Meet the New Leader at the Gates Foundation

To spearhead its future endeavors in education and global health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation selected as its next leader a woman with an extensive background in, well, education and health care.

Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco and a physician by training, is scheduled to start in May 2014 as the foundation’s new chief executive officer. She will succeed Jeff Raikes, who has led the world’s largest philanthropic organization for the last five years. Dr. Desmond-Hellmann will be the Gates Foundation’s third chief executive, but the first who was not previously an executive at Microsoft.

She may be the new leader, but Desmond-Hellmann is no stranger to the Gates Foundation. The oncologist and university administrator has been a member of the foundation’s scientific advisory council since 2012. She also knows firsthand the value of the foundation’s work. Since becoming UC San Francisco's chancellor in 2009, the university has received more than $68 million in Gates Foundation grants.

Before her tenure at UCSF, Desmond-Hellmann spent 14 years at pharmaceutical firm Genentech, where she led the development of cancer treatments Avastin and Herceptin and served as president of product development. She also has a record of service in the area of global health, an issue near and dear to the Gates Foundation. In the 1980s, Desmond-Hellmann and her husband, Nicholas Hellmann, spent two years treating patients in Uganda.

Although Dr. Desmond-Hellmann does not have foundation management experience, some experts, such as Foundation Center chief executive Brad Smith, say her medical, scientific, and higher education experience equips her with many of the skills needed for the job. Clearly, her experience as a physician, medical researcher, and college administrator will give her an understanding of the challenges faced by researchers, institutions of higher education, and other organizations funded by the Gates Foundation. For her part, Desmond-Hellmann said the passion that Bill and Melinda Gates bring to the foundation’s work is what ultimately sold her on the job.

As the Gates Foundation's chief executive, Desmond-Hellmann will oversee an organization with more than $40 billion in assets and that in 2012 gave nearly $3.5 billion in grants to support work in education, world health care, and global development.