The indefatigable Martha Choe – with stints as the Vice President at the Bank of California, Director of the Washington State Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – with her wealth of experience, challenged participants at a sharing session in the NUS Business School to not only do well with the skills acquired from the university, but to also do good for the community. “The community and my family are very important [to me],” she stressed in the beginning, “and I’ve always been involved in the community.”
To have careers in the private, public, and non-profit industries is remarkable. To excel in these positions is another accomplishment altogether. And throughout the one-and-a-half dialogue on Monday, even as Martha described her diverse responsibilities across these roles, her commitment to people and the broader society never wavered.
After four years as a high school teacher, she spoke of the relationships she developed with her clients and team at the Bank of California, using “finance as the tool”. Besides providing leadership for sustainable job growth in the state of Washington, she was appointed by Governor Gary Locke – who later served as the Secretary of Commerce and the United States ambassador to China – to craft a winning proposal for the assembly of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. With 47 competing states, it was an exhausting process, yet Martha credited the bipartisan support and strength of her team, especially in terms of engaging Boeing.
Five interesting viewpoints pertaining to her work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also emerged during the question-and-answer segment:
1. “The challenge to give away money well”. With her involvement in grantee engagement – wherein the foundation maintains a good relationship with the non-profits it is funding through reports or active correspondence, and the measurement of social impact is gaining traction – I asked about the keys to effective collaborations.
“Remaining humble as the largest foundation in the world, while retaining that sense of urgency, was crucial,” Martha first explained, so gathering grantee feedback is necessary. And for success to be measured the foundation has to craft appropriate, evaluative measures with the non-profits, as well as to empower these organisations to develop the necessary mechanisms to track outcomes. She conceded that funders are often apprehensive about financing overheads or operating support, preferring to fund specific projects instead.
2. “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took away the excuses”. Before she joined the foundation as its CAO, individuals could hide behind “the excuses of not having the talents, resources, and funding [to create socio-economic change]”. Even without prior experience as a librarian or expertise in the sector, Martha relished the challenge of planning and executing a high-level strategy for Global Libraries, which sought to improve the lives of the “information poor”. Now without the excuses, “can one therefore change the world”?
3. “What is the business model, and where does the revenue come from?” Regardless of the sector one may be in, pragmatism should persist as a feature, particularly for the sources of income or funding. This was in response to an observation that social enterprises in Singapore are not often successful, and whether the government should hence intervene. Martha also made the observation that even non-profits are pressured to be more business-like, not necessarily to generate financial returns, but: i. to articulate more tangible measurements of success; and ii. to be more efficient in its operations.
4. “I am vulnerable … and I need help from my team”. As a leader, conceding that one needs help may be perceived as weakness, but Martha recounted how admitting she was human contributed to a highly effective team. “[The leader] has to pick the right and best people, and through empowerment enable them to succeed”, she added.
5. “How can you manage the IT infrastructure in a foundation founded by Bill Gates?” One of her first responsibilities as the CAO was to oversee the implementation of an internal grant information system. In its third iteration, the previous versions had already created much dissatisfaction within the organisation, and the most important lesson from the brutal post-mortem was “to be open with the failure, so that culture change can be effected, creating an environment where employees are encouraged to be critical”, Martha explained.