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.
"The Smithsonian's reputation was at stake," says Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), a regent and a member of the governance committee. "We understood what the challenge was and moved into action very quickly. [Stonesifer] pulled us together. We were not there to make excuses."
In her broad mandate, Stonesifer deals with Congress and donors, a challenge in the economic downturn. The Smithsonian has an annual budget of $1 billion, with 70 percent coming from Congress; in recent months its endowment has declined by nearly 30 percent.
Another task is restructuring the 17 regents, high-powered in their own work, so they engage one another and form a "constructive partnership" with Smithsonian executives. The regents, once a behind-the-scenes ruling body, had to be much more involved, they agreed. Today, Stonesifer presides over her first full meeting of the board.
To make sure no one misses her message, she hands out a one-page document enumerating 12 principles of governance.
"She uses a systematic business program. What are the milestones? Let's keep it visible to ourselves and the public. This is not theatrics for the moment. She wants to be ahead of the curve on the best practice in the nonprofit world," says regent Alan G. Spoon, managing general partner of Polaris Venture Partners.
And she has a saying that Helene Gayle, the president of CARE and a former Gates program director, says is ingrained in everyone who has crossed paths with Stonesifer. "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together," Gayle repeats.
Stonesifer can think big. Solving some of the world's most persistent health problems -- malaria and HIV/AIDS -- is as big as it gets. "She wanted it to have impact and to be a catalyst," says Gayle, who was at the foundation in the early days. "She said given the resources available, we would take on the big goals, be bold and make the big bets."
Running the Gates Foundation might sound like the easiest job in the world. Plenty of money, plenty of access.
"She never came in with a heavy hand," says Seth F. Berkley, chief executive of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, funded partly by Gates. He remembers a meeting in KwaZulu-Natal, a province of South Africa, to meet volunteers for a vaccine trial. "She would be asking, what does this mean to your family?" he says. "She sucked my brain dry. It wasn't the facts; she could get that. But her questions about how do you interact in that setting? What are the power dynamics?"
Melinda French Gates, co-chairman of the foundation, saw that immersion over and over again. "We had both read Tracy Kidder's 'Mountain Beyond Mountains,' which is about an amazing doctor named Paul Farmer, who's working in the poorest, most rural parts of Haiti to fight HIV. She was determined to go see it for herself," Gates says.
For more than a decade, Stonesifer worked with the Gates family and then at the foundation for no salary, no expense account and only health benefits. That was a benefit of the fortune she had made at Microsoft. When she read that she worked for $1 a year at Gates, she complained to a financial officer that "he had shorted me." So he gave her a framed set of 11 $1 bills.
Family continues to be important.
Every other year she organizes, and pays for, a reunion of her family and their families. They come from six states to Lake Michigan, choosing the Indiana side. Everyone talks for hours.
Stonesifer has two grown children from her first marriage, which ended in divorce: Sandy, who is doing reproductive health research at the University of California at San Francisco, and Matt, a game warden in Montana. "They both did different work that spoke to their passions as well as to community needs. My son spent weeks up in Alaska building wilderness trails, and my daughter spent a summer in Mozambique working in a health facility," she says.
Microsoft was responsible for another chapter in her life.
While she was there, the company brought in Washington columnist and editor Michael Kinsley to talk about running an online publication that eventually became Slate, now owned by The Washington Post Co.
In the morning, hard-nosed executives interviewed him, he recalls. The morning interviews were to find out if Microsoft wanted him. The afternoon was the sales job. "I had an interview with this delightful, red-haired woman whom I only knew by name," Kinsley says. Her sales job stuck with him: "It was years later before we started going out, at least five years."
The couple, now married, divide their time between Washington and Puget Sound in Seattle. Kinsley has left Slate and now writes for several publications.
Those who know Stonesifer are not surprised that she's added another chore, though her choice of an advice column might surprise some. She and her daughter are writing for Slate.
"I was engaged with different ideas about giving and in general global citizenry. She was thinking about scaling down her work with the foundation. So we talked about how we would work together," Sandy says. "We thought about what could be useful to my demographic, and people are always asking my mother these questions" about navigating home, community and work.
Again, in her Smithsonian role, Patricia is trying to see everything up close. Out by the Chesapeake, she talked to the scientists about coastal zones. "Here the resources are so diverse," Stonesifer says, and at times, mind-boggling. "The 1934 exhibit at American Art is really quite remarkable, pulling on the last period of great economic distress and reminding us vividly of the good things that can come out of this time."
In the meantime, Stonesifer is developing her arguments for the continuing contribution of the Smithsonian and its relevance as technology changes lives and economic turmoil threatens even the most entrenched institutions.
"What is the bull's-eye? What is most important? We can make the case that the Smithsonian is in the bull's-eye," she says.