Profile of Patricia Stonesifer, Chairman of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents

Patricia Quigley Stonesifer, Smithsonian board chairman, previously headed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Patricia Quigley Stonesifer, Smithsonian board chairman, previously headed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

She grew up in a boisterous family of nine in Indiana. There, around the dining table, she learned to debate, to listen, to share responsibility and to look out for others' interests.

The family home in Indianapolis was the training ground for Patricia Quigley Stonesifer. At 52, she's applying those lessons to running the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents, having taken over chairman duties from Roger W. Sant in January.

Stonesifer is sitting in the Smithsonian Castle; she's a tall woman with translucent skin and thick, dark red hair, talking about the lessons of the past. She's done a lot. In her nine years at Microsoft, she rose to become the highest-ranking woman in the company and was in charge of interactive media. She left in 1997. In 2000 she helped conceive the world's largest philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was the president.

She smiles to think of her brothers and sisters. "The first six were born within seven years. And my folks took in foster children," says Stonesifer, the sixth in the birth order.

"Personal responsibility and giving to the community was a given," she says.

Her brother Tim, a professor at Wichita State University, says: "It was also a time of Vatican II, a time of a great deal of reform, looking outward, seeing your privileged place in society. The Berrigan brothers were heroes of ours. We grew up during the civil rights movement, and we were people who followed both of the Kennedys."

The Quigleys went to Mass at Christ the King Catholic Church. Their father managed a car dealership and started a food-for-the-poor program that still bears his name. Their mother was a physical therapist. Now she lives in a retirement home, where she has started a Bread for the World chapter.

After 12 years of Catholic school, Stonesifer went to Butler University, dropping out to get married. She finished at Indiana University in 1982.

At Microsoft, she had many roles, moving fast as Internet products developed. "I learned how to work with technical experts to do a product," she says, detailing the job from 1988 to 1997. "And you learn very quickly what the consumers like. The marketplace gives feedback quickly."

She telegraphs energy and curiosity. She spills out details. She's just had a harrowing cab ride and doesn't mince any words about how she ended up having to walk a few blocks. Others might be disorganized or flustered, but Stonesifer presents an always-ready manner.

"My role here is in support of the secretary," says Stonesifer, a member of the Smithsonian's governing board since 2001.

Her mission is rebuilding from the leadership crisis of two years ago. Then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small was found to have $90,000 in unauthorized expenses, as well as other questionable expenditures.

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