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This is why I was overjoyed to recently speak with Barbara Pierce Bush on what it means to lead with compassion. As the co-founder and former CEO of Global Health Corps, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for diverse professionals under 30 to promote global health equity, Bush understands firsthand about purpose-driven leadership. Bush is now executive-in-residence at Schmidt Futures, which describes itself as a venture facility for public benefit.
We discussed what inspired her to create Global Health Corps, and some of the valuable, if unexpected, leadership lessons she learned from her famous family.
A summary of our discussion follows.
Leaning into her passion
Bush discovered her passion for global health early on. As a college student, she joined her father President George W. Bush for the launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. Part of the initiative provides free drugs for people living with AIDS in resource-limited countries. Bush had been planning for a career in architecture, but that 2003 trip across East and Central Africa was the moment that changed the trajectory of her life.
“It was incredibly shocking because at the time, if you were HIV-positive living in one of those countries, you couldn't get access to the drugs that you needed to live,” she said. “I remember landing and there were hundreds of people waiting in the street in Uganda for these drugs. I was so struck by the notion that simply because I was American, I could have gotten access to something that would turn a disease for me into a chronic illness, but for somebody else would make it a death sentence. So, I became obsessed with global health issues.”
Bush abandoned her architecture goals and pursued a career in global health instead. She spent the next few years working across the globe, eventually meeting with the people who would help her launch Global Health Corps, or GHC.
“My sister was at a conference, and she sat next to a guy who raised his hand and said, ‘Why isn't there an organization like Teach for America but applied to global health?’” Bush recalled. “She called me and said, ‘You need to meet this guy. You're the only other person that I've ever heard say this.’ So, he and I and three other people ended up meeting that weekend. What we wanted to do was focus on the notion that we, like hundreds of thousands of other people in our age group, wanted to work on solving issues.”
Avoiding “founder’s syndrome”
GHC fellows stay with the organization for 13 months. Though the age 30 cutoff for fellows didn’t apply to Bush, after nine years at the helm she knew it was time to move on, both for herself and the organization.
"When we started Global Health Corps, I was 26,” she said. “I had my dream job and my life was so much bigger because of it. I was commuting to Rwanda all the time and getting to work with our team members from around the world. I also knew at some point I would be the limiting factor, that my abilities would get in the way of our potential for growth and impact. We hear about founder’s syndrome a lot—people that stay too long where they are because they don't know what to do next, or because they're so in love with it that they don't realize they're a hindrance. I just felt like what we were doing was making such an impact, and if I was ever the thing that was getting in the way, that would be a huge heartbreak for me.”
Leading with love
About a year ago, Bush joined Schmidt Futures, an organization co-founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In her role, Bush focuses on racial justice and supports the entrepreneur-in-residence program. It’s another way in which she can contribute to securing a better future for all. Not surprisingly, she gets much of that instinct from her family. One moment in particular stands out in retrospect.
“I remember at my grandfather’s [George H.W. Bush’s] inauguration he gave this speech about points of light,” she said. "Everyone in the audience was holding a flashlight and it was dark outside. It was such a visual experience of being seven and looking around and there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of these lights. Looking back, I'm not sure I really knew what was going on, but the notion was that everyone could be a point of light and everyone can serve others.”
As Bush tells it, her family elders led by example. "My grandparents never said, ‘You need to serve others.’ They just did it and it brought them tremendous joy in their lives. It just seemed like the norm that what you did was to try to help others. It was not prescriptive; they just sort of did it every single day.”
Another important lesson Bush learned from her grandfather was the notion of leading with love. “Love is not really something that you think of when you think of a leadership quality,” Bush said. “You think of leadership and you think of decisiveness and strength. But I've thought a lot about that more over the past few years, when things seem so divided in the United States, and the notion that love is a choice, and gentleness is a choice, and kindness is a choice, and those can also be leadership skills. Even though they're soft skills, they actually help you connect with other humans.”
For Bush, that connection is what makes for a successful philanthropist. Even with issues that seem so large in scope as to be intimidating, Bush emphasized that people can make a difference simply by being there for others even at the local level.
“Each of us can give in our own way, and it looks different for everybody,” she said. “It can seem overwhelming, but so much of what we can do every day is just making sure that those around us or those we interact with know that they're enough. Philanthropy is about giving and serving, and making sure that we do that in the small ways in our life and in the big ways in our life.”
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