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Lynn Eisenhart ’06, Gates Foundation

Lynn Eisenhart ’06, Gates Foundation

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A conversation with Lynn Eisenhart, deputy director of the Gates Foundation’s $2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund. Over the past decade at the Gates Foundation, Lynn has also served as a financial services program officer and advisor to Melinda Gates. Before Gates, she served as the vice president and group product manager at Washington Mutual and the senior manager of corporate strategy at T-Mobile.

Lynn is interviewed by Neha Jain ’24.

Lynn Eisenhart: Getting up every morning and having this, I mean, I call it the luxury of being able to figure out new ways to help organizations and people come out of poverty.

Neha Jain: Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. I'm Neha, a student in the MBA class of 2024. Each episode of Career Conversations is a candid conversation between a student here at SOM, that's me, and a member of the Yale community who's doing something that I'm curious about, like an informational interview, except you get to listen in. Today's conversation is with Lynn Eisenhart, who obtained her MBA from Yale SOM in 2006. She's the deputy director of the Gates Foundation's 2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund. Over the past decade at the Gates Foundation, she has also served as a financial services program officer and advisor to Melinda Gates.

Before Gates, Lynn served as the vice president and group product manager at Washington Mutual and the senior manager of corporate strategy at T-Mobile. Prior to attending SOM, she was a consultant at Accenture. She received her bachelor's degree in international economics from Georgetown University. Hi, Lynn. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. You have such a rich set of professional experiences. Can you please walk me through your career to date and share any achievements you're especially proud of?

Lynn Eisenhart: Hi, Neha. It's great to be here and thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak to you and your audience. I mean, I graduated from SOM in 2006, so it would be a long conversation to walk you through every step, but at a very high level, before I went to SOM I worked in consulting at Accenture straight out of college. I graduated from Georgetown School of Foreign Service and did a lot of interesting work in Switzerland at the International Labor Organization and worked also for tech clients in California and really wanted to see what I could do with an MBA on a more global scale and something that I felt would have impact, and so was really lucky to get into SOM.

When I graduated, I actually ended up going and working at Washington Mutual, which is the bank in 2008 that had a bank run and was taken under control by FDIC and then handed over to, or sold to JPMorgan Chase in 2008. So it's timely that we're having this conversation today given the SVB bank failure. But the reason why I say all this is because obviously where I am today is very different than where I graduated and went to straight after business school.

I chose Washington Mutual because I wanted to be in Seattle. I had done a business school internship in between the two years there and was originally just interested in spending a summer in Seattle and kind of stumbled upon this bank that had a really strong West Coast presence and wanted to build out its presence beyond just the West Coast and was really kind of hungry for MBA talent that could come in and work alongside people who had grown up in that organization from tellers and gone into the corporate office to think through a broader strategy around expansion and developing more novel retail banking concepts back then, free checking. You shouldn't have to pay for a checking account. Anyway, it was a great just experience in basic product management and understanding how retail banking works in the broader financial system that is a part of all of our lives.

After the 2008 financial crisis and the bank failure and acquisition by Chase, I left and went to T-Mobile, another company based here in the Seattle area, and joined their corporate strategy group and ended up working on a joint venture between T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint to break into mobile payments. And I know it's probably a stretch for you and a lot of people listening, but this was back in 2008, 2009 when nobody paid with their phones. And so this was again, a very novel concept and the mobile operators in the US were all really trying to enable people to do that, but had to figure out how they break into the tightly held payments economics that are tightly held by banks and credit card operators. And so that was a really interesting job getting into corporate strategy and business development.

From those two experiences, one in retail banking and then the other in working at a large mobile operator, those two experiences kind of dovetailed into the right time, right place to join the Gates Foundation, which has this team focused on providing financial services for the poorest people in the world who are not served by banks. And given the increasing availability of mobile phones, very basic feature phones at the time, that opened the floodgates for this concept of mobile banking and mobile payments to begin to take off globally. And so that was my entry point into the Gates Foundation. Feel very lucky to have gotten that opportunity. I've been there now for almost 12 years and have held several different roles even within the Gates Foundation.

Today, I'm part of the Strategic Investment Fund and it is a two and a half billion dollar corporate venture arm of the Gates Foundation where we invest in companies that are aligned with any of the Gates Foundation's strategies across all of the areas where we work. It's super exciting. Yeah, so that's kind of the nutshell.

Neha Jain: Yeah, thank you for walking me through that. I would love to hear a little bit more about what motivated your switch from the for-profit world at Washington Mutual, then T-Mobile into the social sector. I know you worked in the financial services part at the Gates Foundation, which is so appropriate coming to Washington Mutual and also T-Mobile. But rather than just that being such a serendipitous transition, are there any other motivations that helped make that switch?

