Dr. Rajiv Shah has worked tirelessly to improve the world. He is the President of The Rockefeller Foundation and has an impressive history of leadership and innovation in global development. His previous work includes leadership roles at USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s also the author of the new book, Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens, which is available wherever books are sold.
Rajiv joined host Robert Glazer on the Elevate Podcast to discuss his leadership career, how audacious thinking can improve humanity, and much more.
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Rajiv Shah On Changing The World Through Big Bets
Rajiv Shah, President Of The Rockefeller Foundation, Joins Host Robert Glazer On The Elevate Podcast To Discuss His Book, Big Bets
Welcome to the show. Our quote for this episode is from Anne Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody needs weight a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Our guest Dr. Raj Shah has worked tirelessly to improve the world. He is the President of the Rockefeller Foundation and has an impressive history of leadership and innovation in global development.
His previous work includes leadership roles at US Aid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture. He’s been a driving force in humanitarian efforts worldwide addressing issues from global health to sustainable development. He’s also the author of the new book Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens, which is available wherever books are sold. Raj, it’s great to have you join us on the show.
Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
I always find it helpful to start a little bit at the beginning to understand how childhood particularly influences a lot of what we do in our lives. You grew up in Detroit and as the child of immigrants. I know you had a pretty diverse educational and cultural background. Do you think a lot of your humanitarian work has roots in the experience from when you were younger?
I think so, but I grew up in an Indian-American family. My parents are both immigrants that came in the late ‘60s with educational scholarships, but no other resources. They had this faith in education, hard work, and the American dream. That was a time when all those things seemed to align effectively. I had a great childhood.
Growing up in Suburban Detroit, you take things like pre-engineering drafting classes in middle school. My dad was in the auto industry at Ford Motor Company for several years. I assumed I’d be either an engineer or a doctor. I chose a doctor at the end of the day and that’s how it got started. For me, finding my way to being involved in global humanitarian issues and large-scale policy change was not a very clear path. You know how to become a doctor, you take tests and you go to med school. I didn’t scratch the edge of wanting to have an impact on social issues.
When you went to med school, what kind of doctor were you, first of all?
In internal medicine. I didn’t specialize beyond that.
What was the beginning of the transition from medicine into public policy?
I always had an interest in public policy from high school debate and seeing visitors like Nelson Mandela when he came to Detroit and being generally inspired. I didn’t quite know what to do with that. When I was in grad school, I kept applying to join political campaigns because I wanted to get that experience and I twice got rejected from joining as a volunteer in Al Gore’s presidential campaign. He was running for president. He was vice president. His campaign was in DC and it turns out he wasn’t doing very well in the primary. He closed his Washington campaign and moved it to Nashville, Tennessee.
A friend of mine said, “You should try a third time.” I applied a third time to be a volunteer. No salary. This is pretty basically health and they said, “You’re welcome. Come on down and we’ll give you housing.” The day after I took my final set of board exams, my girlfriend now wife, and I drove fourteen hours from Philadelphia to Nashville, Tennessee. I spent the next several months living in Al Gore’s best friend’s pool house and volunteering on the Gore campaign. That was my introduction to both politics and policy.
You didn’t go just get a good doctor job. After that experience, what did you do next?
As you and your audience would remember, we didn’t quite connect.
That was a close one.
A close one to say the least. When that didn’t quite happen, I was effectively without a job and looking around. A friend of mine from the campaign who had joined Bill and Melinda Gates as they were setting up their foundation said, “Bill and Melinda were thinking about hiring someone with a little bit of a medical background and a bit of an economics background, but also an intern.” I thought, “That sounds like me.” I interviewed and joined the Gates Foundation in its early days.
You have never practiced medicine?
I did not. Some side stuff, but nothing illegal.
What was your role at the Gates Foundation?
I started as an economist, which I started as the Chief Economist, but that was an overstated title because there were no other economists and they didn’t need a chief account.
Did you have a dual major in medicine?
I did Medicine and Economics at the Wharton School at Penn. Anyway, I did that but our first big project which I wrote about in the book was where I learned the concept of Big Bets. Bill and Melinda had said, “We had read an article about 600,000 kids dying of a disease called Rotavirus.” There was a Rotavirus vaccine that was going to come out but the vaccine was going to come out in the United States where kids didn’t die of rotavirus. It wasn’t going to be available in low-income countries where all these kids did die of rotavirus.
