February 26, 2021

The Boss: Witnessing Social Impact

I WAS born in Brooklyn. My father was a small-business man and we never had much money. He supported the family, moved us to Merrick on Long Island, when I was 11. He just recently died at age 96. He was still driving and playing golf right to the end. He was the only guy I knew who at age 90 could shoot under his age. I guess that taught me something about perseverance.

I went to the University of Michigan as an engineering student in 1960. I was standing outside the student union building when Senator John F. Kennedy made a campaign speech that essentially announced his plan for the Peace Corps. He talked about how students could provide service for the country. It was a seminal moment for me.

After I graduated, I worked as a computer programmer for I.B.M. for two years. By then, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the draft had accelerated. I didn’t agree with the war and was interested in finding alternatives. I.B.M. applied for a deferment for me twice but the application failed.

I went to work at M.I.T.’s Instrumentation Labs on a project designed to create a rescue vehicle for lost submarines. I thought this job would keep me out of the draft, but M.I.T. hadn’t put in the proper paperwork and I got called in for my physical. The day before my physical, I broke my ankle playing tennis and, of course, my draft board didn’t believe a word of it. I had to provide X-rays. I had tears in my eyes from the pain, but a smile on my face.

I applied to M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, where I met professors who were focused on applying management concepts to public sector issues. At that time, social programs were run by dedicated people, but very few had management backgrounds and many places were inefficiently run. My work with these professors piqued my interest in building an institution that could assist these organizations and change the world.

I started John Snow Inc. in 1978 (Dr. Snow is considered the father of modern epidemiology because he traced the source of a cholera epidemic in the 1850s). We had a very clear vision of what we would be. It would not be about making the most money but having the most impact.

My goal was to attract talented people who had that passion to focus on primary care, women’s health, child health, and to do great work. I wanted an organization that was less hierarchical, more collegial, more empowering for employees.

I also run a nonprofit called World Education, which focuses on literacy. What motivates me is going to the field, either in the United States or overseas, and seeing the people whose lives we affect.

I remember visiting a rural village in Nepal in 1998. We drove seven hours to get there, and at 8 o’clock at night, there were 30 women in a Nepali literacy class. After the class, several of the women came up to me and said, “This has changed my life.” It had changed the way they related to their children, the way they accessed health care, their relationships with their husbands and the community. Education can do that — just ripple through the community. It’s incredibly moving to witness that.

Whether it’s in Nepal, Zambia or Mali, meeting people from completely different cultures but who have aspirations very similar to your own is powerful. Seeing how hard they work, and still how difficult their lives are — it’s humbling, and it motivates me to do what I can to help.

I didn’t grow up rich but had the advantage of growing up in the United States and getting a good education. I couldn’t have started J.S.I. in many other places. And I believe there is an obligation to try and assist people who are struggling against tough odds.

As told to Glenn Rifkin.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=807c90771c5b1dc305e3ead7bf7df3d4

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