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Former Gates Foundation COO: “The global community is at a tipping point”
Chittagong, Bangladesh
19, May, 2017

Chittagong, Bangladesh – May 19, 2017 – Leigh Morgan, the immediate past Chief Operating Officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, gave an address during Class Day at Asian University for Women.

A full transcript of her speech is at the bottom of this message.

In 2005, the Gates Foundation awarded Asian University for Women a $15 million Challenge Grant. This grant provided the capital for AUW to turn a concept into a palpable reality. It was thus in every way the “takeoff grant” that it was meant to be.

The grant not only provided essential financial support, but also the credibility and reach that were so crucial in mobilizing the different elements of the project. The grant sent a powerful signal to the Parliament of Bangladesh about the potential for attracting external support for the project, and facilitated the ratification of AUW’s landmark Charter by the Parliament of Bangladesh. The Gates Foundation grant also seeded numerous conversations with sources around the world about additional support. In this way, the grant made the task of convening 300 students from 13 countries and 35 faculty members with similarly international backgrounds in a setting like Chittagong, Bangladesh far less daunting.

During the Commencement Ceremony, AUW conferred upon Leigh Morgan a Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Class Day Speech
Leigh Morgan, Former COO, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Asian University for Women
Chittagong, Bangladesh
May 19, 2017 

Leadership, Impact, and Purposeful Unfolding

Good morning everyone and thank you, Kamal, for that generous introduction. I am honored to be here for Class Day on this wonderful campus, and to join such an esteemed group of leaders for today’s discussion on Leadership & Impact.

This is my first time to Chittagong and to the Asian University of Women, and I certainly hope it won’t be my last. I owe a special thanks to two people – Kamal and Kathy Matsui – whose leadership in the world has been truly catalytic, and whose kind invitation brought me here today.

Let me start by noting that this is a weekend full of milestones. Milestones of course for the graduates, who we lift up and celebrate today and tomorrow. This is also a milestone for your families, and for faculty and staff who we thank for their commitment to your wellbeing and academic success.

It is also a milestone for the Gates Foundation, who in 2005 made an early and affirming investment in AUW. That investment was notable, because the University remains just one of a very small handful of non U.S.-based educational institutions supported by the foundation.

This weekend’s graduation is also an important milestone for the global community.

Amidst a sometimes dizzying constellation of conflict across national and ethnic divides, the leadership skills that you have acquired here will have a profound impact on promoting inter-cultural collaboration and understanding.

I know a little bit about the topic of leadership and impact, having worked in a number of different sectors, including business, education, government, and NGOs in the US and on the global stage. Doing so has given me an interesting vantage point to both experienceand lead change.

It has also given me the opportunity to reflect on the qualities that impactful leaders share, and the strategies they employ to bring about sustainable, positive results in their communities and organizations.

The first quality the best leaders share is having a clear purpose.

Purpose is about your unique intention for what you do with your life – which is expressed in your passions, interests, and in how you spend your time and energy. In essence, it is the deep calling inside of us to live a meaningful live.

The notion of one’s ‘unfolding purpose’ is about being open and curious on how to best channel your calling. This is especially important because we all know that sometimes the path ahead is not always clear.

It is at those times that one’s purpose serves as an anchor – or tether – to that which gives us meaning.

Consider for a moment the great Pakistani leader and 2014 Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai. As I am sure you are all aware – and perhaps some of you know her personally – five years ago she was shot in the head by members of the Taliban while travelling home from school.

Her purpose – promoting education for girls – began at a young age and has never wavered.  Whether it was anonymously blogging about the importance of educating girls as an 11 year old girl, or bringing members of the United Nations General Assembly to tears during an inspiring speech urging support for the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, Malala continues to channel her calling powerfully.

The second quality that impactful leaders have is an enduring commitment to the welfare of others.

Malala embodies this quality, and so too does a remarkable leader that I’ve had the good fortune of working with since 2014: Melinda Gates.

Melinda, like Malala, is a well-known public figure. Unlike Malala, and all of us in this room – Melinda and her husband are the richest people on the planet.

It would be easy for Melinda to simply enjoy her family’s wealth and turn a blind eye to the one billion people who wake up daily and don not know where their next meal or drink of water will come from. However, that is not her purpose.