They said, “That’s wrong. How can we make sure every child on the planet receives every vaccine that could save their life in a cost-effective way?” That started a process that went on for years to establish an effort to do exactly that. In the book, I write about a tactic that Bill Gates deployed that I call Ask a Simple Question. He’d pull us all together and keep asking, “What does it cost to vaccinate a single child?” He wanted to figure out what it would take to vaccinate the whole world, even though it was so much more in terms of resourcing than what we had available at the time.
What did you do? How long were you there?
I was there for almost eight years.
What eventually brought you to the Rockefeller Foundation?
Before Rockefeller, I left Gates to join President Obama’s administration. I was invited to join as an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture. I did that for nine months or so.
You’re a Renaissance Man. This is like no two jobs are the same.
I know. I zigzag a lot. Even in my years at Gates, I had four different jobs. One of which was running a new agriculture program, which was why I had to learn a thing or two about agriculture and then loved it. I ended up working on a major global project called Feed the Future with Hillary Clinton. He was our Secretary of State at the time then she and the president asked me to lead US Aid which is our lead humanitarian agency. After government, I started a small private equity firm and then joined Rockefeller.
You just had to throw one more career in there. For those who aren’t familiar with Rockefeller, can you talk a little bit about the foundation and what it does?
This is an incredible institution. It was created 110 years ago by John D. Rockefeller. When it was created, it was endowed with 2% of American GDP. The idea was to find areas that he called scientific philanthropy. Now I call it Big Bets, but it was basically finding areas of science and innovation that could transform lives at scale, especially for those who are vulnerable.
The early thinking was areas like medicine and public health, which at the time were not science-based disciplines in 1910. They were selling things off the back of trucks and they said, “Let’s turn this into a science-based discipline,” then they eradicated diseases in the United States. Our first effort was the eradication of hookworms in the American South and then around the world. We invented the yellow fever vaccine famously and World Awarded a Nobel Prize for that.
Decades later, they invested in agricultural science, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s when there were huge population concerns and a lot of people on the brink of hunger in poverty in Asia and Latin America. They invested in agricultural sciences. One of our employees is a famous scientist named Dr. Norman Borlaug invented a wheat variety in Mexico that would increase the yield of wheat by 3% to 400% compared to what was being grown in many parts of the world.
When that invention took hold across the planet, more than a billion people were moved off the brink of hunger and Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that incredible effort, which is now called the Green Revolution. This has always been a place that’s grounded in the idea that the frontiers of science and innovation, if they’re applied to lift up all of humanity, can constitute big bets that in fact change human potential at a real scale. That’s what we’re trying to do as well.
Let’s talk about the book Big Bets. What like what was your moment? People either have usually a motivation or something they want to get out there or there’s a moment. For you, what brought the book to make you sit down and write it?
I started the book during COVID and it was a moment when America which should have been the best-prepared country in the world turned out to have the highest number of excess deaths from COVID-19. We were sitting in our homes and folks were down and depressed. I was one of them. I wanted to write about these experiences because I felt that it’s realistic to be optimistic. We get bombarded in social media and the news by all this negative negativity about whether we can solve the problems we face.
I feel like I got to learn from extraordinary leaders like Bill and Melinda Gates, President Obama, and Secretary Clinton. Folks you haven’t heard of in a rainforest in South India, Dr. Sudarshan an incredible humanitarian, or a woman who changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young girls, Molly Melching in West Africa. I wanted to tell their stories, share lessons learned, and inspire people to think big about creating positive change.
One of the things interesting, I don’t know whether you know him, but these episodes may run back to back. One of my earliest mentors, I interviewed, Arun Gupta, wrote a book on public-private partnerships. Do you know him?
I do know him. He’s a friend and I admire him. His books are great. I hope folks will go out and buy it.
These may go back to back. It occurs to me, so you’ve sneaked between public and private and a lot of these things and what the Gates Foundation does in their background. When you think about a lot of these big breakthroughs, it takes both, but we’re at a point now where there’s a lot of distrust in government.
The government does a lot of the basic research, and science, and has the technology. The private sector has the ability to commercialize. What’s your experience, particularly around these big bets? One thing you and I talked about, because of all the politics and controversy, I don’t think it gets that much awareness. The vaccine was a perfect example of record, time, and efficacy. The government and the private sector play a huge role.
At the end of the day, every big bet I write about in this book requires some degree of meaningful public and private partnership. Thinking governments alone can solve our most challenging problem is wrong and it’s an unfortunate expectation that a lot of people have. Thinking that the private sector, if left unfettered, will do the same, also has proven to be ineffective.
