SPH Alum Heads Google.org

SPH Alum Heads Google.org

In the late 1960s, a pair of newlyweds from Michigan moved to San Francisco and joined a commune. He had recently finished medical school and was doing his internship, she was in law school. It was the era of Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead, civil rights and flower power, and the couple got swept up in the ethos of the time. They took part in marches, spoke out for Native American rights, and helped make a movie about a tribe of hippies.

With the money they’d earned from the film they flew to London with a group of their friends, bought a bus, painted it psychedelic colors, and drove to India. They wanted to help flood victims in cyclone-stricken Bangladesh. But they were turned away, and so they drove north to the Himalayas. They later joined an ashram and took up with a guru whom they called Maharaj-ji. The man and the woman took on new names. She became Girija, meaning “daughter of the mountains”; he became Subrahmanyan, meaning “filled with brilliance.”

A year passed, and their guru told them to go out into the world and do good. Specifically, he commanded them to join the United Nations campaign to vanquish smallpox. The man and woman spent the next six years traversing India, enduring floods and drought, sickness and fatigue. They and their colleagues searched India’s 575,721 villages and 2,641 cities for hidden cases of the killer disease. When they were finished, smallpox had been eradicated. It was the first of their good works.

If you sense an epic quality to the story of Larry and Girija Brilliant, it’s not your imagination. In their relatively young lives—he’s now 62, she’s 61— they have wrought good on a Homeric scale. They’ve helped rid the earth of smallpox and are supporting efforts to eradicate polio. They have helped restore sight to millions in parts of the world where hope is scarce. They have contributed to the health and cultural vitality of native communities across the United States, and they’ve labored to reduce the burden of poverty and disease in Latin America. When a catastrophic tsunami struck southeast Asia two years ago, Larry Brilliant flew to the region at once and spent several months living and working in refugee camps in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. A year later he helped conduct polio vaccinations in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, which he says “must be the most difficult place in the world to work.”

But he’s no ascetic. He and Girija live in California’s affluent Marin County and have sent their three children to top-flight American universities (including Michigan, where daughter Iris is a freshman). Larry Brilliant co-founded one of the first online communities and has run several high-tech companies. He’s long since exchanged the ashram whites and Hindu moniker of his twenties for a BlackBerry and cell phone—which he carries with him even on the golf course. Equally at home in rural Africa and Silicon Valley, he jokes that he has a “multiple-personality disorder, mild and functional.”

That personality—a blend of 1960s idealism, 1990s entrepreneurship, and 21st-century technological know-how—has led Brilliant to explore nontraditional solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems, including infectious disease and global warming. It’s also led to his new job as executive director of Google.org, the $1+ billion philanthropic arm of Internet giant Google. Literally thousands voiced interest in the position when it was first announced in 2005, but Brilliant alone had what the company was looking for. “There were a lot of people out there with passion to change the world, but there aren’t a lot of people out there with the proven ability to change the world,” said Sheryl Sandberg, the Google vice president who led the search.

“I think it’s a stroke of genius on Google’s part,” says UM School of Public Health Professor Emeritus Fred Munson, who first met Brilliant in the 1970s, when both were faculty members at Michigan. “I can’t imagine a person who has a better nose for how to spend money wisely—throwing great chunks of money at something in order to really make a difference.”

Brilliant’s long-time friend Ram Dass, the Harvard psychology professor who worked with Timothy Leary and later became a spiritual leader, agrees that Google was “very very lucky” to land Brilliant—“because he doesn’t bend for power or money, and that’s a job that would be a catastrophe with somebody bending for money and power.”

To put it another way, Larry Brilliant now has a new stage on which to carry out the charge his guru laid before him decades ago: “What God gives you is his gift to you, what you give others is your gift to God.” Forty years after the Summer of Love, Dr. Brilliant is still hoping to heal the planet.

