The more Shah keeps meeting people, the more he wants to help them. “Their resilience inspires me,” says Shah, who in three years has shifted a declining agency known for cutting checks in ravaged areas to one that demands measurable outcomes by using technology and encouraging entrepreneurship. And still Shah, 40, wants to do more with his “current portfolio,” which is not news to his staff. “They’d say I’m very energetic, results-oriented, hardworking, committed, and sincere in the mission to end hunger and child death and work on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. I think they’d also say I can at times take on too much and work too much.”
That’s been the case since, as an ambitious child born to immigrant parents in Ann Arbor, Mich., he witnessed “excruciating poverty” on a family trip to India. It might have sparked his path to a career that melds health, politics, and activism.
In college, Shah cofounded a nonprofit based on the Ghandian principle of enacting change from within, spurring Indian-American youth to enter politics. While a University of Michigan undergrad and later at the University of Pennsylvania getting an M.D. and a master’s in health economics, he campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1996 and served as a health adviser to Al Gore in 2000.
Soon after, Shah had the “unique opportunity” to join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, relocating to Seattle where he took up outdoor activities that he still enjoys with his wife (a former Education Department executive) and three children. During his eight years with the foundation, Shah directed billions of dollars to projects targeting hunger, poverty, and malaria.
His actions caught the eye of President Obama, who in April 2009 named him chief scientist at the Agriculture Department. But by Christmas Eve of that year, Shah was confirmed to fill the long-vacant USAID position. He was sworn in on New Year’s Eve, and days later was directing U.S. aid efforts in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
Because of that natural disaster, his “pretty elaborate and thoughtful 100-day plan” to rejuvenate USAID was challenged but not shelved. Shah’s legacy includes science fellowships; innovation labs; a bolstered foreign service that now includes field-investment officers; and private-public partnerships, including some supported by key figures in the entertainment industry and professional sports.
“He’s an innovator and open to trying new things, and that’s been beneficial to the agency and to the U.S. government,” said former USAID Deputy Administrator Carol Lancaster, now dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.