As we begin our celebration of Linked Foundation’s ten year anniversary, we asked our communications partner from Designing North Studios to interview founder Dorothy Largay. We wanted to share her reflections on a decade dedicated to investing in solutions that improve the health and economic self-reliance of women and their families in Latin America.
“I wanted to be possibility focused rather than problem focused.”
In 2005, Dr. Largay found herself in the position of having received a ‘windfall’. While many people in her position, after decades of long hours of work, would reward themselves with purchasing homes in hotspots like Aspen or Paris, or upgrading to private jet travel, buying sparkly jewelry, or a box at Staples Center, Dr. Largay (Dorothy) chose to start a foundation. That’s not particularly unique, but her level of involvement in the foundation is unique.
Q – What compelled you to start the foundation and to be so personally involved in it?
A. – My husband, Wayne, and I have a very nice life, but we wanted to keep it simple – uncomplicated. We didn’t want to spend our time managing our ‘things’. That has zero interest to me – too much complexity. We were excited about the potential to make real change in our own lifetimes. Wayne has always been passionate about astronomy, so his focus is on advancing astronomy by building a worldwide network of telescopes that will allow astronomers to see the night sky at any time. For me, I’m interested in bettering the lives of women through sustainable, scalable means.
I’ve worked all my life, and I like working. I love being part of a team – and I love our team. It feeds me. So it was natural for me to dive into launching the Linked Foundation as if it were a start-up – because that’s what it really was 10 years ago. When I was at Apple, we had a saying, “Your life is busy, but is it full?” I have no interest in busy. The Linked Foundation has helped me to keep my life full. Nancy (Executive Director Nancy Swanson) has now stepped in and is really running with it. She is the best relationship builder I have ever met. She’s now comfortable traveling in the developing world, which means that I’m doing less. My job now is to ask, “How may I help?”
Q. – Were you encouraged as a young girl to go to college and seek a meaningful career?
A. – My father was an entrepreneur who worked very hard. My mom graduated from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1936 and was a stay-at-home-mom with eight kids. Education was always key in our family. My mom impressed the notion of doing what’s right in us. You go to school and you get good grades because it’s the right thing to do, not necessarily because it’s a means to achieving a goal. For whatever reason, my father never saw me marrying, so he wanted me to have career. He would pose the question, “How are you going to support yourself?”
Q. – Did you consider yourself a feminist in your college and graduate school days?
A. – I don’t really come at this from a feminist perspective. I may have just had blinders on, but I really never experienced gender discrimination. There were times when I felt I wasn’t fast enough or smart enough, but that was all on me – it had nothing to do with my gender.
We’ve always focused on possibilities, inspiration, motivation, rather than on being combative or adversarial – that’s just who we are as people – all three of us.
Having said that, what I’ve noticed for me is that over time, my voice has gotten stronger – stronger out of passion. I see inequities, particularly with respect to gender violence, which is endemic in Latin America. I think one of the lessons for me – coming from a place like Apple that is so results driven – is that changing something that is so embedded in the culture is slow – and it frustrates the hell out of me. It won’t be overcome in the short term. It’s humbled me to see how complex these issues are – I like to solve problems, and I’m not solving this one as I define it. So I have to take a slice of it, and be okay with that, and be proud of that. But I am a firm believer in women as drivers of social change – research bears that out. So I’ll put all red on that.
I’ve also seen that in order to truly raise your voice, you have to be economically independent. Because as soon as you’re dependent on someone, it shrinks your voice – your ability. So the work we’re doing in micro-credit increases independence, and therefore raises the voices of women in Latin America. And you know, it’s a health issue. We work with reproductive health, mal-nutrition, cancer, you name it – but gender violence is a major health issue. That was an eye-opener for me.
Q. – Who are your role models? Why?
A. – You know, I can’t answer that really.
Q. – You’ve had an exciting career. You were at the epicenter of the world’s conversion to an information economy. What was that like for you? How did your experience there shape your decisions regarding Linked Foundation?