When we can get folks working together public and private, we can do things like turn around the Ebola crisis. Keep it contained to West Africa, fight hunger at scale, or move a hundred million people off the brink of starvation after the 2008 financial crisis or what we’re working on now, which is bringing renewable energy to a billion people who still live in the dark, believe it or not, around the planet. I have found that those public and private partnerships are the key to success, but they require optimism, a willingness to trust, and frankly, some knowledge and proficiency with government and the private sector.
The other thing, this is something you and I talked about and you set the line before I asked the question. There are some big problems in the world now. These are problems for where there’s also a profit motive if you solve them, but how do we get our best and brightest to not work on the next Candy Crush or crypto scam or something that adds very little to society and jump in and solve one of these like meaningful problems? At the end of the day, again, financial incentives feel like it’s going to be a lot more meaningful for those people.
Frankly, as I travel around the country talking about the book and connecting with folks related to our work. The truth is you go into a college campus and young scientists want to be great scientists, but they want to use that skill to make a difference in the world. That sense of inspiration and that commitment to the mission is so high. Somewhere along the way in our lives and in our careers, we have to do it.
You and I have to do which is take the kids to practice. The day-to-day of life can wear down your sense of inspiration. The reality is we’re born wanting to make a difference in a positive way. The book Big Bets is about a roadmap and a set of tactics that anyone can use, public sector or private, sector to ensure that their work is part of solving problems at scale.
I want to get into some of your favorite stories and frameworks. I know one of the things you stress in the book is that optimism is the key trait for leaders. Can you talk about this in terms of the people that you’ve worked with or maybe some of your experience or your own experience? How do we cultivate that in more leaders? This is just pragmatic optimism. This is not blind optimism.
That’s right. It is pragmatic optimism. There’s a discipline that I talk about in the book that hopefully helps people develop that sense of pragmatic optimism. It comes down to thinking hard about how to solve and not just make incremental improvements to the problems we face. To me, that requires a discipline. It starts by saying, “How do we find fresh innovative solutions that can scale?” We talked about vaccines and immunization.
We settled on that as a solution because we thought that was the most cost-effective way to save the most lives. In fact, after 980 million inoculations, more than 16 million child lives have been saved. Big Bets require unlikely partners to come together and do extraordinary things together. I write about bringing Democrats and Republicans or public sector and private sector partners together even to fight famine in Somalia.
We leaned on Cargill to donate rice and to help us map which grain shipments were closest to the port of Mogadishu at a time when any children dying is inexcusable, but too many children were dying of hunger in this day and age and that shouldn’t happen. Big Bets require the rigor of measuring results and staying focused. I write about the Ebola crisis in West Africa and how the results measurement framework allowed us to find the right solutions and deliver outcomes. To me, those are the elements that allow you to be optimistic about what’s possible.
Can you double-click on that? This was before COVID, so I’m trying to put my brain there. Before that, people couldn’t even get their hands or brains around a pandemic. I remember it was looking bad then it very quickly improved. What was the silver bullet there?
To put it in context, during the summer of 2014, in Liberia, a small West African country, 50% of the health workforce died because the mortality rate from catching Ebola was 70%. Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever. People bleed to death in front of you and the public and highly contagious. The general practice of treating with respect the bodies of the deceased proves to be a major point of transmission.
When President Obama’s big bet in that setting was to for the first time in American history deploy US troops to create the conditions, to allow humanitarian responders to enter that field of work and roll back the disease. The CDC estimated at the time that 1.6 million cases would occur and that hundreds of thousands of them would be around the world including in the United States.
It was a high-risk big bet but what drove success was we deployed our troops, built field hospitals, put bioterror labs in different geographies, and sent young people on motorbikes to go and identify likely positives in rural communities. We built this makeshift just-in-time data architecture that led us to see where there were positive cases.
Once we had that data architecture in place, we could identify what was working, and what wasn’t working. We could surge resources to likely positives quickly. We ended the Ebola crisis with 30,000 cases, from 1.6 million, 11,000 deaths, and only 2 cases in the United States neither of which were transmitted within our borders.
It was all containment. Was there a vaccine or a medicine or anything that worked?
No, it was all the prevention of contagion. In fact, when we deployed our troops, the stated purpose was to build these big Ebola treatment units that replace where the sick could go. With a 70% mortality rate, the truth is, if you went in there you you never came out. You’re clothing and articles of effect never came out and your ashes never came out. Nobody would go in. What worked in in fighting Ebola came from local communities was these burial teams of 4 or 5 people all in protective equipment with WHO body bags. When someone would die in a community and have a household, they would perform a quick ceremony and remove the body safely before family members, usually, girls and women would wash and redress the bodies.
