It must be nice to go to work every day and feel like you’re making the world a better place. So it goes for Connie Collingsworth, General Counsel of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Frankly, just visiting the Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle felt good — the employees and guests are more diverse than a session at the United Nations and the sense of purpose to the work going on is enviable. But it’s not all vaccine distribution and fighting female illiteracy. Connie has also managed to raise two talented daughters in line with her strong vision of what the work-life equation should be: taking conference calls on the soccer field sidelines, declining business trips that conflict with a daughter’s prom night — and accepting along the way that she’s a “lousy cook.” I often hear the refrain she repeated, that working mothers can’t be Superwomen, but after interviewing women like Connie, I wonder about that…
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Connie Collingsworth: My role has changed since I started as the first, and only, lawyer 13 years ago. At that time, there were around 100 people working on the library program — the foundation’s original mission was to connect rural libraries to the internet — and only five people in the Global Health Division. There was no Global Development Program, contract system, conflict‐of‐interest policy or strategy for managing intellectual property. It was like a start-up and had been represented by outside counsel, mostly from a tax perspective. A lot of governance and other basic issues hadn’t been addressed yet. Basically, I was given responsibility for whatever needed to be done from a legal perspective.
The first thing I did was to hire a paralegal to help handle contracts. Then I started building some systems and policies, and worked on some amazing grants. A few weeks after I started, Bill announced the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I went to Geneva to work with bilateral donors and other entities to help create GAIN. So, my work ranged from the most basic things — which you might not expect to be doing after being a partner for 20 years — to very sophisticated transactions, which is what I think most believe the foundation’s general counsel does every day.
I didn’t see there to be a lot of risk, actually. The opportunity came to me. I wasn’t looking, as I was very happy at the firm. Two tax lawyers working for the foundation approached me and said, “The foundation’s going to hire in-house counsel; you should apply.” I knew how much money Bill had and, given his personality, I expected the foundation would do amazing things. I couldn’t have predicted that Warren Buffett would contribute his money to the foundation, too. But with a $20 billion endowment at the time I started, I didn’t expect it to be like other nonprofits. I’d been on nonprofit boards and knew that you could be extremely excited about the mission and have a passion for the goals but end up spending half of your time trying to raise money to stay afloat. One of the biggest challenges the foundation had, especially in the early years, was giving away the money strategically.
I had been doing a lot of venture capital deals, representing the VCs as well as the start-up companies. In the dot-com era, I saw some transactions that I felt were crazy from a business perspective. One relatively young client I represented had done nothing more than register the cool.com URL and turned down a $10 million offer because he didn’t think it was enough money. I represented a VC fund that did 10 deals and not a single one of them returned anything. I did my best to do a good job, and I enjoyed the deals. But I had doubts about the things people were throwing money at, and it was really a matter of one rich person getting richer, or someone hoping to get rich. It also became more tedious as technology got better. When I started practicing law, 30 years ago, you would sit in a room and negotiate directly with people. It was discouraging to receive a set of forms and be told, “Here’s the deal, do a little editing and e-mail it back.” The challenges and opportunities I thought the foundation would provide made it very easy for me to apply for the position and make the move.
I look sideways all the time. You have to keep your head down enough to do a good job, but it’s smart to be cognizant of your goals, to make sure you stay challenged and be intentional about what you want to achieve next. I’ve come to be on two boards by being thoughtful, intentional and methodical about that goal.
No, he was very busy with Microsoft at that time. I interviewed with the CEO and the COO. After the fact, they had me interview with the executive director of the Global Health team. He said, “I don’t know if there’s enough here for you to do.” I laughed to myself, because I could see immediately there was a lot to be done. I also remember an interview, over lunch, with Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who’s now the Secretary of Health and Human Services in D.C. She asked whether I would be willing to stand up and say, “No.” That’s an important thing to feel comfortable doing. She was looking for somebody independent, who didn’t want to be micromanaged and could come in with confidence and take care of things. It’s been nice that it’s played out that way over the years. I’ve had a lot of independence in my role.
Good references and management experience from the firm. I’d been asked to chair the Business Department and had also been on the Partner Compensation and Executive Committees. I think showing that other people had faith in me as a leader was persuasive.