The steel and glass headquarters of Google sprawl across acres of manicured land in Mountain View, California, in the heart of high-tech America. Inside the lobby of one of the corporation’s many buildings, a scrolling list of words in dozens of languages is projected on the wall. Each word is a Google search from somewhere in the world—a graphic demonstration of the company’s reach. Upstairs in his sunny corner office, Larry Brilliant displays his own legacy of global reach: snapshots of his early days with Girija in India, images of Hindu gods, a photograph of himself putting drops in a child’s mouth.

Dressed in his trademark black shirt, Brilliant winds up his latest meeting, hugs its participants good-bye, and ushers in his next appointment. Getting on his calendar these days is a feat. Since becoming executive director of Google.org in Feb-ruary, he’s been to Asia, Africa, and Europe and has met with the leaders of most of America’s major philanthropic organizations, including the multibillion-dollar Bill and Melinda Gates Found-ation, where William Foege, Brilliant’s mentor in the UN’s smallpox campaign in India, is the senior fellow in the Global Health Program.

Foege, in fact—the recipient of the UM’s first-ever Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Health—came up with the system for eradicating smallpox by quarantining whole villages to contain outbreaks. Brilliant is quick to give Foege all due credit for the smallpox campaign. “He was doing it, and I showed up,” Brilliant remembers. “I was 26, meaning I was a kid. Bill showed me my first case of smallpox, so I wouldn’t say we were doing it together—I would say that he taught me everything I know.”

Brilliant is equally quick to note that by comparison to the Gates Foundation, Google.org is “modest,” but it nonetheless represents “a phenomenal opportunity to do good,” he says, “to do great good.” What’s more, Bill Gates waited 25 years before setting up his tax-exempt foundation, while Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set up Google.org just six years after starting their company. They funded the charity by pledging 1% of Google’s annual profit and 1% of its stock, valued in early 2006 at $1 billion. Brilliant hails all three men. “Regardless of what you think of capitalism, and the history of imperialism and adventurism, there is a new breed of capitalists who believe that with great power comes great responsibility—and that’s a big deal.”

What sets Google.org apart from most other charities is its for-profit status. Only a small portion of the philanthropy, the Google Foundation, operates as a routine nonprofit, with a $90 million endowment. The rest of the philanthropy is free to launch start-up companies, undertake partnerships with venture capitalists, and even lobby Congress—so long as these activities are consistent with the charity’s larger goals: to lessen the divide between rich and poor, improve health worldwide, and end global warming.

Any Google.org venture that shows a profit must pay taxes, but the tradeoff, Page and Brin believe, is that their philanthropy will have greater range and flexibility than others and can thus pursue unorthodox solutions to the world’s gravest problems.

For example, the New York Times reported in September that Google.org is working to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity, and gas. “The goal of the project is to reduce dependence on oil while alleviating the effects of global warming,” the Times wrote.

Brilliant expects that some of Google.org’s investments, particularly projects in the area of climate control, will be profitable—in part because without the need to show a financial profit, such projects may have a competitive edge. But any money the organization makes will go back into more projects, Brilliant says. “And I think that’s what the founders want—they want to see if we can’t stretch this money that we have by putting it to work to make more money and to do good at the same time. And you know sometimes you get lucky. But that can’t be your primary purpose. Your primary purpose is to stop the climate crisis and stop the increasing disparity between rich and poor and to stop the abject horror of poverty.”

He’s adamant that simply giving money away—conventional charity—cannot change the world, and changing the world is what Larry Brilliant is about. He uses the term “social entrepreneur” to describe himself and his ilk, people who are using capital to make money that leads to social good. The most effective global philanthropy, Brilliant insists, is to “build self-sustaining, self-relying institutions in the developing countries that will create jobs and give a service.”