Which was spreading then.
Which was the point of spread. That reduced contagion by 70% and cases went down pretty quickly after. I was responsible for the West Africa response and walked through the hot zone in the middle of October 2014 just when we were starting to turn the tide. To me, it’s a case study and data experimentation doing what works and being an innovator in the context of a fast-moving and scary pandemic.
If that’s a positive case study, COVID is probably a negative case study. Why did every country deploy a different response to the same virus? You probably had a look into this. There was the medical community and the science community then there were different policies and different cultural things, but it doesn’t didn’t seem like the two countries even had the same strategy.
During a crisis like COVID, the single most important thing that we know especially early on is rapidly standing up diagnostic and testing capacity. If you don’t know who’s positive, you can’t contain the spread, which is so basic and so easy to say. In America, we’re so well set up to do this because our CDC is the best in the world. We train other centers for disease control and we just got this wrong.
We sent the wrong reagents to labs. We couldn’t get the testing right. We didn’t allow the German and South Korean tests into the country, which worked. President Trump, at that time, early in the pandemic was publicly stating we shouldn’t do more testing because then we’ll find more cases. That created a negative drag on performance to be modest about it.
The reality was, we got behind the ball. Most other countries struggled with the same challenge but for different reasons. There were some positive outliers. The countries that have been through H1N1 and SARS have already stood up these public-private diagnostics testing coalitions. They were the fast and good responders like South Korea.
The people that had seen it before.
For the rest of the world, it was like, “What do we do?” There’s a chapter in the book about COVID because it was in that setting that Rockefeller stepped in and created a national testing strategy for America. It worked with the Trump Administration to create the antigen testing, mark it, deploy those tests to schools across the country, and test how to use rapid but less specific and sensitive tests to reopen schools and hospitals.
Different institutions had been difficult to keep open during the lockdown and it did some of our best work to create a widespread antigen testing market. When we started that, America was doing something like 300,000 tests a week and we were calling for 30 million tests a week and everybody said, “That’s impossible.” A few months later, we were exceeding 30 million tests a week.
History is all about learning from things. This got terribly politicized. If something like this happened now, I’m not sure that we could get anyone to listen to anyone, but I’m more surprised that a couple of years later, and let’s look at this from a very centric viewpoint. There were people on left and right to be simplistic or both camps, who were very right and very wrong about certain aspects of the pandemic and understanding we had limited information but now with hindsight. I still haven’t seen a paper, a book, or a thing. There’s a lot of talking about what we got right and what we got wrong. What would we do next time? It seems crazy to me. Would we close schools next time? Are we all deciding that destroyed mental health?
It’s not a whole book, but I write about it in a chapter of the book. Big Bets are fundamentally about Partnerships and alliances. We partnered with the Trump administration, which was tough to do to stand testing at a time when the president himself was not aligned around that.
The cruise ship, I remember that.
By the way, his team was grateful for the collaboration. While we butted heads on some things and I’m open and honest about it, we also could collaborate to do something extraordinary which was expand testing to reopen institutions. At the same time, we partnered with the teacher’s unions because we felt that this progressive political mindset of we have to shut everything down was also deeply detrimental and scientifically unnecessary.
I wrote to Randy Weingarten, the head of the teacher’s unions. We worked with school districts across the country and we put in place the framework collected. The data allowed the administration, first Trump and then Biden, to invest in reopening schools faster than they otherwise would have been.
By the way, history will record the deaths in America were extraordinarily unnecessary way too high but the six and a half million kids who just dropped out of school and every level never to return to education. The massive learning loss that’s largely Black and Brown communities across this country are the two biggest negative outcomes of this pandemic. Both were avoidable. They were both caused by different ends of the political spectrum being determined about their beliefs without being as cooperative as they could have been with others.
There’s not like a 9/11 commission but you would know this. Is there an organization commission to write the, what did we get right and what did we get wrong without blaming? I’m just not convinced we wouldn’t make all the same mistakes tomorrow if we had another crisis.
There are. There is a gentleman called Philip Zelich though who is doing something along those lines with support from others. The challenge is the 9/11 Commission had the power of Congress and its ability to subpoena to collect documents and review what happened. That power has not yet been granted to a commission to do that research.