Lynn Eisenhart: I mean, I really have always wanted to do something on a global level, and I went to SOM because I wanted to have impact in some way on a global level. And nothing is linear. It's not like a straight shot. No one should just expect to graduate and land their dream job. And so I think that motivation has always been in the back of my head while I've been working other jobs that were the jobs available to me at the time. And so going from Washington Mutual to T-Mobile was, I mean, that was by necessity because of the financial crisis. And then at T-Mobile, I just happened to develop these two random and unique experiences in retail banking and in mobile corporate strategy that really dovetailed nicely into this entry point into the Gates Foundation.

It was just a, I don't want to say natural evolution, but maybe a little bit of luck and timing and always kind of thinking about how the experiences that I was collecting contributed to something that I could see myself doing more on a global level and more on an impactful role. And so I was always kind of thinking about that, and I definitely applied for similar jobs earlier and didn't get them and didn't get responses from HR. And so it did work out, but it took several years to get there.

Neha Jain: You've been doing incredible work at the Gates Foundation for over a decade now. What factors, for example, culture, work, colleagues, have allowed you to feel fulfilled and grow at Gates over the past decade? As my peers and I consider the type of organizations we want to join, I'd love to get your thoughts on important factors to consider.

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, I mean, the Gates Foundation is an interesting place. I had this vision of when I got this job at the Gates Foundation, if I never got a promotion again and if I just had this job and I could just hold onto it, that I wouldn't mind because it was the Gates Foundation and they were doing these incredible things globally. As one learns with any job and any organization, there's always ups and downs and there's always meetings that aren't the best meetings or days where you feel really frustrated. And I think what has kept me really fulfilled over time is this notion of getting up every morning and having this, I mean, I call it the luxury of being able to figure out new ways to help organizations and help people come out of poverty.

There's so many different ways that the Gates Foundation does that across health, education, agriculture, water, sanitation, financial services, vaccines. And to be able to work alongside so many different specialists and so many different colleagues who all have that same shared objective in mind is just so nice to be able to go to work every day and know that you're at an organization that is not simply trying to put more money into the pockets of shareholders. I've been in those roles and there's nothing wrong with those roles. And I have learned so much from those prior jobs that helps me do good work in my job today. But that is the unique thing about the Gates Foundation is that there's no question what the bigger objective is of the organization, and that's been incredibly fulfilling.

Then to have over time, as you mentioned, more than a decade of experience, to be able to look back and think about certain people's lives that have been touched because of maybe the team that I was on or the work that I contributed to, I mean, that is really priceless.

Neha Jain: That's incredible. On that note, could you please describe a typical day in the life for you as a senior program officer, strategic advisor, and now a deputy director?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah. So yeah, I kind of came in as a program officer. That is really the bread and butter job at the Gates Foundation. Program Officers are kind of the front lines and they're responsible for really identifying and deploying donor funding on behalf of the Gates Foundation to different causes. And so a typical day would involve managing an existing portfolio of grantees and ensuring that their needs are met and that they are still kind of upholding their side of the agreement with the Gates Foundation on maybe certain milestones that they need to achieve. And also understanding if there's anything more that we can do to help them, whether that is facilitating relationships with experts in our field or helping them understand what the same work looks like, but in a peer country of theirs. And so really managing that existing portfolio of grantees and then also landscaping and scouting other new opportunities, new organizations to make grants to.

A lot of this work with both the existing portfolio and scouting for new opportunities involves a lot of travel. So program officers are always in and out of the office and really going to the locations where the work occurs and meeting people and speaking to them. I took a little bit of a detour before I came to the Strategic Investment Fund and had the opportunity to go work for Melinda Gates directly in her role as co-chair of the Gates Foundation. And through that role, which is about a year and a half for me, I served as her advisor on all topics that she worked on at the Gates Foundation.

That spanned the family planning work that we do at the foundation, gender equality, a lot of our health teams, and also the financial inclusion work that I had come from. That was a great opportunity to really lift up and look at more than one specific area of work and really understand how a number of different programmatic areas across the Gates Foundation worked and to help evaluate how these teams were doing and from an internal standpoint, what could be done better or where they needed help or common themes that we were seeing across these teams, and really working directly with Melinda so that she could be of service to those teams and use her voice where needed to advance a lot of the work. So that was really exciting.

