Tufts University

Patricia Q. Stonesifer

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2009

PATRICIA Q. STONESIFER is senior advisor to the trustees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world's leading philanthropic organizations. She served as the foundation's first CEO from 1997 until August 2008, and played a major role in awarding some $3 billion annually to advance global health and learning. Since early this year, Stonesifer has also been chair of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution, where she is helping to reform and revitalize the organization.

Stonesifer grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, the sixth of nine children. The family enjoyed boisterous debates around the dinner table on the pressing social issues of the day, from the upheaval of Vatican II to struggles over civil rights and Vietnam. Stonesifer learned to listen hard and think broadly about things. "Personal responsibility and giving to the community was a given," she remembers. Her father ran a Sunday soup kitchen in the city—a program funded in part by the Lilly Foundation.

She graduated from Indiana University in 1982 and was working as editor-in-chief at a computer book publisher when Microsoft tapped her to lead its book division in 1988. Ultimately, Stonesifer led the firm's interactive media division. After a brief stint with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks entertainment company, Bill and Melinda Gates asked her back to Seattle to head up a project to connect public libraries nationwide to the Internet. This was the launch of the Gates Library Foundation.

In 2000, Stonesifer merged the Gates Library Foundation with the William H. Gates Foundation to become the current Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As CEO of the foundation, she immersed herself in the workings of the enterprise, routinely visiting sites around the world, observing programs and interviewing grantees in depth to assess the value of the Gates philanthropy. "This is not a job for her," remarked one person who had watched Stonesifer in action. "It's a mission."

She is a founding board member of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. She served on the boards of the Seattle Foundation, the GAVI Fund, which helps to provide vaccines in developing countries, Debt, Aid & Trade to Africa (DATA) and ONE.org, and was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on AIDS. She also serves on the board of Amazon.com.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in January 2009 she became chair of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution, where she had served as a member of the board since 2001. On her appointment, the Washington Post described Stonesifer as having been "a leader in reforming how the regents operate since the Smithsonian faced a severe crisis of management last year . . . She will have a major role in developing a strategic plan for the Smithsonian's future and organizing a capital campaign to raise billions for building repairs and new initiatives."

In addition to her many other responsibilities, Stonesifer writes a weekly column called "My Goodness" together with her daughter, Sandy. The column, which appears on Slate, offers advice on effective philanthropy.

The university will award her an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.