I know you said before and I was going to ask you about it because it’s a big part of the book, these unlikely partnerships. I’d love to hear some more examples. Why do you call them unlikely? To me, cargo working on a food thing is bringing companies together that wouldn’t otherwise work together.
It’s that and mistrust. When I ran the Haiti earthquake response, the humanitarian community didn’t trust initially the military. In a country like Haiti that has had so many different military incursions of one type or another, there’s a natural reason why that mistrust is first and foremost. Hats off to the leadership of the United States military and the Armed Forces because they understood that. They said, “We’re going to work under your counsel and guidance. You tell us to do and we’re going to work as one team.” We built that culture of trust.
Similarly like the example of the Somali famine. I had a relationship with Greg Page who was the CEO of Cargill at the time. We’d been working on different ideas of how to address hunger and food insecurity globally, but they had never made this kind of donation before. We were looking at these spikes in the data in terms of child deaths in Somalia and the World Food Programme. The humanitarian response was blocked by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group that had stopped and stole humanitarian food Aid shipments. I called Greg and said, “We need a different approach. Do you have any ships in the region? Can you quickly get to Mogadishu?”
That’s not a regular request.
I knew that he was oriented around doing the right thing. When he did it, it was a big deal. It made a huge difference. He wrote a whole article about it for his team and colleagues. It was a big statement of their values and the industry they are in. It’s a reminder to me that people want to have a sense of purpose, whether you’re a US Aid, the World Food Programme, or Cargill. Tapping into that sense of purpose can unlock a tremendous amount of collaboration and unlikely partner behavior.
What are some of the most significant challenges you face and implementing the big bet philosophy? Particularly in some of these high-pressure situations and humanitarian crises.
I write about something I learned from a failure because when you try to do big and bold transformational things. You’re going to succeed and you’re going to fail. Frankly, in government, you don’t usually go right about the failure for a variety of reasons, including Congressional oversight. I write a whole chapter in the book about trying to build a large-scale hydropower dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an effort to bring electricity.
Renewable cheap electricity to 250 million people in Southern and Western Africa. That project, I worked on for years. President Obama and President XI of China had collaborated around the idea that we should make this a positive example of US-Chinese collaboration, particularly in Africa. We put a lot of high-level leadership energy into it and it failed spectacularly for two reasons. One is the United States Senate led by a senator who supported US Aid but did not support this project, passed a law to say that we couldn’t work on it anymore.
The other was the leader of the DRC at the time, the president was not able to work with us in a way that met our own standards of transparency. What I write about is the lesson learned that you have to know who you’re betting on when you take on these big partnerships. In that case, I hadn’t done my homework to understand that Senator Leahy or President Kabila would be unlikely to join this collaboration and frankly, were essential to its success.
You need to trust your stakeholders in a big bet.
You need to know what are your stakeholders thinking, what are their interests, and how are they going to play this out. You got to do some mental chess that I got enthusiastic plowed ahead and didn’t do as carefully as I now try to do.
Maybe it was after that but where was that learning applied to a pre-failure where you said, “This is too big,” where you pulled the plug on something because the critical factors they’ve identified just weren’t there?
As the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, I feel like I do that all the time because we get a lot of proposals and a lot of ideas. We start down the path of a lot of projects where we say, “If these things happen, we could be very successful and if they don’t happen, we have to pull the plug. We had one big effort. It was called 100-resilient cities to help cities be more resilient to climate change and other shocks.
It did some important things but when I looked at it and said, “Can this change the ability of these cities to withstand the huge climate consequences that are coming or we’re just doing more moderate things around the margins? It felt like the latter and we shut down our biggest program. I got a lot of critique for that because it’s hard to shut things down in this sector of the economy and it’s all good work. It’s people trying to turn schools, and concrete parking lots into grass fields that can absorb water and are more climate resilient. It’s all good.
The impact wasn’t there. Is that in that one?
The impact wasn’t scalable. We weren’t going to be able to find those business models that would scale to some huge amount. We could convert a schoolyard somewhere, but we could do that by paying for it.
That’s fine. Talk about scale a little bit because that’s an important part of these things. If you get the vaccine right, and the distribution and you get it down to $5, you can get it to a lot of people. There are some things that have great outcomes, but each one is like starting over again.
The discipline of thinking about scale is a huge part of the underlying analytics to a big bet. I’ll give you an example. The Rockefeller Foundation started working on the issue of energy poverty. The fact that about a billion people live with consuming less electricity than it takes to power one light bulb and one home appliance per person for the course of a year.
