“It’s fun and challenging to work with a large group of really intelligent people,” says Mike Simon, who spent two years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BGMF)’s business intelligence department.
The attire is casual, the work environment is stunning – pine wood panelling and whiteboards everywhere, ready to capture any itinerant idea that may solve global poverty.
The pace is fast – you’ll be expected to contribute to the debate around pressing issues of our time, to think fast and implement quickly (lean startup style), and take charge of your own professional development.
And the Foundation operates very much like a startup. Large atriums offer space to relax – because you might well be spending evenings in the office. People come to work wearing big black backpacks, and jeans.
Working at BGMF is not for the lackadaisical, and the sharp, intelligent, and extremely diverse group of individuals who make up the Foundation reflect its commitment to recruiting the brightest. So how do you become part of that elite group, working at what one of the Foundation’s Deputy Directors describes as a “purpose driven organization, with smart colleagues and amazing benefits” ?
1. Be pro-privatisation.
Bill Gates might want every child to grow up with a computer – but he wants to make sure it’s a Microsoft computer.
Along with several other American billionaires pouring millions into their own initiatives, BGMF aims to solve structural inequalities in science, education, public health, and agriculture, through private solutions.
This doesn’t sit well with everyone. NYU education historian Diane Ravitch criticises the Gates Foundation’s “persistent funding of groups that want to privatize public education,” and BGMF also has a reputation for supporting the commercialisation of seeds – death to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
You don’t get that option. When working at an international organisation like BGMF, your voice is expected to fall in line with the overarching rhetoric of the organisation’s mission and vision. In this case, it’s relentless improvement (read: fail fast, startup style), and implementing to solve the individual’s problem, not necessarily prioritising the best interests of the entire community.
2. Speak only about the issues, not the Gates.
“We’re not allowed to say anything about the Foundation,” an employee at the Nigeria office told me. “You need permission to even use [Bill Gate’s] name publicly.”
Discretion is incredibly important, and you’ll need to be very good at being very quiet outside the office about your projects, your observations, and your opinions.
“Microsoft is all about intellectual property,” says Jeff Raikes, who ran the Foundation for six years, “and so is the Gates Foundation.” The products of your work will become intellectual property of the Foundation, accomplishments for your CV, ultimately attributed to the brilliance of Bill and Melinda Gates. Not you.
But you’ll be left with the feeling of having contributed to the world’s largest philanthropic organisation, working alongside some of the brightest in the international development field, and those lines on your CV will speak volumes for years to come.
3. Get good at innovation jargon.
Back when we were in college, my roommate Rachel and I spent each year testing out different careers, and then comparing notes. Between us, we tried out the titles of investment banker, Democratic Party brownnoser, personal assistant to the blind, philanthropy consultant, human rights activist etc. Sometimes, fed up of the changes and desperate to find where I truly fit, I’d turn to her and lament woefully that it was all too much.
“That’s okay,” she’d say, “You’re simply pivoting.”
It sounded smart, but was really just a way to say: hmm, that didn’t quite work, let’s try something else. However, in order to succeed at the Gates Foundation, you’ve got to make words like “pivoting” a core part of your vocabulary, along with the hundreds of other semi-meaningless buzzwords popularised by the advent of Silicon Valley’s success into popular culture.
“I like to think of our partner network as a hub of innovation,” says Susan Desmond-Hellman, the Foundation’s current CEO. What’s a partner network? What’s an innovation hub? What do either have to do with sustainable development?
Learn the meaning of these buzzwords, sprinkle them liberally throughout your CV, Cover Letter, and responses to interview questions, and watch your peers nod knowingly.
Apply here for vacancies at the Gates Foundation.
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