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Barbara Bush on solving global health problems, one young person at a time

October 14, 2011, 9:09 PM UTC

Barbara Bush, CEO and Co-founder, Global Health Corps, sat down with Fortune editor-at-large Pattie Sellers during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this month in Laguna Niguel, California.

Below is an unedited transcript of their talk:

Pattie Sellers, left, and Barbara Bush

PATTIE SELLERS: I am so thrilled to have Barbara Bush here. Barbara Bush, daughter of President Bush, came to our May Most Powerful Women Dinner, and I was lucky enough to have Barbara at my table. And we kind of instantly connected. It was a very odd thing. And she’s an entrepreneur in the public health space, and doing some really, really fascinating stuff. And, Barbara, come on out.


BARBARA BUSH: Thanks, Pattie.

PATTIE SELLERS: So, we only have ten minutes, so we’re going to make this fast. You graduated from Yale in 2004.


PATTIE SELLERS: And you went to Africa and did some work there, and you really didn’t have a plan to become an entrepreneur, sort of social entrepreneur, but there was a moment that you saw an opportunity. And explain that.

BARBARA BUSH: There was. I had no plans to be a social entrepreneur. I just knew that I wanted to work with people. I loved working with kids. I was really fascinated by the global health field in general. And when I was graduating from college, I was desperate to find a way to work in global health, and I wasn’t a doctor, I wasn’t a nurse. And I met a South African woman who worked at a children’s hospital. She hired me, not knowing me, and I moved to South Africa, and I got to work every day in a children’s hospital.

And the thing about global health, no matter where you’re working, if you’re working in Africa, if you’re working in Newark, you have ‑‑ every day you have these moments where Warren Buffett mentioned sort of the lottery, the egg lottery. You have these moments where you’re working with people, particularly in my case young people, that had totally different circumstances in their life. I was working with little kids that had horrible health barriers in front of them, and their chances of being successful in life were totally changed because of that. Meanwhile, I’m from Texas, I have great parents, I got to go to college. My lottery was totally different.

And so I got really addicted to working in the global health space. I got really sort of hooked in trying to think through how you can make change and solve these problems that we know how to change. We know how to prevent and treat the majority of illnesses in the world. And so, I went on a totally different path. I thought I was going to be an architect, and I went down this whole pathway of global health.

And when I came back to the U.S., my sister ended up at this conference that was hosted by Google (GOOG) and UNAIDS. And this was in 2008. At the time, the head of UNAIDS was about to retire, and his name was Peter Piot, and he had spent his whole career working on HIV. And he posed this question, or this challenge to the audience saying, I’ve spent my whole life making change on HIV. I’ve been a doctor since the ’80s. What are you all going to do? What’s your generation going to do to continue the work that I have completely dedicated my life to?

And he posed this challenge, and my sister left that conference, she met another guy from Google who was my age, and a guy working in an advocacy organization called Face of AIDS. And they left and she called me, and she was like, oh, my gosh, I met these guys. You’re so in to global health, you’re so into making change, you’ve got to meet them. So, we all went to Baltimore where my sister lived. Everyone brought a plus one, and I was her plus one. And we locked ourselves into her house for the weekend, and brainstormed around how do we engage our generation in solving the massive health challenges that we face, and how do we, more importantly, show young people that they can do something about this. That whatever their skill set is, they can save people’s lives, they can boost health systems. And then, therefore, effect change in many other sectors.

So, we locked ourselves in her house for the weekend, and we wrote a business plan, which is not what I normally did when was 25 on the weekend. And we wrote a business plan thinking about how can you engage young people, after they’ve graduated from college, with the skill sets that they have to be change makers in a field that’s desperate for change. And, afterwards, as you do when you’re ‑‑ I had another job, by the way, I was working at a job that I loved.

PATTIE SELLERS: Tell them what you left.

BARBARA BUSH: I was working for the Smithsonian at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and I have studied design, and we were using design as problem solving. So, we were teaching in high schools how to use the design process to solve problems, which of course to me was really relevant in global health, but in a variety of problems.

PATTIE SELLERS: But that was pretty safe, and comfortable job.

BARBARA BUSH: It was a totally safe job. It was a really fun job. And I loved what I was doing. I was living in New York. I was working with kids. It was fun.

Anyway, we wrote this business plan. I had no intention of leaving my job. And we did what probably anyone does when they have an idea and they want to follow it. We did as much research as we could, and we talked to as many people as we could.

And we found out that right now the interest of young people in global health is much higher than it’s ever been, 70 brand new global health programs were created in universities over the past five years. There’s now majors in global health which never existed. And it’s all thanks to organizations like the One Campaign, or Elizabeth Gore was talking earlier about Nothing But Nets, these huge public awareness campaigns that have sparked the interest of young people, but for our generation they want to take action. It’s great to have interests, but what are you going to do with that if you can’t do anything about it.

PATTIE SELLERS: So, you went into your sister’s house on a weekend with practically total strangers?

BARBARA BUSH: Yes, I’d never met them.

PATTIE SELLERS: And how long did it take you to decide you were going to go into business with them?