In another project, Brilliant is working to develop an early response and detection system for global threats, including infectious diseases, natural disasters, famine, and human rights violations. The vision for this system was inspired by a Canadian-based surveillance system first developed in 1997. The Global Public Health Information Network, or GPHIN, now scans the equivalent of 20,000 online newspapers a day, in seven languages, searching for clusters of information anywhere in the world that might indicate an infectious-disease outbreak, natural disaster, food-borne illness, or other threat to the public’s health. The system spotted the first glimmering of SARS four months before the disease hit full-force, and that information helped contain the outbreak when it occurred.

Earlier this year, Brilliant identified an enhanced global early detection and response system as his “wish” when he received the TED Prize, an award given by leaders of the technology and entertainment industries at their annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference. Recipients of the prize get $100,000 to apply toward their “wish” for how to change the world.

In his acceptance speech—which helped persuade the folks at Google that he was their man—Brilliant stressed the need for a global early detection, early response system. If not, he warned, health officials won’t have a prayer of combatting a new pandemic such as avian flu—and it’s virtually certain a major pandemic of some sort will occur within the next generation or two. When it does, a billion or more people will fall ill, and “the world as we know it will stop,” he said, lowering his voice and fixing his gaze on the audience. “There’ll be no airplanes flying. Would you get in an airplane with 250 people you didn’t know, coughing and sneezing, when you know that some of them might carry a disease that could kill you, for which you had no antivirals or vaccine?”

Brilliant was too much of an optimist to stop there, however. He reminded his listeners that miracles do happen: no one believed that smallpox could be eliminated, he said. But he’d been there, and he’d seen it with his own eyes.

India was the turning point for Larry and Girija Brilliant. Larry talks today of his “35-year love affair” with the country. His friend Ram Dass, who studied under the same guru, Neem Karoli Baba, says that in India he saw Larry metamorphose from a pragmatist into an altruist, a hippie into a “spiritual being. He was so soft and so surrendering to Neem Karoli Baba, and I don’t think I had seen a person change that way.”

Larry and Girija came back from India in the mid-70s and enrolled in graduate public health programs at Michigan. It was a homecoming. They’d each grown up in Detroit and met in high school in their teens. Larry had a medical degree from Wayne State University, Girija a master’s in psychology from UM. She’d started law school but abandoned it, and he no longer wanted to practice medicine. Neither had received formal training in public health, and both now wanted it. India had changed them.

They bought a small house in the small town of Chelsea—it cost less than “remodeling a bathroom in California now,” Girija laughs—and began a family. By the time Larry finished his MPH and took a faculty position at SPH, teaching epidemiology, Girija had completed her master’s in health behavior and health education and begun a doctorate. SPH Dean Ken Warner, then a faculty member at the school, sat in on one of Brilliant’s classes and remembers him as “very dynamic, very engaging.”

Both Larry and Girija claim that without Michigan, they wouldn’t be who—or more significantly, where—they are today. “I don’t think I could have seen a course for myself here at Google if I’d gone to a school of public health that was part of a medical school,” Larry says. “Michigan is rooted in economics, management, and the social sciences.”

One-third of his Google.org job is economic development, he points out. “Thank God I had Ken Warner, who taught me economics.” Brilliant says he’s also indebted to Michigan faculty members Bob Grosse, Jan de Vries, Oscar Gish, and Bob Parnes. “As you get older, you carry around the people who you know you stood on their shoulders, or you took their ideas and you benefited from them.”

He calls Ann Arbor “a very special place” and notes that the town is “broad enough to embrace the kind of craziness of the West Coast and the spiritual traditions of Asia and the rest of the world, but it includes those in an envelope of pragmatism and good works.” Girija says Michigan—and the Midwest in general—taught them both the importance of “really valuing excellence in what you do.”

