In many ways, being a philanthropist is easy. Although our foundation funds a lot of efforts to help improve the world, I sacrifice little compared to the people doing the hard work that makes progress possible. I’m not a vaccinator in Afghanistan combatting polio, an agricultural extension officer in India helping farmers grow more food, or a teacher standing in front of a class each morning to do one of the toughest jobs I know—preparing the next generation to succeed in college and life.
These and millions of other people like them are making a difference in our world. And while they may be too humble call themselves heroes, I can think of no better word to describe them.
I wanted to call attention to some heroes among us. They are just a few of the many people using their talents to fight poverty, hunger, and disease and provide opportunities for the next generation. To all of them, wherever they are, let me say thank you. The world is a better place because of what you do.
Here are the stories of five of these heroes. Their lives inspire me. I hope they’ll inspire you too.
As a young girl growing up in a poor farming village in rural Ethiopia, Segenet Kelemu once witnessed a swarm of locusts wipe out the crops in her village. She vowed then to use the power of science to find ways to help farmers grow more food and earn more income.
She decided to study agriculture, becoming the first woman from her region to get a college degree, went on to graduate school in the U.S. and working in an international research institute in South America. After working abroad for 25 years as a plant pathologist, she returned to Africa in 2007 to lead a new generation of scientists dedicated to helping the world’s smallholder farmers grow more food and lift themselves out of poverty. She is currently director general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.
The elimination of polio from India in 2011 is one of the world’s greatest public health achievements. While there are no new polio cases in the country, thousands of the disease’s survivors still live with the impacts of the crippling disease. Dr. Mathew Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Stephens Hospital in Delhi, runs India’s only polio ward, where he provides reconstructive surgery for polio patients to give them greater mobility. He looks forward to the day when he has no more patients to serve.
In 2014, Ada Okoli, a Nigerian doctor, made international headlines when she became infected with Ebola while caring for her patients in a Lagos hospital. I met Ada a few years ago, and heard her harrowing story of survival. She has now dedicated her medical career to the research, treatment, and prevention of future epidemics. Her courage and her optimism are inspiring.
Anna Rosling, the co-founder of Gapminder, is dedicated to using art and science to help us make sense of a complicated world. One of my favorite examples of her work is Dollar Street, where she uses photos and big data to create an engaging portrait of how people live around the world. Thanks to her efforts we can see ourselves and our world more clearly.
Camille Jones is the 2017 Washington State Teacher of the Year. Raised on a farm in rural Quincy, Washington, she returned to her hometown in 2010 to be a teacher. Using hands-on learning approaches, she leads a schoolwide effort to inspire students to explore the possibilities that science, technology, engineering, arts, and math can offer. Thanks to her work, she’s helping more students in our state dream big.