Today, my day-to-day job is much more specifically private sector oriented. So I'm an investor on behalf of the Gates Foundation. I work with an existing portfolio of companies that we've invested in, and I'm constantly scanning and landscaping and looking for more opportunities to partner with our program teams and invest in companies that are advancing our work. So some days I'm in the office and I'm just in internal meetings. And I mean, last month I just got back from a trip to Nigeria where I was working with one of our program officers to landscape potential new investment opportunities. And then there's everything in between.

Neha Jain: That sounds incredibly exciting, and I think it's an experience and the type of work that a lot of MBA students want to do later on in their careers. And was curious if you have any advice for MBA students that are hoping to transition to just the social sector, but potentially later on maybe five, six years to maybe a decade after completing their MBA?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, I mean, the first thing I always tell people is that finding that ideal job doesn't happen overnight. And then once you think you've found it, that isn't necessarily the last stop on the journey either. And so it's really about the journey. And I think, I certainly didn't expect to go into retail banking when I first graduated, but I guess I used that time to really figure out, how do banks work? How do they make money? What can be done across this industry that's novel that I could be doing in a product manager role that could really change how people view something that is typically viewed as very boring and standard, a bank account, and how can it help them improve their life in some way or make their life easier? And these are things that anyone would do in their job that I think can contribute to what you want to do next.

My advice is really whatever is the job that you end up taking, find the interesting part in it and see how you can really nurture that desire to translate that into whatever you want to do next. There's opportunities in any organization to really either build and design new things or go deep on understanding how the industry or the business model works and how that can apply to something later on in life. I think in whatever job you are at, my advice is always to just take advantage of that time and get the most out of it, even though it might not be readily apparent how that will translate into the next role.

I think the other thing that I would say is always be looking for different opportunities that are going to be closer aligned to where you want to be. Even if it's not, say, coming to the Gates Foundation, if it's joining a really small organization and taking a senior leadership role within that organization because you really want to hone your skills in a more senior level. I think all of these things do contribute to that pathway to where you want to find yourself in the next role. And so I just try to encourage people to take advantage of what they have at the time and make the best out of it and take that experience and translate it into the next experience. And over time, you start to really refine that pathway to something that you see yourself doing for a long time.

Neha Jain: Yeah, that's wonderful advice. I think sometimes I can get bogged up in trying to find the perfect role versus seeing things as a stepping stone and taking one step at a time to get to a more ideal place. So I think that's a very realistic and advice a lot of MBA students need to hear.

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, and the other thing that I'll say is that I am honestly kind of lucky that I didn't come to the Gates Foundation until years after I had finished my MBA. I think the roles that would have been available to me at the Gates Foundation earlier in my career probably would've been more like administrative roles or internal coordinator roles that don't take advantage of a deep subject matter expertise that one would develop first. And then they could step into that more kind of standard Gates Foundation, like I described, the program officer role that really leverages deep expertise in one field or one industry.

So as much as I'm sure I would've loved to have graduated from SOM and gone straight into an organization like this one, in hindsight, I feel really fortunate that I was able to build up some concrete skills first in corporate strategy, in banking, inside a mobile operator, because that allowed me to really find real joy in doing that program officer role at the Gates Foundation and then evolving that into other roles later.

Neha Jain: On the same advice giving note, if you could go back in time to your business school self, what would you tell yourself?

Lynn Eisenhart: If I could do it all over again, I would've spent less time worrying about that first job coming out of school. I think my priorities in business school were, A, to have fun and take a break from having worked in consulting for four years and exhausted myself. And so I developed a lot of strong bonds with other students in my class, and I think that that was really valuable, but I also probably spent a lot of time, especially in my second year, kind of focused on that job search and really determined to find the "ideal job." And I think that the time spent focusing on that is probably in the end mattered less when you think about the long trajectory you have after business school.

Obviously, it's important to find a job. It's important to be able to pay back student loans. That was very important to me. But also thinking about like, oh, well, is this my ideal job? Is this what I thought I would be doing after getting this really expensive education? I mean, there's so many years ahead of that day one or that first year or the first two years or the first five years out of business school. There's such a long runway coming out of that that I wish I had spent less time really kind of turning over every single job and figuring out, is this the right one or not?

I wish I had spent more time really developing strong relationships with the professors at SOM and the faculty. I think they're amazing, and I don't think I took enough advantage of that kind of an opportunity to build those relationships and sustain them over time. I don't have strong relationships with the faculty today, and I regret that. And I also wish I had just spent more time absorbing everything that was being presented by faculty and professors in the classroom and really kind of internalizing that information and making sure that it really stayed in my brain. I regret not really deeply engaging in class, especially in that second year.

