Rajiv Shah Advocates 'Big Bets' Approach to Problem-Solving

Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah joined Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera for a discussion about his book 'Big Bets,' and students’ pivotal role in finding solutions to global issues.
Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah joined Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera to discuss his book, 'Big Bets.'

Dr. Rajiv Shah's book, Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens, examines the inner workings of large-scale change from the perspective of the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the former United States Agency for International Development ambassador. Shah shared his advice to Tech students and faculty during a conversation with President Ángel Cabrera Tuesday.  

Shah noted that too often, many people settle for "good enough" in problem-solving and stop short of seeking comprehensive solutions.  

Drawing on his expertise after leading the U.S. response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and working to increase access to immunizations worldwide, Shah outlined the framework of a "big bet." It begins with identifying innovative solutions and building broad alliances to transform the lives of large numbers of people.  

"If there's one message I hope people take away from the book, it's that these problems are actually solvable," he said. "If 50% of the world's global birth cohort is not getting vaccinated and immunized from simple diseases, it may take 20 years and $30 billion, but we're going to solve the problem of universal childhood immunization. If an Ebola pandemic is ravaging West Africa and threatening the rest of the world, we're not going to settle for what we can do. We're going to really study the issue, invent new solutions, and engineer new solutions." 

Georgia Tech's mission to advance technology and improve the human condition was on display throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as testing infrastructure and contingency plans were created and implemented. Cabrera and Shah discussed how such crises give way to creativity in developing solutions and how the Institute can use the same ambition to lead the world through the next decade's problems.  

"Coming to Georgia is so exciting because what's happening in the state is very much the epicenter of clean technology and jobs — power, manufacturing, science, and technology all coming together to shape the future. The question is, are you going to shape a future that solves the problems we face? Or are we going to shape a future that just serves the human desire for luxury and optimizing for those who have plenty? That's a set of judgments that's in your hands," he said. "To me, this is a great institution to be a part of because you have the position to be problem solvers." 

Before the public conversation, Shah participated in a faculty roundtable discussion about combating climate change — a primary goal of the Rockefeller Foundation.  

When thinking of their own "big bets" or those that have a global impact, Shah encouraged students to simplify the problem they are trying to solve and apply what they've learned at Georgia Tech to change the world for the better.  

"I'm a big believer that you all, especially students, can be change agents within whatever institutions you go to when you leave this great one, and I hope the book offers a bit of a playbook for how to do that," he said. "Asking simple questions is a gift we all tend to lose as we grow up professionally, but I hope you will retain it."

Watch the full conversation. 

Additional Media

Rajiv Shah Faculty Roundtable

Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah participates in a faculty roundtable discussion at Georgia Tech about combating climate change.

Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah meets Shannon Yee touring the The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design.

Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah meets Associate Professor Shannon Yee while touring the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design.