Instead, I have witnessed first-hand how laser-focused Melinda is on creating a world where all people – especially women and girls – have the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. She prioritizes her time and energy to do all she can to help marginalized and vulnerable populations, and somehow also finds time to be a great mom and wife.

While I am passionate about the qualities shared by impactful leaders, I am equally passionate about the strategies they use to effectively enact their calling. One lesson we’ve learned at the Gates Foundation – and an approach I’ve learned over and over in my career – is that addressing hard issues like poverty and inequity requires leaders to work effectively across boundaries. Specifically, leaders must leverage diversity of experience and perspective to get better outcomes. This is an absolute must. Doing so is rarely easy and often messy, but in the end, the best solutions to the world’s hardest problems always emerge through collaboration across dimensions of difference.

As AUW students and soon-to-be graduates, you have had the unique experience of living and learning with classmates from a wide range of backgrounds. You therefore already know a lot about working across boundaries and that is good, because I can think of no other time in history where leveraging that experience is more urgent.

Another key strategy is working at different altitudes of change: the individual level, the community or organizational level, and then at the system level.

To bring this to life, I’ll share a story about a remarkable young woman I met outside of Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar. Her name is Nishi. Nishi and 20 other women in her village participate in a Gates Foundation funded Self-Help Group.

For the past three and a half years, the foundation and its local partners have worked to expand the number of high quality self-help groups to serve an additional 10 million women across the Bihar and Utar Pradesh states.

Participants learn about nutrition, hygiene, and neonatal care, and also manage a small amount of money, about $10, to support micro-enterprises led by group members.

Despite these efforts, however, the women in the support groups are still often locked out of opportunities that men in their communities take for granted.

Nishi told me that being in the group helped her gain confidence to assert her rights – and those of fellow women – to open a bank account to help manage and grow the group’s money.

It turns out that the week before we met, with a clear purpose in mind Nishi went to the local bank and asked to set up a savings account. The banker said no because she was a woman and was from a low social class.

Undeterred, she went back the next day, and was again told no. Nishi never gave up, going back again and again, always standing her ground.

Finally, her tenacity paid off, and the manager relented and she opened an account.

Nishi’s efforts not only expanded economic opportunity for her and her cohort of women, but just as importantly, set a powerful example for children in the community.

This is a simple, but graphic demonstration of an individual leader, bolstered by her community, who catalyzed shifts in an institution.

Talk about impactful leadership!

Now that I’ve shared two qualities – having a clear purpose and a commitment to others – and two strategies – working effectively across boundaries and at different altitudes of change – I will share the “secret sauce” that defines and distinguishes the world’s best leaders: Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to genuinely see, understand and feel the experience of another.  It is the greatest gift a human being can give to themselves and to the world because empathy amplifies one’s purpose and motivates concern for the wellbeing of others.

It is also the connective tissue that strengthens collaboration across dimensions of difference. One of the best descriptions comes from novelist Mohsin Hamed who wrote “empathy is finding echoes of another person in yourself.”

Consider that statement for a moment. It is really quite profound. Now, think about a leader who you find inspiring and who is really effective in her calling. I am pretty sure that leader demonstrates empathy consistently and authentically.

I will close my remarks by stating the obvious: that the global community is at a tipping point.

This year alone there are 65 million people displaced by conflict, and as I mentioned earlier, one billion people still live in extreme poverty.

And yet, the overall rates of poverty, hunger, and disease continue to decline more and more quickly than at any other time in history. The number of women and girls getting educated continues to expand as well.

So as I look out at all of you, I see a room full of smart, empathetic, and service-minded young leaders who will play a major role in accelerating the pace of positive change around the world.

This reality emboldens me, and I hope, inspires all of us to unleash our unfolding purpose.

I will end my remarks, as I always do, with a call to action – a call that embodies all that is good about this university: As members of the university community, and citizens of the world, YOU have a role and a responsibility to shape the future – our future and the future of people everywhere. This is true wherever your unfolding purpose takes you.

No matter what you do with your degree, remember to use your unique calling as a stabilizing anchor during challenging times. Keep the welfare of those in your family, community, and around the world in your line of sight.

And expand your impact by building and nurturing a world where more people have the capability you have deepened in your education here: Empathy.

There is an African proverb that sums up my call to action perfectly: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

Thank you.