At that level of electricity consumption, you’re stuck in poverty. You can’t create jobs and businesses. You can’t turn your labor into productivity and growth. All of that. We said, “Maybe we could start piecing together renewable energy solutions and distributed power solutions and serve those customers.” Even though they’re poor, they’ll pay for power. That’ll help them move out of poverty. A decade ago, we started this effort.
For the first 5 or 6 years, it basically wasn’t working. They were putting together solar panels, and batteries and building these small grids. We called the mini-grids in Northern India, Eastern Congo, and Northern Nigeria. We’re providing power and paying for it, but it was costing $20 a kilowatt hour which was not at all price competitive. A few things happened, they innovated and created new energy storage and started using new batteries.
Someone invented these smart meters that allowed people in real-time to pay for power only as they consumed it. They switched to mobile phone-based payment. They introduced artificial intelligence to manage these systems from afar called battery and energy management systems, and the panel cost went down. All of a sudden, they’re providing power at $0.20 a kilowatt hour.
Now you’re creating jobs. Girls for the first time are studying at night. Schools are open in the evenings with lighting. People can buy power tools and turn their carpentry shops into things where they can produce more products, sell, make more money, and hire more people. You see the uptick economically and I’ve seen it in some of the toughest, post-conflict, and war-ravaged communities on the planet. I’ve seen these solar installations transform the sense of what’s possible and talk to girls, women, and mothers whose lives have been transformed by their new opportunities. That’s awesome. We couldn’t scale our goal until we got the price down to when this whole thing became commercial.
We lose on every car. We’ll make up in volume. That’s old. I was going to ask you about solar in particular because having gotten into it in the last couple of years. Seeing where the cost is coming, that’s part of the equation. Every time I fly to Vegas, I’m like, “I don’t get it.” This city is burning fuel in the middle of nowhere. It’s sunny eighteen hours a day in every flat building top. Similarly, they’re running diesel generators and these parts of the world. I see these things on Amazon where it’s like one panel and a thing. It feels like that’s a major opportunity that’s being missed.
It’s a major opportunity. Our big bet is to reach a billion people with this product solution.
Is it like a port? Is it like a panel and a hookup and you can make your own?
It can range from like 200 kilowatts to 10 megawatts in scale. That can be anything from powering a small village of a few thousand people to powering an entire small city of a hundred thousand people, but the idea is the same. The key to the whole thing is getting the right energy storage and having the right infrastructure so that you can provide power when it’s made for the specific small productive loads that are required. You can’t power a huge factory with just a solar installation.
It seems like battery storage is the next micro-processor like Moore’s Law. It’s going to reach a point. Every year, it gets cheaper and faster. That seems to be the main thing that’s holding us up now.
That’s correct. By the way, we’re active in 22 countries. We’ve built this $11 billion partnership. We’ve partnered with private entrepreneurs but also governments to expand access to because we’re trying to reach a billion people. We’ll probably reach $20 million or so now in different forms. The reality is that most of the countries we work in are low-income countries. They either can’t get access to batteries or pay 3 or 4 times the cost you would pay in California for access to a battery.
The reason is the supply chain preferences and the rich world preferences for the electric vehicle segment. There’s a tremendous crunch now. We’re trying to bring countries together to say, “If you pool your procurement build out supply chains, a lot of the things we did on vaccines twenty years ago can apply today to help create an industry that supports large-scale deployment of energy.”
We’re also at a moment where lithium prices have collapsed. It seems like it gives everyone an opportunity. For a while, no one could get any and now it seems that interest rates have slowed that down.
You ask why I’m optimistic. The truth is I’ve been doing this work fighting poverty and promoting development for a long time. Very rarely do you truly stumble upon and innovate the kinds of solutions that, on a commercial basis, create a transformation in a society. I’ve seen that transformation in so many parts of this world. I’m super bullish on on the idea that the renewable energy technology frontier can be the thing that not just displaces future coal plants and therefore, brings down net carbon emissions globally.
It gives people their independence.
It gives people the ability to participate in a proper growing economy in a way that can, once and for all, make a huge dent in poverty.
It’s a good segue. Going forward, what are the big bets that you think the world should be making to address our challenges? There are many. Climate change is one. AI seems like a pro and a con in every sentence that I hear. Where should we be taking our swings?
There are so many amazing opportunities. One is what we’ve been talking about. It’s applying renewable energy technology to the 70 or 80 countries that house three and a half billion people who live in fundamentally energy-constrained environments. Another is transforming the way we eat and the way we produce food to both sequester carbon and prevent greenhouse gas emissions.
