Colgate University News – Alumna at Gates Foundation Focuses On Education Reform

by Tim O’Keeffe

Yee-Ann Cho ’90 manages a $200 million portfolio for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic foundation with $60 billion in resources.

Listen In

Go to our podcast page to hear Yee-Ann Cho ’90 discuss her work.

The big numbers boggle the mind, and the grants awarded by the foundation have a big-time impact.

Cho, though, also recognizes the power a $2,000 grant can possess, and how similar the process can be for awarding a grant that size or one with lots more zeros.

That’s where her experience as a senior program officer for education at the Gates Foundation has proved to be an invaluable resource for Colgate students taking part in the Student Philanthropy Council, a service-learning program run through the university’s Upstate Institute.

The undergraduates learn about philanthropy from experts such as Cho and then transition into a working foundation that awards $10,000 in grants to local organizations.

Yee-Ann Cho '90 majored in international relations at Colgate, going on to earn a masters from Stanford.
Yee-Ann Cho ’90 majored in international relations at Colgate, going on to earn a masters from Stanford.

Cho has spoken twice to students involved in the non-credit program, sharing best practices she’s learned in her nearly five years at the Gates Foundation.

“I work at a big foundation, to put it mildly, but a lot of the processes, guidelines, and tools are transferable,” she said.

Cho talks about her work with students and at the foundation in the latest episode of Colgate Conversations, a series of podcast interviews with members of the Colgate community.

Her focus at the foundation is on improving the nation’s high schools and on reducing the high dropout rate.

“Bill and Melinda feel that education is one of the biggest levers we have to reducing inequities in our society,” she said.

Cho manages 37 existing grants and is constantly looking for initiatives the foundation might want to invest in.

“We support folks who start or support high schools, small high schools by and large, but high school reform in general,” she said.

Cho, who has a masters from Stanford’s School of Education and an MBA from Yale’s School of Management, also has solid experience in what it takes to start a new school.

In 1993 she helped launch the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colo., which is funded by the American Honda Motor Co.

“Since my time there I’ve really been like a dog with a bone, focusing on high school reform,” she said. “That was a life-changing experience for me.”

Working at the Gates Foundation, which in 2006 received a multibillion-dollar pledge from Warren Buffett, provides her with amazing resources. But there are many organizations with genuine needs, and an exhaustive evaluation process is required to determine which is most deserving.

A frustration for Cho is that once her foundation appears on the scene, other philanthropic agencies often step aside, figuring they are not needed.

“Our dollars have always been meant to be catalytic dollars,” she said. “Hopefully over time we leverage public dollars or we get other foundations involved. We do need partners in this effort.”

Her division has started to work with larger schools, looking at models that make learning relevant and more personal. It is also looking at education policies, from the district to national levels, and at what types of legislation might bolster reform efforts.

Cho spends a lot of time visiting high school classrooms, and when she sees progress, when she sees students who never dreamed of attending college with acceptance letters in their hands, she feels incredibly energized.

“It’s so gratifying to see kids realizing their potential,” she said.