One snowy day in December 1978, the Brilliants convened a gathering of like-minded colleagues at a retreat 25 miles north of Ann Arbor. They wanted to start something that might replicate the experience they’d had in India, to create “a community of people who might gain common interest in service,” Girija remembers. From this gathering a foundation called Seva—a Sanskrit word meaning “divine work” or “service to God”—was born. Among its founders were several members of the SPH community and a visionary surgeon named Dr. G. Venkataswamy, who’d started an eye hospital in India and pioneered a prevention and treatment program for blindness. Dr. V helped convince everyone that Seva’s primary focus should be blindness. The foundation opened its first office in the Brilliants’ converted garage in Chelsea and later moved into basement space at SPH.

Twenty-eight years later, Seva has helped fund two and a half million eye operations worldwide, most of them sight-giving cataract surgeries. Ten times that number of people have had eye exams and other sight-restoring interventions, thanks to Seva. Now located in a shady square in downtown Berkeley, California, where it’s surrounded by trendy shops, Seva has broadened its mission and, in addition to blindness prevention and treatment work, helps indigenous communities in Central America combat poverty and injustice and gives support to Native American communities across the U.S.

Seva’s approach is quintessential Larry Brilliant: “To build partnerships that respond to locally defined problems with culturally sustainable solutions.” Although he’s currently on leave from the Seva board, Girija continues to be active with the foundation, and both have been a key part of its success.

Back in 1978, Larry secured a $10,000 gift from Apple founder Steve Jobs to help launch Seva. To help keep it going in the 80s and 90s, Brilliant started a handful of high-tech companies and venture-backed start-ups and staged rock concerts with friends like the Grateful Dead. Earlier this year, Brilliant got Google.com to pledge $1 million a year for the next two years so that Seva can expand its activities.

“Larry is a consummate wheeler and dealer,” says SPH alum David Green, who’s worked with Seva over the years, “and when he does it for the social realm, it’s all to good effect.”

Last year, Green won a MacArthur award for his efforts to produce low-cost intraocular lenses and opthalmic sutures for eye patients in the developing world —work he says grew directly from his involvement with Seva as an employee.

SPH alum and founding Seva member Suzanne Gilbert, who directs the foundation’s Center for Innovation in Eye Care, says Larry’s personality has shaped Seva from the start. “He’s a relationship builder. Larry really does bring together many different worlds.”

As he flies from California to remote corners of the globe and back, or drives from his Mill Valley home to Mountain View, Brilliant is still building relationships, often by cell phone. But the village leaders and community organizers he once dealt with have given way to ministers of health and major foundation directors—with whom, incidentally, he plans to collaborate on strategic projects.

Brilliant himself has and has not changed. He remains devoted to the developing world and goes back to work in it “as much as I possibly can.” He’s equally happy working in Silicon Valley, “especially since Google is a thousand times more successful than either of my piddly little high-tech startups.” He’s addicted to golf. He still loves gadgets, the higher the tech, the better.

When he thinks back to his hippie days, Brilliant says he’s both proud and chagrined. “I am so proud of the values of oneness, and globalness, and inclusiveness, and respect for all religions and all spiritual traditions, and women’s rights and freedom and civil rights and anti-war consciousness that are contained within that term ‘hippie,’” he says. “And I’m so embarrassed by the licentiousness and over-the-top hedonism, and lack of seriousness of purpose and follow-through, all of which are carried by that word ‘hippie.’ I mean, that poor little word has an awful lot of baggage, both good and bad. But overall I’m more proud than sad.”

He and Girija have never relinquished their hippie values—they merely reconfigured them for a new age. She’s taken up yoga and continues to meditate.

And Larry?

Girija laughs. “Work is his meditation. I think that’s what he would tell you.”

Story by Leslie Stainton; photo by Peter Smith.

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.

Girija Brilliant, M.P.H. '77, and Larry Brilliant, M.P.H. '77.

Web Exclusive

Watch video of Larry Brilliant's "wish for the world": to build a global system that detects each new disease or disaster as it emerges or occurs. (Recorded in February 2006 at the TEDPrize Awards in Monterey, CA. Duration: 26:35)