Marshall Wallach was elected to the Gates Family Foundation board of trustees starting in January 2020, and almost immediately found himself thrust into helping to oversee the Foundation’s COVID-19 response. During that time, just a few months into his tenure, Marshall sat down for a conversation that spanned from the personal to the professional to the profound.
You describe yourself as in “a perpetual state of wanderlust,” and you’ve done a lot of travelling all over the globe. But here in Colorado – what’s your favorite town, and where’s your favorite spot to wander?
Gosh, well I’ve got to give a shout-out to my home city – I’m a Colorado native, but I’m from D-Town. I’ve always loved Denver – it has changed an awful lot since I grew up, in a bunch of different ways. I love my home city, and I’m so excited to be back and raising my family here. We do have thoughts of retreating up into the mountains at some point. I’d say Edwards, Colorado, is probably our favorite spot up there, close to Arrowhead and Beaver Creek. A lot of fond memories of growing up there – so that could be a potential next landing spot for us.
You mentioned that Denver has changed a lot, which is sure true. What do you see both on the positive side of change, and also some things in need of attention?
I feel like Denver was a hidden gem for a long time. The city has undergone this crazy transformation in the 20th Century, from this dusty old mining town into this booming Western U.S. attraction. But more recently, I love a lot of the ways in which Denver’s economy is changing. I love seeing all these young tech companies setting up shop here. I used to work for one, in Guild Education. It’s an ideal place for these start-ups to set up shop – and it draws a pretty unique kind of person, too, who wants to work hard and play hard. I love having a city full of people with that mindset. So lots of positive growth. But on the negative side – because Denver and lots of Colorado are growing so fast – this presents a lot of unique challenges. Unfortunately, not everyone in Colorado gets to experience a lot of that positive growth – a lot of it is concentrated in the more populated areas like Denver, or places along the Front Range. But some of our rural communities are not experiencing much of this positive growth at all – in fact, in some cases, people are actually retreating from those towns in search of more opportunity. This is why I’m really excited to get more involved in the Gates Family Foundation and our work with rural communities. The goal is to make sure that all Coloradans are empowered and benefiting from our state’s awesome growth.
You mentioned the word “empower”, and it made me think of some of the core values of the Foundation and the Gates family – entrepreneurship, ingenuity, innovation. Those are traits you’ve embodied throughout your career – from earning an MBA at Dartmouth, to working for start-ups and marketing departments in the nonprofit space. In your CV you also say that “being a good neighbor” is one of your own core values. How have all of these values guided you, both personally and professionally?
I feel like the value of “being a good neighbor” was instilled in me at a very young age – by Charlie, my grandfather, and also by my parents. They regularly reminded me of the importance of being a good neighbor and helping out whichever community you’re a part of. So I really take that to heart – living it out in my personal life, but also in a professional context too. When I think of really fulfilling work, I want to leverage my skills and talents and interests to affect some sort of positive change in whatever community that I’m living in. I’m just so excited to be back in Denver. I grew up here, and I care a lot about my home state. Also in a professional context, I’m thrilled to be working for Denver Public Library. I think it’s one of our city’s most important institutions.
What are you seeing at the library, these days? For those who haven’t been inside one in a while – libraries have become a real social crucible, where so much is going on – they’re a real public square for civic life.
This is something I’m really passionate about. I grew up at the Ross-Cherry Creek Branch, and remember going there all the time after school, having lots of fun. So when I started interviewing for the position I’m in now (Director of Philanthropy), I had this vision that’s what the library still was. But only when I really started talking to staff members – both on the DPL Foundation side, and on the executive team – did I start to realize the breadth of programs and services that public libraries now offer, and how their roles have expanded in so many ways within their communities. At Denver Public Library, yes we do have amazing collections of books – but we also have makerspaces, we have six idea labs throughout the 26-branch system where kids, teens, adults can learn how to use a sewing machine, make something on a 3-D printer, learn how to use creative software. We even have music studios where people can come in and create art on a budget. And we also have an entire team at DPL dedicated to serving those experiencing homelessness and other life challenges. People facing those challenges are naturally gravitating to libraries as safe havens and for education – and I just love that we’ve put so many resources and so much energy into helping them these populations who are really in need right now. The ways in which public libraries serve the community today are just vast – and growing by the day. I’m really excited to be a part of that, and helping to advance Denver Public Library’s mission.
Speaking of your work and career arc – you’ve worked primarily in fundraising and nonprofits and talked earlier about being mission-driven. So if you had to say – what’s your personal mission?
Work hard and contribute to something great and meaningful, but also have fun along the way – because life is really short, too.
Your mother, Diane, had a huge influence on the Foundation over many years. What do you remember most about her involvement growing up? Any great stories that stick out?
Gosh, what was my mom not involved with, in the Gates enterprise, growing up? That’s the question! And I’m very proud of her for the legacy that she’s created. But she always lit up when talking about the Foundation. I remember that from such a young age. And it actually inspired me to pursue an internship with the Foundation back in 2009, right as I got out of college. I was really just along for the ride for site visits and helping produce reports. But she was an inspiration from the beginning – to dip my toes in, see what philanthropy was about. Now gosh, here 11 years later – I’m just so excited to be re-engaged in a different capacity.
In a moment like this, when there is so much uncertainty and need in the community, and you’ve seen the Foundation act nimbly and be responsive to these needs – can you talk a bit about what that’s been like?
I’ve just been floored and amazed by Tom and the rest of the staff, and the level of responsiveness to community need. I’ve seen few grantmaking organizations like ours – in the ways we are structured and organized. We’re built for moments like the COVID crisis, in my opinion. I think it’s precisely because we are so well-structured and so well-organized, that we can act really quickly. It’s because we have the talent on board, and we have the systems in place. It’s incredibly important to be responsive, and think critically about how we can contribute – not only within the scope of our mission, but what opportunities may be outside of our regular activities? Can we lean in during a very unique time, and where can we make a difference? For me that experience has been like drinking from a firehose – but I feel a beaming sense of pride to be a part of the organization right now. I think that in five years time, 10 or 20 years time, we’re going to look back on this moment, on this chapter in the Foundation’s history, and be very proud of the level of responsiveness, and the work that we did to play a role addressing these very real challenges.
If you could provide a message to your peers and fellow Gates family members in your generation, about the role of the Foundation and the opportunity it provides – what would it be?
I think in a symbolic sense, the Foundation is a great vehicle for how our family’s legacy can live on. All of those values we were talking about earlier are embodied here. That’s in a symbolic sense. But in a more practical sense – I’d say that with the great resources that we have at our disposal comes great responsibility as well. This all ties back into being a good neighbor. If you have the ability to effect positive change – especially on a scale that we can – it’s really important that we use those resources for the endeavors like what we’re pursuing through the Foundation right now. So I hope my fellow family members will take pride in what the Foundation has built. Take an interest in the work, and be a part of the conversation too. Don’t be afraid to reach out and see if you can get involved in some capacity. It’s really fulfilling, in so many ways.