Patty Stonesifer, president and CEO of Martha’s Table, was leading a tour of the nonprofit last year when she noticed a child crying in the hallway.
“Rather than speeding on to where we were going, Patty picks up the child, and the child calms down,” recalled Johnnetta Cole, who sits on the organization’s board. “She’s a force of nature, but what really inspired me and others about her is how incredibly approachable she is. . . . There’s nothing puffed up about her.”
For her colleagues, the image of the high-powered executive interrupting her work to comfort someone small encapsulates Stonesifer, 62, who announced Friday that she will be retiring from Martha’s Table. The news comes nearly six years after she turned heads by taking the helm of the D.C. food pantry and family-services organization.
Her decision to head the small local charity surprised the Washington nonprofit community because her career until then had been so turbocharged. One of the highest-ranking women at Microsoft, she led the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as it became the world’s largest philanthropy, managing an endowment of $39 billion and giving substantial grants to charities all over the world.
Stonesifer is also former chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, and she sits on the board of Amazon.com. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) She has appeared on Time magazine’s annual list of the 25 Most Influential People and is married to journalist and founding Slate editor Michael Kinsley.
She took over a D.C. charity with a $6 million budget, 81 paid employees, three vans and a thrift shop.
Stonesifer said she saw the job as a chance to help bridge Washington’s stark economic divide. “It was a real opportunity to . . . learn new things,” she said. “But also I could use some of what I’d built on” in earlier high-profile positions.
She added, “I’ve been able to come in and stand on the shoulders of 30 years of good work.”
Stonesifer will stay on through next summer as the organization searches for a successor.
Under her leadership, the budget doubled to $12 million. There are now 100 paid employees, seven vans and a much larger thrift shop. In the past three years, the organization has created 53 “Joyful Food Markets” — free monthly pop-ups at schools in Wards 7 and 8 aimed at providing fresh produce in areas seen as food deserts.
Her tenure culminated this summer in a move from the 14th Street NW space Martha’s Table had occupied since 1980 to a $20 million, state-of-the-art facility near downtown Anacostia.
The new headquarters houses a school and a vegetable and herb garden, and has retractable walls and a sweeping view of the District. It is also closer to the homes of many who need Martha’s Table most.
Last week, at a crowded market there, residents filled bags with kale, okra, cauliflower and fruit. The smell of fresh popcorn infused the high-ceilinged space, which was flooded with natural light.
Wearing a red Martha’s Table apron, Stonesifer chatted with shoppers, discussing cauliflower recipes with one woman, listening to another who said the book swap needed more board books, asking the face painter how she got into painting faces.
“I like that,” said Tony Jones, 59, pointing at a large wall hanging constructed with colorful scraps of cloth.
“Amber made that out of clothes that were donated, and she hung that all on chicken wire,” Stonesifer told him, referring to Amber Robles-Gordon, a Ward 8 artist.
“That’s really cool,” said Jones, a Metrobus operator who lives in Ward 8 and was visiting the new facility for the first time with his family. They had walked there from their house to check it out.
“Once enough people find out about it, it’s going to help a bunch,” he predicted.
Lindsay Morton, who oversees the markets and counts Stonesifer as a mentor, said Stonesifer’s down-to-earth nature was the right fit for the organization. “Martha’s Table has been able to be in existence for so long because of its mom-and-pop feeling,” she said.
Until Friday, Stonesifer had told just a few people she was leaving.
“She told me yesterday, and I cried,” Morton said. “We cried together.”