Haven Ley knew as a child she wanted to be an international development worker—really—and she actually started her career in the field, working as a program officer for the U.S.’s Millennial Challenge Corp. 

Today, Ley, who is in her 40s, is managing director of program strategy and investment at Pivotal Ventures, a limited liability corporation (LLC) founded by Melinda Gates to advocate for the power and influence of women throughout society. It’s a position that builds on another early impulse of Ley’s: To understand why people marry—her “loving family,” as she says, included “wonderful, beloved step-fathers and step-mothers”—and how households work.

In college and graduate school, Ley combined her interests, looking at international development, but through the “lens of how households work (or don’t work) in other countries,” she says. 

That focus led her to a perspective of women and their role as subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that Ley shared with Gates as a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the time, Melinda was seeking to learn more about the role of gender in development.

Ley recently spoke with Penta about her background, and the challenges she is working with Melinda to solve through Pivotal Ventures. In June, the group issued the $40 million Equality Can’t Wait Challenge to unearth big ideas for boosting the power and influence of women in the U.S. 

An edited version of the conversation follows: 

PENTA: How did you get started at the Gates Foundation? 

I was living in Washington, D.C., implementing U.S.-funded development programs. It was around this time Warren Buffett doubled the endowment of the foundation through his huge gift, in 2006-07, and [the foundation was] hiring like crazy. I got a phone call from people who were interested in thinking about the role of gender in their fledgling economic development program and would I be interested to come out to interview? I left government, moved to Seattle in three weeks, and joined this philanthropy. Wow, did philanthropy suit me much better than international development work.

It wasn’t clear to me when I began what the characteristics of good philanthropies [are], but it became clear that the practices the Gates Foundation had employed, in terms of philanthropy being about establishing strategies against audacious goals, but then delegating to others how to achieve those goals: i.e. through the grants you make—was a nice division of labor. 

What was your initial job at the foundation? 

I was hired as a program officer, a grant maker on the agriculture development team. This team was new and was led then by Raj Shah, now head of the Rockefeller Foundation. Our ambition was to support smallholders and subsistence-level farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

I was hired with one of the few, if only, portfolios at the foundation at that time dedicated to gender equality. At that time, half of the world’s subsistence farmers were women. There was a very strong desire to make sure the foundation’s programming wasn’t ignoring women-specific needs, and ensuring, through our grant making, that women farmers were getting more empowered.

How did you begin working with Melinda? 

I was a grantmaker/program officer for four or five years. The foundation felt small and folksy at the time. We saw Bill and Melinda in the hallways all the time. Melinda was coming on board to begin a lot of her own learning and leadership around family planning. Her senior advisors at the time said there is somebody here who works on ag who knows a lot about inter-household bargaining and the role of gender in households—maybe you should talk to her. Fast forward about 18-months to two years, [Melinda] was changing up her executive office, and I went to work as a senior advisor to her focused primarily on building a more robust approach to gender equality across the foundation.

What is the origin of Pivotal Ventures?  

Melinda recognized quickly there might be an opportunity for an additional and complementary philanthropic vehicle to help her go further, faster as a citizen and a philanthropist. This idea of creating a complementary vehicle to the foundation’s approach was kind of in her mind. [At the same time], we [in the executive office] were looking mostly externally, in the developing world, but we were asking questions to ourselves, such as: Why is the U.S. the only developed country in the world without a federally funded, paid family medical leave program? Why are all new philanthropists men, coming out of tech-enabled ventures, funded by venture capital? Why can’t women break into that cycle? Do diversity programs in computer science work?

Remember, Melinda was a computer scientist. When she graduated from Duke [University, in 1986], gender parity in computer science was preordained. But then we had this huge cataclysmic drop off in the ’80s and ’90s. What happened? Pivotal gave [Melinda] an opportunity to pick up some of those questions, and just like we did at the foundation, to create strategy around them, and then to fuel and fund partners who were developing solutions to achieve some of the strategies.

