we were
very conservative with our money. It wasn't until around 2000
where we were financially secure enough to start giving some
away to charity.    
    Q: You have billions to work with, how do you decide where
to direct that money?
    A: We are in the equity business, the idea that all lives
have equal value. So we believe in education as something that
drives equity – that no matter your zip code or background or
family wealth, you can get a good public education.
    We complement that work with a focus on global health, which
began after Bill and Melinda took a trip to Africa and saw
children dying of diseases that could have been prevented with
vaccines. The big drug companies tend to invest in health
conditions that affect the rich world, so we focus on what
affects the poor: things like TB, malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia.
    Q: What is the best life advice you got from Bill and
Melinda Gates?
    A: The thing I admire about Bill and Melinda is that they
are pretty even-keeled about setbacks. Most people tend to beat
themselves up when they hit an obstacle, but they don't get
frustrated. They understand that most people overestimate what
they accomplish in one year, but underestimate what they can
accomplish in 10 years.
    Q: What life lessons do you try to pass on to the next
    A: I have lots of nieces and nephews, and a couple of things
have been North Stars for me. One is being generous: That can be
through money, but it can also be through volunteering, or just
how you interact and treat people.
    The next thing is that when you have a setback, see it as an
opportunity. I have had times in my life where I tried to go
left, and the door was closed. So turn right and open another
door, because there may be something great behind it. Setbacks
are only temporary, so keep moving and don't get stuck.

 (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Jonathan Oatis)
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