A. – I am a psychologist by training. I started out in private practice and then worked at UC Santa Cruz as a therapist. At one point, a businessman asked me to make observations of his work with his team. I loved it. I found that instead of focusing on problems (as with therapy), I was able to focus on possibilities. After that, I began working on corporate coaching and leadership.
I started with Apple in 1981, and it was pretty exciting. My first interview with Apple was pleasant, but not fruitful. The interviewer said, “I like you. You’re a good fit, but you have no experience – so come back when you do.” So I started a little consulting firm – my approach was to test drive. I would volunteer to conduct these various programs – time management, communication skills, etc., and in those days in Silicon Valley that was really easy to do. Six months later I got a call from Apple saying, “I hear you got experience.” Can you believe that? With Linked Foundation, I feel that we are focused on possibilities, and cultivating great partnerships (teams) to make those possibilities happen.
Q. – Did your business career influence your desire to ensure that LF’s initiatives were sustainable and scalable?
A. – I have a business background in that I worked in business, but my role was as a psychologist – a coach – a consultant. Frankly, I’m not all that analytical or intellectual, but if you’re going to make a difference, you’ve got to look at sustainable and scalable. The problems are too big to not have them sustainable and scalable.
That was interesting for me when we started out. If you look at the websites of big NGOs, they often feature a down-and-out woman with a baby on her hip. The research shows that having a personal identifier/connection really helps in fundraising. I don’t really have that. It’s more about a lot of faces, and how to find models that will make a difference to all those faces.
Some people will say let’s transform this community – let’s build a school for this community. That’s not as interesting to me. I’m more into how are we changing the educational system for that community with a model that other communities can then adapt. It’s not as compelling, but that’s what interests me.
Q. – Why women and why health? Why not invest in education to elevate women instead? Have you always harbored a deep passion for women’s issues?
A. – Because it’s more interesting to me. I agree that addressing either health or education will have a profound impact on women. Health is just more interesting to me. There are no silver bullets, so I’m just putting all red on women and their families, and our focus in that vein is health.
Q. – In the early days of Linked, the foundation was involved with both U.S. and Latin American initiatives. What made you decide to eliminate your U.S. focus, and hone in on your Latin American focus?
A. – We knew some great experts in the U.S. who were advisors for us. A woman named Elaine Edgecomb [Strategic Advisor of the Aspen Institute microenterprise Fund for Innovation, Effectiveness, Learning and Dissemination (FIELD)] was amazing. She introduced us to the Ms. Foundation, which was doing the best work in funding and evaluating micro-enterprise in the U.S. We saw that connection as an incredible opportunity to learn. When we started off, it was Nancy, Pati (Administrator Pati Griffin) and I, and we knew nothing about micro-finance. We knew nothing about women and what the issues were. We knew nothing about how to run a foundation. None of us brought any experience within the field. We said, this is what we care about, let’s go figure it out. Starting in the U.S. helped us do that.
I think we made the shift to solely Latin America when I realized that a life is a life, no matter where it is. I get much more leverage for my dollar in Latin America, than I do in the U.S., which means that Linked can help more women more quickly there. Plus, there a far fewer resources available for women in Latin America than there are for women in America. That’s of course true for many non-American regions, but I wanted the area to be accessible to me, and I wanted to possibly learn the language.
Q. – You’ve made several trips to various Latin American countries. Are women in Latin America treated the same way women in America are treated?
A. – No – and that’s true in many parts of the world.
Q. – What are you most proud of?
A. – I don’t know about most proud. I’m really proud of how we work. We didn’t know how we were ‘supposed’ to work. So by really working in partnership, we’re all committed to the outcome, and doing whatever it takes – it removes the blame game and that transactional element.
I’m very excited about some of the models – particularly the rural pharmacies – they could really make a difference in this world.
And I get to meet unbelievable people – extraordinary people who are doing extraordinary work – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re dedicated, they’re doing the hard work day in and day out. I mean that’s how I get to spend my time? Are you kidding?
Also, thanks to Pati, we’ve been really fiscally responsible.