I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be a litigator. My exposure to that area of practice was very frustrating. You could do a fabulous job and still not win the case, or spend huge amounts of time responding to deposition requests or doing discovery, only to have the case settle. Whereas with corporate deals, the two parties both want to participate and something positive is produced at the end. I also like to negotiate to get to the best deal. I always felt comfortable being at the table. I grew up with three brothers and was a tomboy. Sitting at a table with a room full of male investment bankers and CEOs didn’t make me uncomfortable. In fact, I found that their discomfort could give me an edge. I think it’s important for women to take their place at the table and show confidence that you belong. I recently read an article about two female venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who said, “I’m not being treated right, so I’m going to pull away.” My argument is that staying at that table, asserting yourself and saying “I belong here” is just as important today as marching for equal voting rights for women was several generations ago.
I’m comfortable with it. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re sitting with two icons. But if you make too big a deal out of it, you really can’t do your job.
I have two daughters in their early 20s. I was a partner at the law firm when they were born and was fortunate to be able to have kids when I wanted. I got married when I was 25. I had my first child when I was 32 and my second when I was 35. When my eldest daughter was 2, I took a leave of absence from the firm to live in Paris. My husband was working for Microsoft, setting up subsidiaries around the world. When the job got too big for one person, the company decided that half the job would be done out of Paris. They thought he wouldn’t be interested in relocating, since I was a partner at the firm. But we said, “Maybe that’s not true…” I asked the managing partner of the firm what the process would be to request a two-year leave of absence. He responded that there wasn’t a process but they would support me; I could go and come back. My second child was born in Paris, so I was home with my daughters for two years. I loved it, and it was perfect timing. However, I concluded I was happier as a working mother and thought I’d be a better role model for my daughters by working.
I was in Paris, and we were traveling. I took them all over the place, so it was a little different.
That would be one approach.
Going away turned out to be a good thing at the office, too. There had been some tension with my mentor at the firm. I’d been doing a lot of the day-to-day work, and his clients started calling me directly. I think that was unsettling for him. My leave of absence took that issue away. I was made Chair of the Business Department of the firm within six months of returning. I also started generating my own work. Things fell together nicely.
I didn’t wear a chip on my shoulder because I was a woman — maybe that’s a benefit of growing up with three brothers. I felt like I belonged and asserted myself. Some men made comments, but I didn’t let it bother me. I would say to myself, “That’s their problem, not mine.”
I’ve always enjoyed watching other people, seeing how they succeed, learning from their positive attributes and implementing them myself. I’m pretty demanding as far as expectations go and am willing to call things like they are and hold people accountable. But lawyers aren’t taught to be managers. You go to law school for three years and get no training on the issues of management. I think that’s a real gap — if you succeed as a lawyer, you’ll be in management, maybe at a big firm or in your own practice.
I would be a much better rainmaker today than I was back then. I don’t think I appreciated how important networking is. I’ve made an effort to teach my daughters the importance of having and investing in connections. Nobody taught me that. There was enough work at the firm that I didn’t have to generate my own work to keep busy. Had I stayed, I would have had to become more involved in generating work.
I think the hard thing for women to do is make the ask. You’d be surprised what you can get just by saying, “Hey, can you introduce me?” when one of your connections knows someone you are interested in meeting or working with. Women need to feel more comfortable doing that. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Not too much. Now that I have become pretty much a full-time manager, sometimes I miss negotiating deals. But I have plenty of other challenges.
There are a lot of reasons behind that statistic, and I think it varies a lot by firm. But from my own experience watching female peers who dropped out, I think there was pressure on mothers of my generation to do everything perfectly. I watched some very bright, talented, conscientious, hardworking women say, “I can’t be that perfect mother” — and end up spending as many hours chairing the PTA or running a nonprofit board as I was spending at work. I was fortunate because when we came back from Paris, my girls were 5 and 2 and the technology available allowed me to stay home until they went to school. I had breakfast with them every morning before going to the office. They were very involved in activities — sports, music and everything else. So, I wasn’t really missing that much time with them, and as a billing partner, I had the flexibility to come and go. I went on field trips and read in the classroom. It was very important for me to participate where they could see me. Kids want to show their parents off. Showing up in the classroom meant more to them than anything I could’ve done to raise money for the school, for example. And I read to both of them every night.
You have to have a very good partner. That’s not an understatement. Somebody who appreciates doing their share. I tell a lot of younger women, “Don’t make the mistake of trying to be Superwoman.” I did not cook. I’m a lousy cook. My kids don’t have fancy memories of beautiful birthday cakes that I made for them. They were healthy and fed, but I didn’t try to be Superwoman. I tried to be there for them. My girls call me almost every day; at any time of day, I’ll just say, “Excuse me, I have to take this call.” I took advantage of the money I was making and hired help, so I wasn’t doing laundry or getting the dry cleaning on the days I was home. I wanted to spend that time with my girls. But plenty of parents hire nannies who play with the kids while they spend the whole weekend running errands. I say, “Why should the nanny get to play with my kids and leave the errands for me?”