Neha Jain: That's very helpful to hear. I think when you think of an MBA, I think that the stereotype and the common perception is that it's not necessarily primarily to get an education or for the curriculum, but to make those connections and take a next step in your career. And the longer I'm spending here, I'm realizing it is equally also about the education. And I think that's wonderful advice.

Lynn Eisenhart: It absolutely is. I mean you're paying for it and then you really should get the most out of it. And getting the most out of it I think is not simply about finding the right job after graduating. It is about the relationships. It is about finding a good job, but it's really also about retaining a lot of that priceless information that is delivered in the lectures and in the classroom in that conversation. That piece, I really wish I had spent more time absorbing it and retaining it.

Neha Jain: I think something I would love to hear you talk a little bit about is work-life balance and how that has evolved for you over the years.

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah. I mean, obviously when you're first coming out of business school, what's top of mind is finding that ideal job. And I've already kind of dispelled this myth that that first job is going to make or break the rest of your career. It's one of the building blocks that contributes to the rest of your career, and so you should get the most out of it, but not worry too much about where that is or who you work for or what your title is.

Over the past years since I've graduated from business school, I've since gotten married, I've had two kids. We've gone through a pandemic. We've all questioned our life decisions. And I think over time I just start to realize that the time that I have is precious, and I still feel young. I still feel like I have a lot of career runway ahead of me, but it's only in the past several years or maybe just during the pandemic or post pandemic that I've really started to evaluate how I'm spending my time and whether this trade-off of number of hours at work versus number of hours at home with my kids or with my friends or with my family is the right balance. And I think it's obvious that as you get older and start to build families and have kids or a partner in your life, that becomes more apparent. But I think it's important to really start thinking about making sure that the time you're spending in your job, wherever that is, is something that you're doing that you feel is impactful and that you're passionate about.

Again, I really want to repeat that, that you can find that anywhere. I worked at a bank and I found it. And I think finding an environment where you just really like your coworkers and you just really like that thing that you choose to work on within the realm of potential that you have within your job is important. And to balance that out with finding the time away to really relax and find enjoyment outside of your job is important. And I can't stress that enough. And I wish I had practiced this sooner, but I'm still learning and evolving, and that's something that's newer to me.

Neha Jain: Let's take a more macro view on the social sector in general. In your opinion, how has the social sector changed since the onset of the pandemic, and what are some trends that you see the sector is moving towards?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, I would say certainly from a job interest standpoint, I always get a lot of people on LinkedIn wanting to connect and see how they can find similar roles. But I definitely think, as we all know, during the pandemic, people started to reassess what they were doing in their jobs and in their lives, and they wanted to find more meaning. And so within the job market, I would say that I started getting way more inbounds on email and LinkedIn of people really saying, "Hey, I've been working in investment banking or venture capital," or I've been working wherever, and I am really, really interested in figuring out how I can apply my skills to a job that has more impact. And so that's been really nice to see that more and more people are really kind of trying to have meaning and a deeper meaning in what they're doing on a day-to-day basis and not simply trying to maximize other factors like compensation or title or something like that.

Certainly, it's not just been the pandemic, it's been the pandemic followed by the Russia-Ukraine war, and then the subsequent macroeconomic downturn, crazy inflation. All of that really has contributed to an environment where there's just way more need for organizations that are able to support poverty alleviation efforts and even the need for private sector to step in and find solutions that can sustainably serve people who are having a harder time buying basic necessities or getting access to healthcare and transportation and essential medicines. And so I think we are starting to see a lot more innovation in this area across all of these areas. I guess fortunately or unfortunately, it's a really good time to step into these roles, an increasing number of organizations that are really trying to serve the most basic needs of people who are finding themselves in tougher times today.

Neha Jain: Yeah, especially speaking to your first point during the pandemic, when I speak to my peers, you're working at home and stripped from the work environment and being around people. And it really comes down to your day-to-day work and what you're doing every day. And my peers, my friends, including myself, I've noticed that greater desire to be doing something meaningful when that is the primary aspect of your day without the external perks that a lot of tech companies, for example, have.

Lynn Eisenhart: Right. Well, and those perks are disappearing,

Neha Jain: Right, exactly.

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah. Yeah.

