Rajiv Shah took the helm of the Rockefeller Foundation in March 2017. He recently visited the offices of SSIR, where senior editor David Johnson asked him about his work leading the more than 100-year-old foundation with more than $4.2 billion in assets, the role of philanthropy in times of austerity, and the new initiatives that Rockefeller is undertaking both domestically and abroad.
Before joining Rockefeller, Shah was head of the USAID under President Obama, where he reshaped the $20 billion agency’s operations by elevating the importance of innovation, promoting public-private partnerships, and shifting how dollars were spent to generate greater impact. Shah, a physician, also spent close to a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission is to promote the wellbeing of humanity throughout the world. You had a somewhat similar mission as the administrator of USAID. What would you say are the similarities and differences between your two roles?
Both institutions are deeply mission-driven and attract mission-driven people, but the differences are pretty significant. A government agency has the capacity to be a policymaker, a global force, and has very large scale—we had more than 10,000 people in more than 70 countries around the world.
The Rockefeller Foundation has a 104-year history of bringing science and innovation to the mission of improving the state of humanity. We helped invent the field of modern medicine more than 100 years ago. We helped create international public health efforts that resulted in invention of vaccines and eradication of diseases. We have helped power a green revolution that moved almost a billion people off the brink of hunger and starvation by bringing modern agricultural sciences to South Asia, East-Southeast Asia, and Latin America. And more recently we’ve worked in more than 100 cities around the world to make them more resilient to the increasing threats related to climate in their communities. We really get to focus on being innovators for social good.
How do you do innovative work in an organization that’s been around more than a century?
You find partners who are scientists and technologists and entrepreneurs and policymakers who have new and fresh ideas. We have the capacity now to bring science and technology and innovation to everything, from in-field medical diagnostics to solar power and lighting, to new financial instruments that can help provide insurance products for small-scale farmers. The world has never been more capable of solving these problems and expanding the cause of justice for those who are vulnerable.
Could you share some of the specific initiatives you’ve been talking about since you took over?
Our goals in this next decade focus on bringing and improving the fundamentals of human well-being—health, food, power [electricity], the ability to live in safe environments in cities, and jobs—to communities that lack those things.
It’s been true for more than 100 years that if you don’t have access to electricity, you are going to be poor. That’s just the reality of life. We are supporting reaching nearly 1,000 villages in India that don’t have any access to electricity. Kids struggle to study past nightfall. Families struggle to engage in activities where power can make them economically productive.
We are promoting new forms of solar-powered mini-grids, new battery technologies that make those mini-grids more viable as a 24/7 source of power, and new business models that anchor those mini-grids to mobile phone towers so you can distribute power to the local villages on an independent basis.
Have you made any changes since you’ve come on board?
I started after an election here in the United States that made visible some of the consequences of the lack of hope and opportunity in many American communities. So the Rockefeller Foundation is going to be more focused on communities here in our country, ensuring that children have better access to stronger futures than they otherwise would. It feels timely, it is necessary, and we’re confident we can help build more opportunity into the structure of American society and economy.
Last October, you spoke in Detroit, your hometown, about jobs, economic opportunity, and inequality. How would you compare working on economic development abroad versus in the United States?
Parents everywhere, and families everywhere, and children everywhere want the same basic things: it’s the dignity that comes with productive work; it’s the dignity that comes with a job that lets you take care of your family; it’s the hopefulness that comes from children being in a proper educational and learning environment so that they can push themselves to aspire to more; and it’s the hopefulness that comes from being part of a community that believes the future will be brighter than the past.
That’s true in rural parts of South Sudan where almost 30 percent of children die before the age of 5 because of hunger, malnutrition, and disease. That’s true in Detroit, which used to be the richest city in America in 1961 and is no longer in that position but still has hope. And that’s true right here in Palo Alto and neighboring communities, where issues of affordable housing and diversity and who forms a community together are front of mind for social activists.
What are the most important barriers to economic opportunity in the US and what is the role of philanthropy in addressing those barriers?
The future of work is appropriately in question as technology, globalization, and automation move both the types of jobs that are available and the requirements for getting good jobs in a future interconnected, tech-enabled economy. Making sure more people have the skills that are appropriate for the future of work is a big part of addressing a barrier that has been created by progress and innovation.
Another barrier is that where you live has a huge impact on whether your children will have the ability to do better in the future than you’re doing right now. And we need to look in a place-based way at communities across this country, and understand the policies and the ideas and the innovations that can help people have more opportunity, particularly in places where that opportunity appears to have dried up.
How is Rockefeller working to address that?
“Impact hiring” is part of our US jobs program. We work in particular with large employers to help them identify the skills they need in their workforce, and then we work with communities where young people may not have access to obtain those skills, and then we help them connect into those jobs.
The idea is that employers, if they were a little more proactive and got support from philanthropic partners, could become a ladder of opportunity for young people. It takes public-private partnership and genuine intervention to create those connections, but once they are created, they’re sustainable. Young people who fought hard, have gone through the training, and are now working are super motivated to perform well, to stick with it.
You’ve spoken out about some of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to foreign aid. What do you see as the role of the Rockefeller Foundation and other philanthropies in times of austerity?
We have to be strong advocates, and we have to communicate the data of what’s actually happening. American investments in foreign assistance account for less than one half of one percent of our federal budget. Those foreign assistance investments in health, in food and hunger, in power and energy, in providing support to the more than 60 million displaced people, make the difference between life and death for millions of people around the world.
These proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration would be disastrous. They would cut foreign aid by 30 to 40 percent and at a time when refugee needs, displaced people around the world, and some of the core threats like disease prevention can actually be solved and tackled once and for all.
We have to fight for these programs and communicate that this is a part of expressing our core American values around the world. This is a part of building an interconnected global economy that is inclusive and fair and stable and safe. It’s far better to deal with stable, hopeful trading partners than it is to deal with regimes that end up presenting genuine threat, either because they’re destabilizing their region, harboring terrorist threats, or more directly threatening our own nation and our people.
At the Global Philanthropic Forum last May, you said the following: “The events of last year have convinced me that we are in fact living in a deeply fractured world. And like so many others, I’ve been trying to figure out what does all mean…” What does it all mean for you and for the Rockefeller Foundation’s work?
We’ve seen people’s trust in institutions diminished greatly here and around the world. And right alongside that diminishing of trust, we have seen this reduction in opportunity. If you don’t turn that around, it’s hard to build the kinds of institutions and communities that are dynamic and hopeful, that have the confidence to say America should continue to lead the global fight to end poverty, that America should lead multi-country collaborations to fight climate change, that America should lead the creation of global institutions that enable us to provide security to ourselves and to others without deploying our own troops in every situation.
The role of philanthropy right now is perhaps more important than it has been in the past several decades. Philanthropy can bring public sector and private sector partners together. And philanthropy can speak across the partisan divide.
We can highlight examples that give us hope, we can solve some of the tough problems we face, we can do it in a bipartisan manner, and we can do it in a way that restores the underlying hopefulness that has allowed America to project its image and its hopes around the world, and has touched so many people in that context including the family that I come from.
That all sounds very good. Have you considered running for office?
Not right now. Now’s the time to bring this together this way. And I’m just so excited because everywhere we look we see solutions.