August 11, 2022

The Boss: Bring Your A Game

In 1971, I graduated from Purdue University in Indiana with a degree in speech therapy. However, I decided I was not patient enough for speech and hearing therapy, in which progress can take months or years. I wanted a career that provided more immediate feedback.

In 1972, I moved to Washington and worked as a researcher and editor. Four years later, when I was 26, a friend got me an interview with Senator Gary Hart, and I became his press secretary. Initially, I was scared to death someone would find out I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d like to think I was hired because I’m good at translating big issues into stories that people care about.

I learned a lot in that job and had the time of my life. In 1984, I was press secretary during Senator Hart’s first run for president. In 1985, I left to become director of editorial administration at U.S. News and World Report and stayed for 12 years. In 1997, I joined America Online as senior vice president and chief communications officer, and in 2000 I became president of what was then the AOL Time Warner Foundation.

The United Nations Foundation was formed in 1998 after Ted Turner announced a $1 billion commitment to help the United Nations address global problems. I joined in 2003 as executive vice president and chief operating officer and was promoted to C.E.O. in 2009. We provide a way for companies and other organizations to help the United Nations solve problems around the world.

Attending a board meeting of the United Nations Foundation is both humbling and inspiring. The members are world leaders, from Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan to Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general emeritus of the World Health Organization and former prime minister of Norway. I’m always challenged to up my game and make sure I’m prepared for these meetings.

Our work is based on data and research. One of our members says, “Trust in God, but everybody else brings numbers to the table.” I love that we spend as much time on the details as on the big ideas. That’s how change occurs.

My years with Steve Case when he was C.E.O. of AOL taught me to approach work as a marathon, not a sprint. At the foundation, we keep our eye on the future. We’ve evolved from being a grant-making institution to developing campaigns.

One of our typical campaigns is “Nothing but Nets,” which tackles malaria in Africa. We’ve raised over $35 million to buy bed nets for protection from mosquitoes.

If I had it to do over, I’d probably bring more young people into the organization at an earlier stage. I remember Jack Welch of General Electric saying having a young person just out of college as a “mentor” kept him fresh.

We created an advisory council made up of teenage girls to assist us in our Girl Up campaign, which helps adolescent girls in developing countries surmount challenges. I think technology will change people’s approach to humanitarian aid in the next decade, and we’ll benefit from having young people helping us.

When I remarried five years ago, I found a happy place on the back of my husband’s motorcycle. We often ride eight hours a day on our trips. Our helmets are equipped with technology that allows us to communicate with each other while we’re riding.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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