Q. – What are you the most disappointed with? What are your lessons learned?
A. – I think we could have been faster in filling the gaps in our skill sets. Areas like business analysis of our business plans were weak for us, and since we’re focused on sustainable solutions, this is a critical area. We could do the marketing and operational sides, but neither Nancy nor I were strong on the finance side. We also needed to bolster our team in the impact and evaluation side. We also could have done more on the ground. We would receive proposals, and everyone has a U.S. affiliate, so we would talk to them first, but we weren’t on the ground – and man, the ground is so different. We would have had our boots on the ground earlier in the process.
Q. – If you could call do-overs, what would your first wish be?
A. – Both Nancy and I tend to read people well – we’re pretty intuitive and that’s been a mixed blessing. I think if we had ‘do-overs’ we might have stepped back and evaluated a little more in some of our initial steps.
Q. – Are you glad you’ve kept it a private foundation in which you do not solicit funds?
A. – Thrilled. It allows us to just do our work. I love that we’re small. I love that we have control, because it allows us to be super flexible and super agile.
Q. – Why a sunset foundation? Was that your plan from the beginning?
A. – I love that we’re a sunset foundation. And no, it was not our plan from the beginning, because we really didn’t even understand what a foundation was at that time. But because we are a sunset foundation, we did not limit ourselves to the traditional 5% draw of the corpus for annual giving (like that of traditional perpetuity foundations). We don’t want to dribble and drabble – we want to make sure that we can put enough wood behind the arrow. This way we can make a real infusion, and see results in our lifetimes. And it builds in a lot more accountability for us. We’re at the 10-year mark. We’re half way to our sunset. The last three years are a wind-down, so that leaves seven. It takes at least three years to build an initiative, so we have to be super smart and focused about where we invest now, because these are our last tranches essentially. Twenty years seems like a long time, but it goes by like that.
A. – Thanks to Nancy, we’ve developed an incredible set of partners, and we’re focused on health social enterprises – like our rural pharmacies, Clinicas del Azucar – social enterprises that are really making a difference in the health space – that’s our focus. We’re looking more carefully at how we evaluate our initiatives for impact. And thirdly, we’re investing in knowledge sharing – sharing what we’re doing – that’s been on the back burner, but going forward, that will be very important for us – otherwise why bother?
Q. – Is that unusual? Do you find that others kind of like to protect their NGO’s and their positions/knowledge?
A. – Because we’re self-funded, we don’t have to put any spin on anything, which is huge. We’re not competing for funds. When I started this work, I was shocked when I came to understand the relationship between foundations and operating organizations. When we received these huge proposals from NGOs that were accustomed to working with large foundations I was stunned. They were very transactional and not very collegial with a ‘let’s solve this problem together’ approach.
Nancy and I spent a lot of time working through that. Fortunately, our level of funding at say $50,000 to $100,000 per year on an initiative is small – a rounding error for large NGOs. Ironically, that worked in our favor because we were below the corporate radar screen.
When I was at Apple, I remember having a colleague in Ireland who was an outstanding leader. I encouraged him to step up and get more involved in the senior leadership. He replied, “Dorothy, I love being small and remote, because I get to do what I want to do.”
That said, many of the NGO hierarchy are taking note of how we operate, and they’re buying into this more collegial and trusting approach. Philanthropy is now moving in that direction in general. We just had the freedom of not being locked into that model.
A. – It’s not your perch, but your wings that give you strength. And that’s what we’re trying to develop in our communities – strong wings. Things are just so temporary, and if you try to just reach for perches, that’s a false sense of security. It’s important for me to always be reflecting on what’s meaningful. Another one is It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Q. – Anything to add?
A. – I’d just like to give a shout-out to organizations that we work with locally. One is Direct Relief. They’re not doing true sustainable health, but they have one of the strongest business models possible in terms of how they run their organization. They’re going to be close to a billion dollars in delivered medical supplies and medicines – that has doubled from the previous year. The work they’re doing internationally and in the U.S. is absolutely incredible.
Cottage Hospital is doing great work with the neighborhood clinics that is strengthening the health of our community. And of course Thrive and Girls Inc. in Carpinteria are doing wonderful things for women and girls.