Aluminary: Sonal Shah

Bridging the Gap for Private and Public Solutions to Development

President Obama meets with Sonal and her team from the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Source: GOOD Magazine

From co-founding a non-profit organization in India to serving as a director of a White House office, Sonal Shah’s service to development and public policy has been part of an undoubtedly remarkable career. Her diverse portfolio has allowed opportunities for development to prosper in a variety of ways—from empowering individuals to become leaders in their local communities, guiding corporations towards socially responsible policies, to providing funding for entrepreneurship programs throughout the United States.

Sonal’s versatility, creativity, and passion for social change has become her calling card and perfectly described the role she played in shaping CGD. Joining the Center in March 2002, back when it was still in its start-up phase and housed in the Peterson Institute, it was understood that everyone needed to wear multiple and diverse hats. “The roles at the time were a little bit of everything—part COO, part communications, part management, part office design,” Sonal recalled. “It was a time where it was always all hands on deck.” The dynamic, small staff (a total of seven at the time!) worked tremendously hard to pave the way for the Center’s early successes and establish its foundational approach.

Although working at CGD contained the research and outreach aspects of a policy-oriented organization, it also had the excitement and volatility of being in a start-up environment. Fortunately, Sonal’s experience in the federal government prepared her well for the tasks at hand. “While Nancy and the two Bills (Bill Easterly and Bill Cline) were critical on the intellectual front, I was able to be much more helpful on how to get the ideas to policy discussions,” Sonal said. “Overall, the most important thing I learned was how to work in a start-up organization and making them relevant early.”

With Nancy, Ed Scott, and Fred Bergsten’s leadership, this small but powerful group of pioneers helped build a strong foundation that led to many of the Center’s achievements over the next decade. “Personally, I feel very lucky to have worked with some of the smartest development specialists in the world,” Sonal said. “Each of them—Nancy, Ruth Levine, Steve Radelet, Sheila Herrling, Bill Cline, Bill Easterly—were all amazing and it was probably one of the most humbling experiences to work with rock stars!”

Sonal speaking at the CGD Alumni 10th Anniversary Kick-Off Party in January 2011.

After witnessing the Center’s growth over the past ten years, what would Sonal do if she was in Nancy’s shoes for a day? “I am definitely not smart enough to be CGD president, even for a day!” Sonal responded. “But, if I could pretend, I would likely create a small group (sort of an R&D arm) that started to look at development innovators that are having or have the potential for transformative impact… The emerging markets are already becoming hubs of new ideas and models and it would be great to give them some exposure.”

After her time at CGD, Sonal worked at setting up innovative programs for some of the world’s largest global companies, including heading initiatives such as a new environmental branch of Goldman Sachs and leading two of Google’s global philanthropic initiatives. In these roles, Sonal was able to leverage her experience in economics and public policy to lead important partnerships in trade, global development, and alternative energy investments.

Sonal left the private sector in the fall of 2008 to return to public service under the Obama Administration. After serving as an advisor on the Obama-Biden Transition Project Advisory Board, she was appointed as the first director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in April 2009. This new office created within the White House by President Obama in his first year in office, aims to support and finance programs that would promote social entrepreneurship and enterprise, community service, and new financial vehicles to address and solve some of the nation’s toughest challenges. Heading this office was a seamless amalgamation of Sonal’s career to date, applying her experience in leading start-up organizations, brainstorming creative solutions to societal challenges, and coordinating public-private partnerships.

While Sonal officially stepped down from the director position in August 2011, she continues to make considerable impact in the development space. Sonal is currently the executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and lives in Washington, DC.