Smart. Calm. Elegant. Polished. Anyone meeting Dr. Helene Gayle is struck by her command and charm.
As she concludes her first year as president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation's oldest and largest community foundations, Gayle has quickly come up to speed on just about any social problem or neighborhood in the city.
The analytical mind that has built a spectacular career at the Centers of Disease Control, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CARE, and other leading organizations is clear, forceful, and appealing.
But what comes through even more in conversation with Gayle are her values and attitudes. She repeatedly uses words like dignity, hope, respect. When she looks at the crazy quilt of Chicago's 77 neighborhoods Gayle sees something special in all of them. She sees ways the Trust can be a part of improving people's lives. A passion for social justice is close to the core of what drives her.
"The disparities and inequities between parts of Chicago are huge, ravaging some communities while others are thriving," Gayle said in an interview at her Chicago office. "For me, that is the most obvious and glaring issue—this huge economic and social inequity that we face here."
"One role we can play is to be a better navigator in connecting communities and building strength within communities."
Gayle's reputation for focusing on problems and finding solutions was cited when Forbes named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the world in 2014.
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, she graduated from Barnard College and then went on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, becoming a pediatrician. She later earned a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University.
Over the next three decades, her work always played a role in improving lives, fostering resilience, and boosting community livelihoods.
From 2006 to 2015, Gayle was CEO of CARE, a humanitarian group that works in 87 countries. Before that, she spent 20 years with the CDC and later at the Gates Foundation battling the spread of H.I.V and AIDS. She chaired the Obama Administration's Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Most recently, she was the first CEO of the McKinsey Social Initiative (now McKinsey.org), a non-profit that focused on youth unemployment in five countries: India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain, and the United States.
Gayle, who has spent most of her career life in Atlanta, moved to Chicago a year ago with her husband, Dr. Stephen Keith, also a pediatrician, to become the first woman to lead the 103-year-old Chicago Community Trust.
She's a big fan of impact investing.
Funding sustainable businesses that make a social impact can go a long way in narrowing the city's wealth gap, Gayle says. Two perfect examples that the Trust has funded through its impact investing program Benefit Chicago are Sweet Beginnings and Garfield Produce. She'd like to see more.
Sweet Beginnings in North Lawndale is a beekeeping operation, founded to create jobs for former inmates. The business makes "beelove" skincare products from honey and sells them in supermarkets, hotels, and airports.
Garfield Produce, an urban farm on Chicago's West Side, grows herbs, lettuce and other fresh produce for local markets and Chicago restaurants.
Gayle sees such ventures as sustainable and empowering to the community by generating jobs.
"When somebody has a paycheck and they can feed their family that's a huge part of building dignity," she says.
Listening to Gayle share her stories, whether it's leading a global initiative to improve healthcare for women or attending a neighborhood festival in Garfield Park, her touchstone themes embody her values: justice, equity, community. And her vision for the Trust is clearly tied to her vocation as a pediatrician, helping and nurturing children as the embodiment of the future.
Gayle's face lights up as she shares her experiences attending a youth orchestra performance in Lawndale this summer and a circus in Garfield Park.
"To see children of diverse backgrounds enjoying magic, puppetry, acrobatics—it gives you a sense of excitement and hope," says Gayle, smiling.
With a year under her belt at the helm of the Trust, Gayle looks forward to expanding its work and putting her own stamp on the institution to make it a bridge that connects Chicago communities.
"This is the city of Daniel Burnham of 'make no little plans.' Chicago is a city that thinks about big efforts," she says. "As Chicago's community foundation, we should too."