Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann took to the podium and declared that her default answer to invitations at colleges such as the 5Cs would typically be an immediate “no.”
An oncologist by training, Desmond-Hellmann has worked as the President of Production at Genentech, Chancellor at the University of California, San Francisco, and now acts as the Chief Executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She also serves on the board of directors for Facebook and the Proctor & Gamble Company.
Simply said, Desmond-Hellmann is a busy woman—but not busy enough to turn down an invitation from Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe to speak in the college’s Management and Leadership Lecture Series. In the past, the series has featured leaders such as Jacky Wright, Jerry Held and Bill Gates himself.
During Klawe’s search for leaders in the biology field, she asked a retired faculty member, David Acai, for recommendations. After he recommended Desmond-Hellmann, Klawe sent an email about the lecture series and how much Mudd would love to have her.
She promptly received a response: Desmond-Hellmann would be coming to Harvey Mudd.
“I wanted to know what the secret sauce was all about—what you were doing down here—so I happily accepted the invitation,” she said.
When she is not speaking at Harvey Mudd, Desmond-Hellmann works to solve global health, polio, malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, agriculture and water sanitation.
As the CEO of the largest foundation in the world, her problems are always on a big scale. While this scale has potential to make an impact, there are side effects. She calls these, the result of a numbing of personal responsibility, the “bureaucratic bloat.”
“I don’t want to be remembered in the history books as the biggest foundation; I [would] really love to be remembered as the best foundation in the world measured by the foundation that made a really big difference, that made important things happen,” Desmond-Hellmann said.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation works to foster a true spirit of innovation and translate those ideas into impact.
Desmond-Hellmann sees such milestones as a chance to learn from the past and celebrate accomplishments while planning for the future. She asks: Have we made as much impact as we should? Are the choices we are making right now putting us in a better position to make an impact?
“As somebody who is a leader in an institution, I think about how we can create an environment where people can create innovation and we can enable them to have impact,” Klawe said.
Harvey Mudd has done just that. Independent of gender, sexuality and race, any student with the school’s support can excel in the areas of science and engineering. In fact, in last year’s graduating class, 56 percent of the engineering majors were women.
As the first woman to be the Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, Desmond-Hellmann is does not shy away from male-dominated fields. On the contrary, she works to inspire women internationally and prove that one’s sex should not be an excuse or limitation.
“Science, and society in general, needs intelligent, hard-working women like her,” said Theresa Wechsler SC ’17, who heard about the talk from her “Science and Feminism” professor.
Sloan Cinelli PZ ’17’s “Introduction to Design and Manufacturing” class similarly gave her the opportunity to attend both the reception and the speech. Cinelli was inspired by Desmond-Hellmann’s dedication to her work and the global health initiative.
“Her success acts as tangible proof that women with strength and dedication can accomplish anything in the workplace, and on a global scale,” she said.
Such reactions are in keeping with Desmond-Hellmann and her belief that actions should not be influenced by precedent.
“I love it when someone zigs where everyone else zags,” she said.