I really didn’t care that the other moms wanted organic cookies. That’s another example of “your problem, not mine.” If my girls were happy with the cookies they picked out at the grocery store, then that was good enough for me. I didn’t have two hours to make cookies. We went to the store and I told them, “You’re independent, you get to pick out the cookies.” They felt proud, and I thought that was as good as me baking cookies.
That was the hard part. (About eight years ago, he left Microsoft and is now the president of a nonprofit that manages logistics for healthcare distribution in sub-Saharan Africa.) There were hard times, especially when my youngest daughter was in high school. She was a three-varsity athlete and played select soccer. I remember picking up food at Subway — she’d eat and change her clothes in the car as we were driving to practice. While she was doing her workout, I would walk around the track for exercise or take a conference call. During the H1N1 flu epidemic a couple of years ago, I was speaking with the CEO and the president of Global Health on the phone. They could hear the wind and teased me by saying, “You’re on a soccer field, aren’t you?” Yes, I was at the game. As long as I took care of the work, why should they care if I’m on a soccer field? Our other daughter was usually someplace else, so my husband would say, “Well, you take that one, I’ll take this one.”
I told Sylvia when she hired me that my girls would come first. There were times when I said, “I’m not taking that trip, because I would miss being there for my daughter’s prom (or some other important event), and I’m not going to miss it.” I found that people are more accepting than we often assume. You just have to be a little bit bolder and will be respected if you deliver on your commitments and do good work. That’s the premise — that you’re valuable and do good work. People will accommodate you as long as they know they can count on you to get things done.
I love the empty nest, to be honest with you. I got freedom back. I loved the time that we had. But I knew this was coming for 18 years. My elder daughter is a Venture for America fellow in Cleveland. The younger one is graduating from Yale this year and has been accepted to a joint degree program from Yale and MIT for a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. They’ve both thrived, and we’re very close to both of them.
I don’t just encourage the women; I encourage the men, too. I tell them that their kids come first and to work from anywhere they want one day a week, don’t come into the office. Most people take Friday — including me — and it’s fabulous. When you can just roll out of bed, put on your sweats and skip the commute, you get three hours back. I also tell them not to email me while they’re on vacation, because I won’t be impressed. They need to delegate. That’s one of the biggest problems lawyers have, and that my team has. Because people are so conscientious, they try to do it all, even if that means staying up until two in the morning. I say to them, “If you can’t delegate, then I’m not impressed; that’s not smart. We have a budget for outside counsel. If there’s too much work, give it to them and manage it.” That’s very hard for lawyers to do. I’ve had my legal team attend a training course on delegating. People want to be Supermom, they want to be the super-lawyer. I think a lot of this is self-imposed. I use this analogy: “You put those bricks on your own back. And that’s why you feel weighed down. Just take the bricks off. If they don’t need to be there, why are you carrying them around?”
I don’t look for credentials. I want somebody who has a really good personality as a team player, somebody who will collaborate and can stand in for you if needed, somebody who you can look in the eye and trust. I assume that most of the people we interview are bright — they’ve been successful, they know the law. I’m looking for their way of dealing with people. I’ve had great success with the team. A number of people on my team just celebrated their 10th anniversary; there isn’t much turnover.
Extremely. We’re the most diverse team in the foundation. I don’t know the exact statistics. My problem is I probably don’t have enough men. It’s about 65% women and over one-third are people of color. I think a third of them are gay. It’s a very diverse team.
I’m not quite as good at that. Outside counsel fees are expensive. For $400 to 800 an hour, I want somebody who knows the answer. I want the expert. And I don’t let them spend a lot of my money training somebody. I think if you looked, you’d probably find an equal number of women and men, but I have not gone out looking to find women-owned, minority law firms and support them just because they’re women.
I don’t think it’s that hard of a transition. Most people are ready to spend their day working on something that has more of an impact. Most people, including myself, take at least a 50% cut in pay, which makes you realize that they really want to come. A lot of them are seeking a better work-life balance. You can’t completely control your clients, but you can do it within the team itself. I don’t send emails at night or on weekends unless it’s a crisis. And I tell people that it won’t impress me if they do.