Patty Stonesifer: Do Good Work and Think Big

by June 5, 2013 at 9:00 am 1 Comment

From Joey Gavrilovich. Follow him on Twitter @joeygDC, email him at joey[AT]

"Patty Stone

Patty Stonesifer. (Courtesy Stonesifer)

In January, the board of Martha’s Table surprised the philanthropic world when they announced that they had hired Patty Stonesifer, formerly the founding CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as its next president and CEO.

Stonesifer was also previously appointed in 2010 by President Obama to serve as the Chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions, and in 2012, she completed her term as the Chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents.

Martha’s Table, at 14th and V Streets NW and with a second Martha’s Outfitter’s now in Anacostia, helps more than 1,100 people a day in the District. It does so by addressing community needs through food and clothing programs and it works to find sustainable solutions to poverty based in education and family support services. Two months into her work as president and CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sat down with Borderstan last week for an exclusive conversation.

The media have made hay of Stonesifer’s appointment in recent months, examining why she would choose to take such a job. Often cited is how novel and noble a move it is for such a financially successful individual, both technologically and professionally plugged-in, to be giving back to the local community and working families with her time and talent. As Maureen Dowd recently put it in her New York Times column profiling Stonesifer, she is a woman “rolling in millions and has no need to work ever again.”

But to hear Stonesifer talk about it, her decision had less to do with magnanimity and a lot more to do with self-actualization. “At different times of life, different kinds of ideas or issues engage us, and I’m just lucky enough to be able to go find the thing that engages me now.”

Finding and Doing Good Work

Stonesifer cites Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s GoodWork Project as a key lesson in finding one’s vocation. “It comes back to a simple concept that has been studied: What makes good work?” she said, sharing that she recently gave this advice at a commencement ceremony in New York. “These Harvard researchers identified good work as having three elements: it is ethical, excellent, and it is engaging. It’s work that you can lose yourself in, that you want to get into today and the next day and the next because there is something you are contributing.”

The allure of jobs with fancy titles and comfortable salaries can be “a slightly seductive thing,” says Stonesifer, if it causes one to lose sight of those three elements. In considering her next career move, some of the possibilities “really spoke to that girl from Indiana,” Stonesifer said with an amused smile. “The idea that that would be a cool job and my mother would be impressed! But then you think about it and ask, will I be fully engaged? Would it be excellent and ethical work? I had to really separate those things and decide what I wanted to do every day.”

For Stonesifer, as for many of us who rode into DC on career paths that led us away from our hometowns, doing good work matters, and Martha’s Table met her criteria. “The joy in what I’m doing now comes from the doing. I think those three elements just lined up beautifully for me with this job, and I suggest that that is the key to happy work for anybody.”

Motivated to Think Big

“I came from a family that was oriented toward service in the community. My folks worked long and hard at a food pantry in Indianapolis that’s now named after my father. I grew up not knowing that as volunteerism, not knowing that as service. I just thought that’s what you do.”

“I was lucky to be part of the tech boom,” Stonesifer reflected, saying that in her early years at Microsoft in the 1990s, she worked for Bill Gates and Melinda French (whom Bill Gates later married) worked for Stonesifer. “We were thinking very big and bold,” Stonesifer said of her collaboration with Bill and Melinda Gates at the dawn of a new time in technology. It was this approach that carried over into Microsoft’s philanthropic culture when the foundation was first launched in 1997.

“The exercise we went through there — to try to think about how would you change the world, how do you think big, how do you start from scratch on things like asking why tuberculosis is still with us in this way, effecting people at this level — affected me greatly. It broadened my sights from what my dad had instilled, from what do you do to make the world a better place to how big can you think about how the world can be better?”

In two weeks, Borderstan will feature part two of this exclusive feature, including Patty Stonesifer’s big thinking for Martha’s Table and human services in the District.

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