Best of Detroit 2020: Dr. Rajiv Shah Thinks Big To Confront a Deadly Foe

With a worldview informed by Detroit’s struggles, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation is leading a $100 billion push to radically boost COVID-19 testing
Rajiv Shah
Dr. Rajiv Shah, center, visits an ophthalmology clinic powered by a mini solar grid in rural India in 2019. // Courtesy of The Rockefeller Foundation

Our annual Best of Detroit issue is usually an entirely lighthearted affair — a chance to rejoice in the restaurants and bars, retailers, entertainment venues, and personalities that make this city such a dynamic place to live. While our readers poll results provide plenty of that this year, we also wanted to recognize greatness that could not be captured in a ballot. This story on Dr. Rajiv Shah is part of that special feature.

Growing up in metro Detroit prepared Dr. Rajiv Shah not to be surprised by the economic and medical calamity that has befallen millions of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He saw the auto industry automate and export thousands of jobs in the 1990s and knew it was a harbinger for working-class fragility writ large. He saw the stark contrast between the lives of the rich in his hometown of West Bloomfield and those of the poor in Detroit itself, and knew the gulf was widening. He saw the nation’s social safety net fray to the point that unequal access to quality health care, education, and opportunity was bound, one day, to result in a catastrophe of this magnitude.

“The steep and continued loss of jobs and community disintegration across our country, not just in Detroit, but certainly in Detroit, over decades, just left too many people without hope for their children and without faith in the American dream,” Shah says. “I grew up observing a community that really wasn’t able to thrive, and I just thought we can do better than that.”

Shah is the local kid whose drive to “do better” has taken him to Mandela’s South Africa, Obama’s White House, and now into a key role in getting America back to work from his perch as president of the $4.1 billion-endowed nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller, under his leadership, announced in mid-April the National COVID-19 Testing Action Plan, a $100 billion project to ramp up to 3 million COVID-19 tests per week by June and 30 million per week by autumn by creating an emergency network of private, academic, and public laboratories to develop and distribute at-home tests. Of Rockefeller’s initial $15 million investment in the plan, $10 million is going to set up mass testing operations in 10 cities, including Detroit. (Rockefeller is working to solicit corporations, nonprofits, and government entities to help foot the plan’s overall bill.)

Such an ambitious project is vintage Shah, say colleagues who have known the 47-year-old throughout his career running programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the early aughts and then for five years serving as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President Barack Obama.

“He was clearly prodigious in many ways,” says Roger Beachy, a pioneering plant geneticist hired in 2009 by Shah, then an undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, to lead a national research effort to reduce hunger by increasing farmers’ food output. “At the Gates Foundation, he pushed, he was creative, he was innovative, he brought new ideas to the table, and then set upon getting evidence that one idea would work better than the first or the third, because he never had this one. Mr. Gates hired him just for that purpose. He’s not just interested in answering a question. He’s interested in how to take things to scale. So, you solve a problem with a vaccine or in a food supply. How do you take that to scale?”

Shah was born in an Ann Arbor hospital to Indian immigrants, including a father, Janardan, who was an engineer at Ford Motor Co., and a mother, Rena, who ran a Montessori school out of their West Bloomfield home. Both Shah and his younger sister, Ami Shah, graduated from Beverly Hills’ vaunted Groves High School and attended the University of Michigan before going elsewhere for medical school.

Raj Shah then paired his degree in medicine with an economics master’s from the Wharton School and, at 27, became a health-policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. After Gore lost, Shah landed at the Gates Foundation, where he helped design the charity’s now-legendary program to vaccinate some of the world’s poorest people and encouraged the Gateses to focus on bringing agricultural technology to poverty-stricken regions. His success there, he says, “made me really hopeful that when people come together with the right intentions, the right resources, and the right spirit of partnership, you can really make a world more just and more fair.”

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Dr. Rajiv Shah poses with his father, Janardan Shah, during a trip home to Michigan. // Photograph courtesy of The Rockefeller Foundation

Yet it was in his role from 2010 to 2015 directing USAID, an arm of the State Department that had atrophied during the Clinton and Bush years, that Shah came into his own as a leader. It was his job to organize American responses to catastrophes from the 2010 Haitian earthquake to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, and his successful work slowing down the spread of Ebola involved a similar plan of testing and contact tracing to his COVID-19 initiative.

“He knows something about how to respond to epidemics that is so useful, especially with this virus where you can be asymptomatic for so long,” says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit anti-hunger advocacy group. “The Trump administration’s leadership has been confused and not strong at all, so the Rockefeller Foundation developed the marching orders. They don’t have the authority to tell anybody to march, but they’ve developed a really good plan. It’s Raj Shah at his best. You can tell I’m a fan.”

The plan includes a technological push to crunch test results to understand where in the U.S. it may be safe enough to return to some semblance of normal economic life. If it succeeds, Shah wrote in the plan’s introduction, the Rockefeller effort will be “the largest public health testing program in American history.”

“While Rockefeller can’t step in and replace government and shouldn’t try, we can take risks, we can innovate, we can insist that our public leaders recognize the challenges facing America’s working families, and work with a real effectiveness to provide more hope at a time of real crisis,” Shah says from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is locked down with his wife and three children during the pandemic.

Much of Shah’s worldview was formed by his Michigan upbringing. He returns often to see his parents, who still reside in his childhood home, and to send his children to camp. One of Shah’s first moves atop the Rockefeller Foundation in 2017 was to bring the team responsible for domestic philanthropic efforts to the same Ford F-150 assembly plant in Wayne where his father worked for decades to quiz the employees about their challenges.

“They said, ‘Look, I’ve been trying to be an electrician for 12 years, but I’m still on the waitlist to get into the training program,’ or, ‘We just need more access to opportunity,’” Shah recalls. “It reminded us that people work so hard and have such a common aspiration to protect themselves and their families and be hopeful about their kids’ future. Across America, too many families are not feeling that sense of hope.”

Shah’s calm, unassuming disposition is a Michigan-forged trait he’s used to lobby Capitol Hill, Beckmann says. “To this day, support for the poverty-focused parts of USAID is bipartisan and very strong,” he says. “President Trump keeps asking for deep cuts, and, on a bipartisan basis, Congress says no because of Raj.”

His sister is unsurprised by his accomplishments. “Even if you’re just around him for a few minutes, you feel better about yourself; you feel better about your place in the world,” Ami Shah says. “You feel better about the problem ahead of you. He naturally sees the world as a place where people can be brought together to improve it. And he’s always been like that.”