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Saturday, March 17, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q&A | Sylvia M. Mathews, president of the Gates Foundation Global Development Program

She offers an iron handshake and an easy laugh. A conversation with Sylvia Mathews is more like talking with a very successful college classmate than someone who helps direct the richest foundation in history and who worked for the most powerful man in the world.

Mathews, 41, is the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Like former boss Bill Clinton, she grew up in a small Southern town (Hinton, W.Va., pop. 3,000) and became a Rhodes Scholar (she rowed for her college at Oxford). Recruited from Wall Street to the Clinton campaign, she stayed on for both terms of the presidency, working as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, assistant to the president, deputy chief of staff to the president and chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Gates recruited her in 2001.

You've had two bosses out to change the world. Who is more demanding, Bill Clinton or Bill Gates?

(Laughs.) You know, they are both equally demanding because both men and Melinda have a vision for the world, and a belief that is so strong that they have an expectation that you will get there. The thing that is so interesting about them all is they actually can see a world that many of us can't see, whether it is a Middle East peace negotiated or a world where many of the diseases that are commonplace in the developing world no longer exist.

So with that and with the strong intellect and passion come incredibly high standards ... but also the support.

You have a family known for public service, right?

Yes. My mother at the age of 65 decided she was going to run for mayor. She had never run for public office, and she decided she wanted to try and do some things for the community ... (She'd been) chair of the West Virginia state board of education. Throughout my childhood, my father was in the Jaycees, the Lions Club, the Elks Club, the Moose...

It's still a long way to the Gates Foundation.

I did not ever think that I would be here. I kind of have never thought about a career path, which is an unusual approach.

You spent eight years in the Clinton Administration and decided that was enough time in government. ...

I felt at that point the pace was just something I could not continue beyond that, so had made a decision even before it was determined whether or not Vice President Gore would win that I wanted to move on. I felt I was very fortunate. It's a rare opportunity to get to work eight full years from the first day to the last day of an administration.

From that life I have one picture of me and the president over there (she points to the wall in her office), and that's my football over there. The football is a gift I was given that came from the military aides. Wherever the president is there's always a military aide that has the nuclear codes. The briefcase is called the football. So as a going-away gift, all the military aides gave me that gift.

It was a wonderful experience. I feel very privileged I had the opportunity to serve. But I was ready to move on, in terms of just the sheer physical ability to go at that speed. I made a rule in my last year, unless it was an extraordinary circumstance that I would try to leave by 9 or 9:30. And when I was deputy chief of staff, our first meeting was at 7:15. It's weekends as well. It is a very rare occasion you would have a weekend off.

What were some highlights of your eight years?

My guide (on a kayaking trip) was a woman, and she asked what you do and you always say "I work in government."

She said, "Have you heard about this thing called Earned Income Tax Credit?" She went on to explain how that had afforded her and her children an opportunity to get a washer and a dryer. And what that meant for her as a working mom. So I had worked on that.

And then there were the other experiences. I don't think there's any other way to describe them than the cool experiences. When I first saw Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, I saw it with him. ...

There's also the idea of a group of people who worked together that diligently with passion for a vision they have of what the country can be like.

What was it like dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal? (Mathews was among several aides whom Clinton told that he "did not have sexual relationships with this woman.")

Everyone had to make their personal choices about how they felt. This was a question that, anytime you would be with your colleagues, would always be asked ...

I made a decision that I believed, and do to this day, that while President Clinton made a mistake, that the contributions he made to this country and the important changes are so profound that I would continue to serve, and serve with my head held high.

When you think about the fact that it was only in 1993 that women got family medical leave. It was one of the first things that was done in his first two months.

Expectations for the Gates Foundation are very high. Do you ever fear failure?

Yes, and I think that's often a good motivator. Healthy fear. You don't want to be deer in the headlights, but it is healthy to think about the responsibility that one has been given. Usually what that does is make you focus a little more and question yourself a little more deeply.

What are Melinda Gates' influences on the foundation?

Melinda is right up there with the president and Bill in terms of having incredibly high standards, but again, not asking anything she wouldn't do.

While she asks us to perform at the highest standards, you may be assured she will know every detail, she will have absorbed everything you have given her. You can see how she can internalize what she sees and help apply that to our day-to-day work. And she's a linear thinker, so she's often very helpful in getting from point A to point X, because that's often how we think here. She's practical, linear and can think about "OK, it will take this to get there."

You just got married last month. Can you tell us about your husband?

His name is Stephen Burwell, and he is a native of the region, which is great, to be with someone who has roots here. We met about a year and a half ago. He's an attorney and big outdoorsman, both bike riding and mountain climbing.

At one of our engagement parties one of the questions I was asked is: How old was he when he first climbed Mount Rainier and how old was he when he first climbed Denali? He was 15 for Rainier and 19 for Denali.

He's also on the board of the ALS Association, Lou Gehrig's disease. He's very active in that and their DoubleDay Bike Ride, which was one of our early dates. We actually met at his cousin's barbeque, where she was setting me up with someone else.

About five dates in, he asked if I wanted to go on a 100-mile, two-day bike ride. Even though my bike still had the sticker on and flat tires from when I moved from Washington, D.C., I said "absolutely." It was 10 days off. So I took my bike to the gas station, pumped up the tires, rode it a few times and hoped for the best.

Did you have a large wedding in the area?

We (got) married at St. Mark's, which is our church, and then we will have a party in West Virginia.

Who inspires you the most?

I think for me there's never a single person. It's a composite of my neighbor Margie Hank, who is amazing to me. Margie is in her 70s. She and her husband, who just had heart surgery, are back at bowling. They try new things. They taught themselves to use the computer. They have one of the biggest collections of National Geographic. Whenever I travel somewhere I send them a postcard, they go to their attic, they pull it down and read about it. Margie is who kept me when I was little. My mother worked, so I would just walk next door.

Bob Rubin (Clinton administration treasury secretary) who was never hierarchical, who always reached into an organization to hear directly from people.

Erskine Bowles (Clinton-era chief of staff), who taught me you attract more bees with honey ... to here in Patty Stonesifer (Gates Foundation CEO) and her lightning focus and her innovation ... Patty is always willing to think in a new way ...

President Clinton and Bill and Melinda, and my parents and family in terms of their dedication to public service.

When you look back on your work years from now, what do you hope you will have achieved?

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to work on the foundation in the early days, the building of a core team. ... Now, if I think about success and what it should look like, at the broadest level, that there will be measurable poverty and hunger reduction.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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