June 4, 2012 |

A conversation with our new CEO

Steve Davis answers a few questions about PATH, his plans, and what draws him to global health and development.
Portrait of Steve Davis. PATH/Fatou Kande Senghor.
Steve Davis. Photo: PATH/Fatou Kande Senghor.

Steve Davis has been a PATH board member (2001 to 2010), an interim leader of our program in India (2010 to 2011), and a steadfast friend and supporter. Today, we welcome him as our president and CEO. Steve is well known in Seattle’s philanthropic and business communities. He headed the digital media company Corbis for 14 years. Most recently he was director of social innovation at McKinsey & Company. He’s also board chairman at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and belongs to the boards of The Seattle Foundation and Global Partnerships.

While Steve’s work has taken him all over the world—he has a special interest in and affinity for China—he has deep Northwest roots, starting with his boyhood in Dillon, Montana. For most of his adult life, Steve’s home has been Seattle, where he lives with his partner Bob Evans and their son Ben, 16. Steve recently answered a few questions about PATH, his plans, and what draws him to global health and development.

Q. You’ve said you see coming to PATH not so much as a reinvention as a coming home. What do you mean?

A. A lot of people who aren’t familiar with my work say, “Oh, you’re a corporate guy who decided at midlife to do this nonprofit thing.” That’s actually not my story at all. It’s been much more of a full circle. I started my career in global human rights and other aspects of the social sector. Then I became a lawyer, initially focused on human rights, but later intellectual property too. That led to some amazing work in the corporate sector—running and building a company, advising others, participating as a member of several boards of directors. And my view of the world is that all of these pieces are valuable and essential for making positive social change.

If there’s a perspective I bring to this work it’s this: one of the biggest challenges that we have is that one sector—whether nonprofit-independent, public, or private—can’t do all we need to do by itself. We must collaborate. The problem is that, even when people come together understanding the imperatives of good collaboration, they bring enormous biases because they’ve only worked in one sector. They have set ideas about what the other sectors are like—inefficiency over here, greed over here, bureaucracy over there.

What we need are more triathletes—people who are not only open to collaboration but who have worked in two, if not all three, sectors. I’m a great believer that many of the 21st century’s biggest problems—whether it’s eliminating polio, or mitigating climate change, or addressing girls’ education where that’s the biggest barrier to equity and growth—will be solved by collaboration between the nonprofit-independent, private, and public sectors. That’s one of the most exciting things about PATH: we have the great opportunity to be a leader in this area.

Man in white sweater sitting in front of a river in India, people on steep steps leading to river in background.
Steve during a visit to India. He served as interim leader of our India Country Program from 2010 to 2011. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.

Q. You mentioned you began your career in global human rights. What were you doing?

A. I was based in Seattle doing refugee resettlement work. At that point—in 1980, 1981, 1982 after the Southeast Asia wars—there was a large wave of refugees that the US decided to accept into the country, and they were in camps waiting for the process to play out. I was part of the group that helped families figure out what they would be doing here in the States—how to reunify families, how to find sponsors and get jobs, how to find services to help them, how to get kids in school. That led to a few great management and leadership roles, then quite a bit of policy work in the area. Eventually it led me to a stint at the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) in Geneva doing policy work.

Q. What did you find satisfying about that first job?

A. It provided a deeper understanding of the ripple effect of the way the world works. Obviously, the Vietnam War was a monumental event, but even ten years later we were still coping with thousands of families stranded in camps, struggling in exile or resettlement, who couldn’t get their kids into school or understand a new culture. Trying to address those challenges was very satisfying, and it introduced me to bridging cultural divides. I feel like one of the things I’ve done a lot in my life is to bridge various different kinds of situations, whether it’s being a cultural bridge between immigrants and US culture, or marrying art and technology at Corbis, or in my ongoing work for gay rights. I’ve done a lot of trying to bring different parties together.

Q. It seems, then, that you’ve always been very interested in social equity, including equity in health. Why?

A. As is often the case, parents influence you, and my parents definitely influenced me. My dad died last week, so I’m fresh off of all those memories. He and my mom were very much leaders of a small town community. But because it was such a small town, there was this sense that everyone had to be treated equally—we needed everybody. So I think those were the roots: a small town and very inclusive, progressive parents. I also imagine that being a gay kid growing up in rural Montana in the 1960s made me very attuned to injustice.

I also have a very distinct memory from later in my life. I remember one day in 1980 being on the Lao-Thai border and witnessing the trailing end of the Killing Fields survivors flow across. I looked at the people, and I realized the world can be extremely unfair and inexplicable. I saw the world for the first time in a real way. I saw the havoc of the war in Southeast Asia playing out. It got me out of my bubble as I tried to reconcile my privilege and scholarly world with what I saw. The kids, the challenges, the sadness, the desperation. It was graphic. But mostly, what struck me was the cumbersome process of the refugee system. I have since used that visual in my head when making decisions.

Q. Why did you get involved with PATH?

A. I’ve always been interested in bringing communities or ideas together. And I feel that’s what PATH is: it’s technology, and global development, and health, and how you tie those together. I’ve also been interested in ideas that will really change the landscape. So, when I was considering what to do next in my life, I asked myself, “Where can I have the most positive impact on society, make it work with my family priorities, and really enjoy it?” PATH was the clear answer and continues to be the place where, together, I feel we can make the most difference.

When I look back, I’ve been lucky to be part of the arc of three huge changes in the world. One is to be an early internet guy forging new technology platforms and business models on what we then called the “information superhighway.”

Another is to have been an old “China hand” through these transformative years. In the 1980s I was with the first group of graduate students at Beijing University after the Cultural Revolution. With my law degree I specialized in Chinese law, and I have continued that passion for over 30 years, more recently focusing on China’s work on health and development in Africa.

And then the third arc is that of an out gay man growing up feeling isolated in Montana during the 60s and 70s and now married—in some states!—with a partner and son. Those are three pretty big shifting forces in the world to have been part of, even playing minor roles in their development, and it feels like now I might get the chance to be part of a new one, which is the emerging story of innovation in 21st century global development.

Q. What does that mean for global development?

A. I was interim director of the PATH program in India, and that really did help me see global health as a subset of global development. I’m not going to start redefining PATH as a global development organization, but I do think education, and empowerment for women and girls, and financial inclusion, and health, and social justice—they’re just so intertwined. I think we all understand that intellectually, but you know, you spend time in a village in Uttar Pradesh and you understand it pretty directly. This is not a new thought; clearly people have been talking about how to integrate global development and global health. But we have to continue to address it and innovate to find solutions, and PATH should continue to be a thought leader in this area.

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