BARBARA BUSH: Like by the end of the weekend. What happened is we did as much research as we could and we talked with people from a variety of fields, because meanwhile I was 25, I’d never started a nonprofit before. I’d never not had a boss before, I’d always had someone to report to and to brainstorm with and to get advice from. And so we went to as many people as we could, in every business, and we thought everyone was going to tell us no, first of all.

But, every business person we talked to, every doctor, every college dean validated the need to invest in young leaders to making change in global health so that we could engage them at the beginning of their career and you see the payoff right away, but you see the payoff in 30 years when the fellows that have done our program are the minister of health in the country where they’re from, and they’re affecting policy for their entire country.

And we talked about this before, I was totally un-confident in this. I didn’t know that I should be starting something myself. And Paul Farmer is this big hero of mine, and I don’t know if anyone has read Mountains Beyond Mountains, but it’s an incredible book and it talks about his journey, as a doctor creating incredible organizations in Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, Peru, sort of all around the world. And he’s at Harvard in Boston.

PATTIE SELLERS: Melinda Gates told me that’s her favorite book.

BARBARA BUSH: It’s a great book. I recommend that you read it. And I went into a meeting with him and I, first of all, couldn’t believe that he would even take a meeting with me, and I told him what we were thinking. And saying, Teach For America has made a huge effort in engaging young people in education, we need to do the same in global health.

I talked with him about our idea and he said on the spot, okay, quit your job and do this, and partners in health will be your first partner. We will take your fellows in Rwanda, we will take your fellows in Boston, we will take fellows in Malawi. We will help you pilot this so we know what works and what doesn’t, and so you can continue to scale it and continue to engage more young people to work in global health. And I think that, I was like, okay, mom, I’m quitting my job.

PATTIE SELLERS: And what did your mom say?

BARBARA BUSH: Quit your job.

PATTIE SELLERS: And what did your dad say?

BARBARA BUSH: Quit your job.

PATTIE SELLERS: All right. Good. What is Global Health Corps, in a couple of senses?

BARBARA BUSH: So, we are an organization that every day we mobilize outstanding recent college graduates and young professionals form around the world to work for a year within a healthcare nonprofit, or government agency. Throughout the year they make an impact on the specific project that the organization wants them to work on, and they obviously learn a tremendous amount from this opportunity. And then throughout the year we provide professional development, mentorship, leadership development, community building, because we want them to make an impact in this one year. We also want them to continue to stay in this field. We want them to be change-makers in global health, no matter what they do.

And I think what’s been really exciting for us is that when we’ve partnered with organizations; the majority of them do not request typical healthcare skills. They already have doctors and nurses, of course there needs to be more, but they request young people with management skills, technology skills, grant writing skills. Four of our fellows have been architects. They request people with non-traditional skills that can help them change their programs, innovate their programs, and obviously reach more patients, and more people in the community.

And the reason that’s great is you can open up this field to tons of young people that might have thought, great, I’m interested in global health, but I’m not pre-med, so maybe I’ll write a check to UNICEF later in life. Instead you can say, that’s great, write a check to UNICEF, but also your technology skill sets are equally needed in saving people’s lives. And I think it’s exciting to change the narrative of what a healthcare worker is.

PATTIE SELLERS: So, if I were a young person wanting to get into your program how difficult would it be?

BARBARA BUSH: Difficult, unfortunately.

PATTIE SELLERS: Like getting into Harvard, like getting into Yale?

BARBARA BUSH: Yes, so we’ve had 126 fellows do our program. They’ve worked in the United States, in Newark, Boston, and D.C. on urban health issues, and then in East Africa, Burundi, Uganda, Malawi and Rwanda. We just added 68 new fellows in August, and for those positions we received a few thousand applications. So, I think our acceptance rate is about 2 percent. And that’s so exciting, but we don’t want to be turning people away from this at the rate that we are. So, we’re really eager to continue to grow the number of opportunities that we offer young people, and then obviously really eager to keep them connected to this field after they’ve completed their fellowship.

PATTIE SELLERS: How much do you want to grow this and what do you need to grow this?

BARBARA BUSH: Our goal is to have 500 fellows a year. Next year we’re hoping to grow to 90. We’re at a place where, we’re two years old, and we’re trying to make sure that we’ve invested in our own organization, and built an organization that can support this many fellows.

And so I think, one major thing that we need to grow is advice and mentorship, and thoughts from other women or men that have scaled organizations. For a long time, I was the oldest person on our team, which is great. But we need experienced voices. We need experienced thoughts. And so we’re really eager to engage other folks that have experience in scaling and building organizations on our board as advisors, as mentors, and then we also, of course, need funding to support the fellows to do this work.

PATTIE SELLERS: Okay. Our time is up, I was going to ask, is there anything that this group can do, but I’m actually going to not have you answer that question. I’m just going to say that after the Summit, we all get each other’s contact information. So, if you want to reach ‑‑ I mean, not mass solicitation, but if you want to communicate both ways with Barbara ‑‑

BARBARA BUSH: Just get in touch with me.

PATTIE SELLERS: So, thanks, Barbara. This is really exciting and I commend you for what you’re doing.

For more transcripts from the Most Powerful Women summit, click here.