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SEEED Summit at Brown University: Interview with Ira Magaziner

By 3p Conferences

Interview by Julia Xu (Brown ’17) and Lainie Rowland (Brown ’17)

We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down and talk with Ira Magaziner, Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairman of the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and Chairman of the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), and hear about his journey as a social entrepreneur and activist. Here is what we learned!

“I think the meaning of our life is being able to do something that transforms things.” -Ira Magaziner

Julia Xu: Hello, Mr. Magaziner. We are excited to interview you in anticipation of the SEEED Summit 2014, which you’re speaking at on April 26. We have learned a lot about you in our Social Entrepreneurship class, and we especially admire you for the sustainable approach of using scale to cut down prices and eventually create a virtuous cycle.

Lainie Rowland: We would love to know more about what skills you’ve learned and acquired that you’ve used to become a change-maker. We are especially interested in talking to you because you have the Brown background and because you’re the architect of the open curriculum.

Ira Magaziner: The most important thing is the values, and whether you make a decision to live a life by your values. To me, what we are doing now is trying to deal with the terrible income inequality existing in the world, and trying to help the poorest people with health care.

One thing we did is cut down prices of health-care ingredients by guaranteeing quantity to the companies, for everything from drugs to vaccines. We essentially had to put advice together and then have discussions with companies. For example, the vaccine was too expensive for poor countries—in middle-income countries in Africa and Latin America, the vaccine’s price was originally too high for poor people to afford.

So we went to the companies and guaranteed them 25 million doses of the quantity demanded in poor countries, which was based on our analysis. With this guaranteed quantity, the companies were able to cut down prices, because the marginal cost was lower when more quantity was sold. By guaranteeing the value of the vaccine, increasing the quantity sold, and lowering its price, we reduced the cost for the wealthy countries as well as the middle-income countries. In order to save more lives, the companies shouldn’t lose money because it’s unsustainable. Only a mutually beneficial solution can really change the market dynamics.

So basically, we reduced the price to $5 through negotiation. And then the above middle-income countries agreed that they wouldn’t come to $5, but they could make $12, so we also negotiated that deal. The $5-trail becomes a very cost-effective way to save lives—we have saved 300 thousand lives here. What we tried to do was to get them to go from what I call a ‘jewelry-store model’ to a ‘grocery-store model’—from a high-profit, low-volume, uncertain payment business to a low-margin, high-volume, certain-payment business. This is just one example of how effective systems can correct the unjust equilibrium.

LR: That’s amazing! So when you said we only have a certain amount of time to make as much change as we can and we have to hone the skills and the ideas to affect that change — I’m curious about when you started to think that way, because it is definitely a very specific mindset.

IM: I started when I was in high school, during the civil rights movement here in the United States. I went down to Mississippi and found out that African Americans couldn’t buy houses—there is no fair housing system. I could see that I had to do something to make systematic change. The reason why I was successful is the student support. With that, the administration couldn’t ignore us. We had one thing that was well reasoned, we had certain recommendations, and we had full student support. You don’t need to occupy buildings or do things in a violent way to get people to support you.

I haven’t succeeded in everything I’ve done. You know, a lot of people have succeeded in everything they do but they have not learned much, because failure is what teaches you about life. To succeed in doing something that will have some impact, you are going to fail sometimes and try again. That’s how I’ve led my life.

JX: We see that your student activism is reflected in your work at the Clinton Foundation to correct the unjust equilibrium in the financial system of health care, and also various other accomplishments. So what motivated you to become such change-maker and social entrepreneur?

IM: It comes back to a question of what you think the meaning of your life is. You know, why you are here, what is the purpose of living. Of course, my family is important to me, but ultimately I think there is something more than just taking care of the next generation. There is a society that we are a part of, and a history of human existence and advancing. We used to have a slave-based society and a barbaric society, etc., but we can see progress in morality.

We once got together with people representing 30 different kinds of religion that have different explanations for god, the universe, or the nation. But the profits that we expected to see in all those religions is that they have a common morality, and it was helping people who are less fortunate towards endless opportunity, and eventually achieving the highest morality—of course, mostly represented in Jewish and Christian religions. So that is what always guided me—the question of what is fulfilling in your life.

I love my family; I love my children, but I know I needed more than that. I’ve made some money in my life, but what’s that? It really doesn’t mean much. You want to have enough money to take care of your family, but greed never stops. So I think the meaning of our life is being able to do something that transforms things.

Brown is not helping poor people directly, but the fact that something has changed in the students shows its mission of spreading the common good. Now generations of students who have come through here do different kinds of leadership work and gain different kinds of skills. When I was at the White House, I could see that Brown students were very willing to challenge authority, think creatively and act creatively, more than the average students from other institutions. Part of that is that Brown attracts them, but part of that is also that Brown gives them a chance to grow in that way. So having that impact is a good thing in both worlds.

JX: Are there any skills that you think are really important for social entrepreneurs?

IR: No. The skills are the easy part. You can pick up the skills you need. The things that are essential are being able to understand the need, have the persistence to bring real change when you run into inequality, and find ways to go over or around.

In this way, you’re able to inspire others with your passion and you become a risk-taker. When failure comes you pick yourself back up, and you have the resilience to come back. You do what you need to do. Those other things that are defined as character are the most important.

Your leadership is not just about your leading the status quo or having a big title. Your leadership shows when you challenge the status quo, challenge authority, challenge what everybody else takes to be right. That is true whether you are a scientist, whether you’re in politics or whether you do business. You innovatively define a way that advances human kind, and that’s what we define as leadership.

So how do we do that? You’ve got to be willing to be creative, be resilient, be persistent, and accept when people criticize you and knock you down, and accept the occasional failure because you are trying to do hard stuff but good stuff. And that’s the most important thing. For skills, you’re smart. You’ll pick it up.

LR: Thank you so much for the inspiring talk, Mr. Magaziner. We look forward to seeing you at the SEEED Summit 2014!

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