Neha Jain: Yeah. No, definitely. Over the past decade, there seems to be a greater focus on using data to solve social sector problems. So for example, GiveWell, J-PAL, GiveDirectly. Have you seen a more rigorous and scientific form of evaluation trickle into how charitable foundations make decisions?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yes, absolutely. Measurement or learning and evaluation. Certainly, the Gates Foundation is top of mind. But yeah, I think there's a lot more methodology and standard practice available today to measure impact, which has always been hard to do. It's still hard to do today. I mean, to be able to directly attribute one donor's actions to some type of metric within poverty alleviation is extremely hard to do. But an increasing number of organizations are kind of specializing in these areas. And then donors themselves are becoming smarter about how to evaluate value for dollar and how their money is being spent and whether or not it is actually moving the needle or not. And so I definitely think that that space is improving over time and will continue to improve.

I think it's interesting and exciting to see what's happening in the AI space and how that even can contribute. And then there are a lot of really well-known behavioral science organizations now too, that are using research and measurement and evaluation to understand how can you promote the right types of behavioral nudges to encourage people to do things that benefit them either financially or from a health standpoint or otherwise, and how can you do that at large scale? So lots of opportunities in just the measurement and evaluation space alone, but also in behavioral science nudges being applied to poverty alleviation work, lots of great organizations out there.

Neha Jain: That's great to see and great to hear as well. I want to take a step back and talk a little bit more about your time at SOM, starting with why did you decide to attend SOM?

Lynn Eisenhart: I applied to a number of different programs, but SOM really stood out to me because first of all, proximity to New York was great, but also the kind of smaller campus environment that was removed from New York and really enabled the class to develop a strong bond. And I learned so much about that when I toured SOM after I got in, and that really stood out to me. And obviously the broader kind of brand that SOM built before many other MBA programs followed suit around having this double bottom line impact. I have always believed that private sector companies are such a huge component of how organizations can have impact, how we can achieve poverty alleviation. And so that's always been top of mind for me. And SOM really stood out when I was applying to business schools, which would've been in 2003, 2004.

Neha Jain: I'm sure there's been a change of classes and professors since 2003, 2004. But what were some of your favorite classes and professors at SOM?

Lynn Eisenhart: I remember Sharon Oster very well and was heartbroken to hear about her passing. And I also, Barry Nalebuff's class I think was phenomenal, really made me always ask, when I think about any business model, why doesn't this exist? Or why should this not work? Why will this fail? And yeah, I mean, I'm trying to remember some of the other... Art Swersey, the operations class that I took with him, I didn't know a thing about operations, and so I definitely took a lot away from his class.

Professor Novemsky, marketing, I remember being blown away that really people did not understand or could not delineate differences between Coke and Pepsi, even though they strongly believed that they could and the power of marketing that goes deep into our households on a daily basis in that sense. I think those are just a few of the ones that I still remember that really stood out.

Neha Jain: If listeners want to follow you and your work, where is the best place to find you?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, I mean LinkedIn. They can just look up my name on LinkedIn or shoot me an email and tell me that you heard the podcast and have more questions. I'd be happy to engage. And the Gates Foundation work,, and we have a page specifically for the Strategic Investment Fund that I am a part of. And that is S-I-F, which stands for Strategic Investment Fund, so it's, and that's where you can see all of the investments that we've made in the past and ones that we're making now.

Neha Jain: Amazing. And do you have a favorite book, podcast, or resource you would recommend to our listeners?

Lynn Eisenhart: Yeah, I mean, there's so many. I think one really interesting one that I think most people have not heard of, if you want to learn about really interesting tech companies that are changing the African landscape for the better, it's called Afrobility. And it's these two guys who are just incredible tech and entrepreneurial individuals who walk you through... They take each podcast to walk you through one super innovative company, and they're not all African companies, but most of them are, that is doing something really cool and changing the landscape of the growing, the nascent and evolving tech ecosystem on the African continent. So I would highly recommend that. And most people that I encounter haven't heard that one.

Neha Jain: Amazing. I have to check that out.

Lynn Eisenhart: And they're funny too. It's really funny. So it's a great way to learn about emerging tech while being entertained.

Neha Jain: Amazing. Thank you, Lynn, for the candid, honest, and very insightful advice as well as answering my very long list of questions. I really appreciate you coming on, and it was wonderful getting the chance to speak with you.

Lynn Eisenhart: Likewise. Thank you, Neha. I'm so glad that you reached out, and I'm happy to keep in touch and to hopefully meet more of the audience as well.

Neha Jain: You've been listening to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or however you take your podcasts. If you've already subscribed, please go to Apple Podcasts and rate us and leave us a review. That's a great way to let other people know about the show.

Career Conversations is produced by Yale SOM. The host for this episode was yours truly. Our editor is Miranda Schaeffer. For Career Conversations, I'm Neha. Thank you for listening and we hope you'll tune in again.