Also, to deal with the fact that the way we eat our diet effectively makes us sick. We spend a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort fighting chronic diseases that are fundamentally caused by poor diet quality. Instead of having everybody in America, for example, take Wegovy and Ozempic and then continue to eat the way we do, we should be eating differently.
It’s interesting reading these articles about how much it could change. They feel like scientists have inadvertently invented this thing that deals with all your bad habits. People stop shopping, gambling, and drinking. I keep reading these articles.
I didn’t see that stop gambling part.
It somehow impulses. It seems to be an impulse sequestration and these articles about how people are shorting fast food style. I agree that everything is too good to be true. What is the solution? That has a lot to do with meat in your mind.
It’s having a plant-based diet. It’s having a lot less processed foods and added fat sugar and salt in our diet. It’s having enough dietary diversity which isn’t like telling people, “Go do this.” It’s understanding that we’ve had a policy structure in America since the 1970s that has made large-scale grain production incredibly cheap. It’s cheaper to turn corn into salmon now than it is to go out and fish.
The reality is it’s a policy issue that needs to be transformed through policy, but technology and new science are transformational. We’re supporting these food-as-medicine programs around the country. We can measure somebody’s hemoglobin A1C. Give them dietary interventions for 90 days and see those hemoglobin A1Cs go from being pre-diabetic to normal. Preventing someone from being a diabetic for twenty years for a couple of hundred dollars a month tops and giving them.
What is the intervention?
The intervention is we send to your home free food that is aligned with a diet, whole food, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and some support to know how to consume all that, but that doesn’t require a ton of support. We target those people who are both pre-diabetic and lower income. They love it and their connection to the programs is very high. We’ve shown such a big decrease in diabetes prevalence in that population that it saves insurance companies money to do this in certain populations.
With the American Heart Association, we’re supporting a big bet by supporting a national study to prove this is an intervention that insurance should pay for because it’ll save lives. It’ll prevent amputations and all the bad things you have to do when you manage chronic diabetes. It’s a whole lot less expensive and a whole lot more natural than taking those medications.
Who’s funding that? Is it a public-private partnership? How is it?
It’s public-private. The Rockefeller Foundation is probably the major supporter, but the American Heart Association has raised support from Kroger, a large grocery store in America, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Health. Together, we’re trying to change the mindset of what’s possible.
That’s an example of a big bet. It’s a public-private and a new science-based intervention. You can measure the results carefully and know if it’s working or not. If it works, insurers should reimburse for it. There’s a path to scale and all of a sudden, you could imagine 30 to 50 million people a year that are teetering on the edge of prediabetes and diabetes that qualify having that being covered by their Medicaid or Medicare or private insurance plan.
Right now, they’re paying to fix all the problems.
Which is far more expensive over time. We work with large companies that are self-insured Walmart, and General Motors.
That makes a lot of sense.
They’re very interested. To me, big bets are about finding those pathways to scale as opposed to saying, “We want to go and do some charitable, kind, and good things for people who suffer from diabetes.”
Raj, how big is your staff and budget? Is it evergreen from that 2% or are you constantly raising new funds?
We’re constantly raising new funds and thanks for mentioning that. Anyone who would like to join can reach out. We are 300 to 400 people on a global basis. We have a $6 billion current endowment. We’re able to commit about $300 million or $400 million a year out of our endowment to charitable endeavors, then we raise about that much or a little bit more alongside that for our projects and programs.
Is it project-oriented or do people partner in fund-specific initiatives?
It’s pretty initiative-oriented. The big energy program I talked about is trying to reach a billion people globally. We put in $500 million. The IKEA Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund each put in $500 million based on $1.5 billion of grant capital that we raise. We went out and raised about $10 billion in commercial and quasi-commercial capital alongside that.
It allows us to do projects like we announced, a $70 million deal in Eastern Congo to build three metro grids to serve a few million customers there with electricity. We only had to put in about $7 million of our grant money to make that happen. That leverage is another way to get scale and it’s a big part of getting scale in big bets is finding those opportunities for for leverage.
For individuals who are tuning in to this, aspiring to make big impacts in their community or globally, what are some of the key pieces of advice from the Big Bets framework that you would offer to them?
The first is that big bets start with betting on yourself. Be confident. If you care about an issue, whether it’s climate change, poverty, or racial injustice in your community, study the issue, talk to people, learn about it, and read about it. The information is never been more at your fingertips. and I find people who become more expert have the ability to be more optimistic because they can understand that solutions exist and people are out there fighting the good fight.
