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The Rockefeller Foundation President Wants You to Make Big, Passionate Bets

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About a week after being sworn in as the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah received a call from his boss, President Barack Obama.

It was January 2010, and a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake had struck the Republic of Haiti. The disaster crippled or destroyed the island nation’s infrastructure and would eventually result in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Despite Shah’s young age and the newness of the job, President Obama was putting him in charge of U.S. relief efforts. He felt overwhelmed at first, but then something remarkable happened.

“I started getting calls from people across the country, letting me know they were coming to help,” said Shah. “It made me realize that, in the public sector, crises often give people a chance to connect to a real moral purpose. It unlocks different levels of passion, behavior, and commitment that can be easier to tap into during an immediate crisis like the Haiti earthquake.”

“The leadership challenge,” he continued, “is to figure out how to unlock that same passion and willingness to innovate and give in others for long-term projects—like vaccines, food security, or climate change.”

Rajiv Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation

Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation and author of Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens, shared these insights and others with Nelson Repenning, PhD ’96 (Associate Dean of Leadership and Special Projects; School of Management Distinguished Professor of System Dynamics and Organization Studies; Faculty Director of MIT Leadership Center), and students from across the Institute at the iLead Speaker Series in late November.

Big bets over incremental change

Before The Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, Shah, who originally pursued a career in medicine, longed for the chance to work in public service on a large scale. So, he left medicine behind and joined then Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Nashville, Tennessee, then joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

These experiences taught Shah about the importance of actually solving—and not just making incremental improvements to—the world’s biggest challenges.

“It can be easy to fall into what I call the ‘aspiration trap,’ which is the idea that these problems exist, they’re going to continue existing, the best thing we can do is make incremental changes, and we should just accept this,” said Shah.

At the Gates Foundation, Shah learned how to avoid the aspiration trap and instead focus on finding and producing solutions on massive scales. One of the organization’s first successes was child immunizations. Since 2000, they have immunized nearly one billion children and saved 15 million lives.

This experience, as well as many others that followed, taught Shah the importance of making big bets on global, seemingly insurmountable problems like fighting disease, hunger, and poverty. Such a mindset, he realized, could help people be more optimistic about using their skills, talents, and leadership to make a difference, at scale, in the world.

“Big bets start with being passionate about a problem. You want to be somewhere you can be a big part of the solution, where you can do a lot of learning and thinking about what it would take to actually solve the problem and not just tinker on the margins,” said Shah.

One of the biggest problems facing the world today, Shah continued, is climate change. To that end, The Rockefeller Foundation created the Big Bets Community to support emerging leaders with bold solutions to not just slow the climate crisis, but reverse it.

Common passions

Toward the end of their conversation, Associate Dean Repenning asked Shah about the many leaders he had worked with throughout his career—notable figures like Obama, Gates, and Hillary Clinton, as well as lesser-known figures like Molly Melching and Hanumappa Sudarshan, both of whom Shah writes about in Big Bets.

Specifically, Repenning wanted to know what shared qualities these people possessed.

“The common thing I’ve observed across a lot of types of leaders is their absolutely passionate and persistent commitment to whatever goal they’re working on,” said Shah.

At the Gates Foundation, this meant the eradication of debilitating diseases through mass vaccinations for children. For individuals like Melching, this was the changing of attitudes and cultures to stop the practice of female genital mutilation. Every single one of these people and the organizations they worked for, Shah added, were unified by their passion for change.

Making big bets on one’s passion is a start, but as Shah explained to the audience in Wong Auditorium, there is a methodology that anyone can apply to their own project. It is composed of three core elements, and anyone can learn and apply them to a given challenge at scale.

These three elements are:

  1. Do the homework to find fresh, innovative solutions,
  2. Build alliances, and
  3. Measure the results.

Finding the right solution for a challenge as big as immunizing all children against certain diseases requires assessing which of the available options can be scaled up enough to make the biggest difference for the most people. Once one or more solutions have been assessed, the big bettor should collaborate with the right partners to ensure the best possible outcome. Finally, once the work is done, it continues with self-assessment and improvement.

“[Big bets are] grounded in this MIT-based idea that science and innovation, applied broadly for everyone, can transform humanity for the better,” said Shah.

iLead Speaker Series: Dr. Rajiv J. Shah

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933