How have you put Pivotal into action? 

It is an LLC by design. We do use a variety of types of capital to fund basically mission-oriented social-impact work. The majority of our funding is philanthropic. We make grants into partners working on a variety of issues around accelerating social progress in the U.S. We also have a venture capital (VC) strategy: If a good idea is coming out of a startup or a set of companies, we can get to those ideas as well. 

Taking a step back, we began to architect Pivotal’s mission to be [about] expanding social progress in the United States. In my opinion, one of the greatest determinants of social progress is going to be the degree to which women can exert their own progress and power over the country. We define that in a specific way: having more women in positions to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives. One of the domains we are very diligent at looking at, is what are the sectors in which women need to exert their power and influence? One of the ways we look at the data is thinking about the sectors that have a disproportionate influence over American life and where women are not. [We are] thinking about building the pipeline and making sure barriers of entry to these sectors are lowered. 

Venture capital is one we are looking at closely. We do have a strategy that is both philanthropic and investment-capital backed to think about diversifying the VC system. The philanthropic partner of ours is this amazing organization called All Raise, a group of women VCs who were sick and tired of harrassment, discrimination, and being ignored by male dominated VC-culture. They have pulled together a set of trainings, mentorship programs, opportunities for funding, for both women VCs, or women who want to be VCs—demystifying the idea of what a VC is—and also supporting women founders. 

We also fund a pipeline of emerging women general partners. We want to put capital in the hands of women investors, and show they are as good, if not better, than men at spotting highly valuable and productive, worthwhile companies. 

Has the pandemic and racial justice protests shifted your priorities? 

If anything [the pandemic has] deepened the resolve to continue to focus on issues we had been focusing on, but to scale up some of the commitments. To give you an example: We had 5% year-over-year growth of women in C-suite positions of Fortune 500 companies. Now you have one in four women in C-suite positions considering leaving their jobs, and one in three mothers (according to a recent report by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org).

What we’re seeing is a failure of the American caregiving system to support families, and women in particular, to have viable options to pursue their careers. We’ve been investing in this space for two years, and our ambition is to think about a new set of solutions and systems to support American caregivers from paid leave, all the way to thinking about new companies. We are hopeful there’s an unfreezing that might be happening right now, given how ubiquitous the burden is, that public policymakers as well as innovators, entrepreneurs, and VCs will see we have a lot of work to do to create solutions around caregiving.

On the Black Lives Matter movement, we as an organization, like many in this country, are probably not doing enough and are profoundly in learning mode about how our work, and how philanthropy and investing, can better address racial inequality and inequity in this country. We take two approaches: We integrate a racial-equity lens across all our work, thinking about intersectionality, and how, for instance, BIPOC women have additional barriers to child-rearing than white women like me. We make additional investments. We work with our partners to make sure women of color are benefiting from their grants. 

[Secondly] we will take on a more robust women-of-color power-and-influence strategy going forward, thinking about how to get more capital—philanthropic and investment capital—behind women of color leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, et cetera. 

We have such a far way to go, to reimagine the narrative for what leadership looks like in this country. When we articulated this idea of Pivotal expanding women’s power and influence, and Melinda committed US$1 billion against this agenda, we were not only hopeful, we had a lot of hubris. We’re going to go fast! Incremental change was the enemy. A year on, my hubris is gone but my optimism isn’t. 

There is a new narrative about women’s power. Looking at who led the Black Lives Matter movement, on whose back most of our family’s wellness and care is happening right now, and who have been the amazing leaders through the pandemic—you have a national narrative about women in our society, economy, and culture. That’s an optimistic indicator of where we can go. 

The question will be: Are there enough solutions that are put on the table? New public policies, new ways of thinking about the role of government. I’m certainly a big believer in the market: Are new companies and ideas out there to support women? That will be the test. I am 100% optimistic. The proof will be in how much innovation and solutions and funding follow that optimism.

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