A second insight perhaps they can take with them is to genuinely think about how to solve as opposed to just making incremental improvements. The analytic rigor that we talked about to study different solutions and pick those that you have the most enthusiasm for because they could scale is particularly important.
Another lesson I do talk about in the book around building partnerships. I call it to make it personal. This is a special area of life and work and where I’ve been most successful at building very surprising partnerships between Democrats and conservative Republicans, for example. We only got there because, at the end of the day, we got to know each other, talked about our values, prayed together, and connected as people. If you’re going to do this work, it’ll be both more rewarding and more impactful if you make it personal. Get to know people you’re going to work with, whether they share your background or don’t so that you can be part of the movement.
I want to come back to something you said before. It’s interesting because we talked about big bets. I think about Google and Amazon. Metev had these 10X things. Most of that stuff has failed or been way too early or not worked. You said something before that people in government fail or it ends up in a commission.
A venture fund will fail 90%. It’s considered innovative and only one will be there. Where does the failure come into these big bets? Remember they had that Amazon Fire phone that was a miserable failure, but it ended up being the basis of the tablet and TV business and everything that they launched. It seems like when you’re swinging big, you’re going to strike out a few times.
That’s why I wrote about a big strikeout of mine that was personal and painful. What was so interesting is weeks after that project fell apart, I opened the Financial Times one day. The front page of the Financial Times had the whole story of that project, how it fell apart, and my role. It wasn’t a great morning, but then within a couple of days, we decided that was right when the president started the effort around Ebola. We were tracking that.
Within the next few months, we had one of our greatest success stories in making a big bet work, and work in a way that protected Americans from a pretty deadly disease. On behalf of our service members, some folks did some heroic things in that context. One of my goals in writing the book is to make it okay to fail as long as you learn something, and to show folks that you can fail and you can even fail in the newspapers pretty high-level spectacular fall-on-your-face failure and roll right into your next big thing that could also be a success.
What else from the book have we not covered? What’s a question I should have asked you?
For a lot of people, they don’t know how to get involved in this world. Sometimes people will ask and you did effectively ask how do you get involved in it? It’s important for people to both read the book and be optimistic about tackling these things. To some extent, you have to shut out social media.
Particularly in the last month.
Otherwise, you walk around thinking everything is falling apart when in fact, we’ve never had better solutions at our fingertips to address these things and we have a lot of opportunity if we can stay focused on the upside.
Do you recommend people just take social media off their phones? Is that the first step?
Every now and then take a social media break to read the book. How about that?
As long as you’re not putting key takeaways on social media then it’s all good. I like to ask this question as the last question. I always say it’s multivariant because it could be personal or professional or single singular repeated. What’s a mistake that you’ve made that you’ve learned the most from?
I talked already about the work and the mistakes and how to think about them. If you said what have you learned the most from? I write in the book a number of episodes where I had what one might call imposter syndrome my first time briefing the president in the Oval Office and mocking them. Walking in and having Joe Biden say, “Are you sure he’s the right guy?” There are a dozen other examples like that in the book of some form.
I would say a mistake I made especially earlier in my tenure in government was sitting at those tables and questioning whether I should speak questioning or whether I belonged. Over time, you get over that, but I do wish early on someone had pulled me aside and said, “Everybody feels this way the first time they’re in that setting. Trust your instincts and don’t hold back too much.” That, for me, was a personal evolution I had to get through.
I have found in my experience that the only people who never have impostor syndrome are the narcissists who drive their cars right off the cliff. They’re never worried, always think they belong, and don’t need to know what’s around the corner. It almost seems like most high achievers have some form of imposter syndrome at some time. It’s also reaching down and tapping that next person, mentoring them, and telling them you belong in the room. Raj, where can people learn more about you, the book, and the Rockefeller Foundation?
On our website RockFound.org. You follow on on all social media as well. Look up Raj Shah or Rockefeller Foundation. On our website, we’re inviting folks to sign up to be part of something we’re calling the Big Bet Community. If you want to be a changemaker in your community and you want to connect to other people who’ve signed up and learn from the foundation and our partners. Potentially learn about how to access resources to make a difference. Please join our Big Bets community and I wish you luck on your path to becoming a changemaker.
Raj, thank you for joining us. Your insights and experiences are truly inspiring. It’s been great to have you on the show and hear about all the great work you’re doing.
Thank you so much, Robert. Great to be with you.
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