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Anil Soni | He levels the world’s playing fields by championing health of the poor

Anil Soni | He levels the world’s playing fields by championing health of the poor
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First Published: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 51 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 51 AM IST
New York: Eleven years ago, Anil Soni, then a Harvard student studying to be an astronaut, had no plan to spend his life travelling the world on little sleep fighting HIV/AIDS. He was simply a college student, somewhat bored to be studying science. So, on a whim during his sophomore year, he decided to join some classmates for a term working on a farm and building houses in West Africa.
In a small village in Ghana, he struck up a conversation with a farmer, asking him, with the innocence and bravado of youth: “What can I do as an American that will
have meaning in your life?”
The villager looked at Soni—a lean, wide-eyed, good-looking boy—and readily answered: “What matters most is our children’s health and our health. That’s all we need to level the playing field.”
Soni, now 29, recalls that moment as one of a series of serendipitous encounters that led him to the position he is at now: vice-president of the Clinton Foundation, one of the world’s most far-reaching philanthropic organizations.
Soni now travels the world, attempting to level the playing field in Africa, India, the Philippines and South America, through health initiatives such as the recently announced cut in the price of HIV/AIDS drug treatments for children.
After West Africa, Soni switched his college major to public health and pursued summer work as a volunteer at an HIV/AIDS clinic in his hometown, Chicago.
Once he had graduated, though, he joined the working ranks at McKinsey & Co.
“It was a little tenacious of me,” he reminisces on his midtown-Manhattan rooftop, “but I constantly kept in touch with senior-level partners, reminding them that if anything in the public health sector ever came up, I would be happy to help.”
After a year of work at the bottom rung, Soni left for a visit to Mumbai. On the first day of his vacation, his persistence paid off as he got a phone call asking: Could he be in Botswana in 36 hours to pitch a programme to the Botswana government and to Merck & Co. about how to improve health care in the African nation?
Soni didn’t hesitate. “My life’s been a combination of serendipity and a little bit of ambition,” he says.
After that, he continued to work on public health policy at McKinsey and considered returning to school to get a medical degree, but Richard Feachem, the newly appointed head of the Global Fund in Geneva wanted Soni to be his senior adviser. Feachem had worked with Soni on projects for the fund while at McKinsey.
Soni turned the job down at first. “There were thousands of other people more qualified for the job,” he says. “I took it tentatively until he could find a replacement.”
Feachem did, but only after three years, when Soni left to help launch an NGO. After a year with that, he was tired of being in a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Aarthi Belani, a first-year associate with Cravath, Swain and Moore, a prominent New York law firm. So he moved to New York, took a job with the Clinton Foundation as the new director for the HIV/AIDS initiative, and married Aarthi.
The Clinton Global HIV/AIDS Initiative works to lower the cost of treatment, as well as improve the delivery of drugs to the patients. To Soni, it perfectly merges his past work experience. “It’s public interest, our clients are people living with HIV, but it’s very corporate,” says Soni. “It’s not: ‘People are dying! Give us the drugs for free!’ We make it work with the manufacturers and the patients.”
“If you want to be a do-gooder, it’s a very good place to be a do-gooder,” Soni says of the foundation that, to him, is run with the efficiency of a large corporation. He’s particularly proud of its commitment to get 100,000 more HIV-infected children on drug treatment plans by next year.
Soni says the world of global health work has rapidly changed in the past five years, thanks in part to a greater commitment from drug firms and more money from governments and major charities.
“It’s no longer that the products are too expensive or we don’t have the money to buy them,” Soni says. “The challenge is health systems in these countries. It’s very exciting because it’s no longer about health, it’s about the development of these countries.”
These days, Soni spends his days flying from meeting to meeting, working with pharmaceutical companies to cut costs, encouraging the foundation’s offices around the world, assisting in fund-raising.
For now, Soni’s life remains in New York, when he can be there. Once, last year, he worked out his travel expenses for the month with his wife on a rare night home. The two laughed when they saw he had woken up on a Sunday in Brazil and gone to bed on Monday in New York, but had managed a 10-hour meeting in London somewhere in between.
On 1 January, the foundation appointed him executive vice-president. He wants to stay to see the 100,000 children commitment through. After that? “I want to go where I can add most value, and I don’t know where that is yet,” Soni says. “I’m trying to answer that as I go.”
He’s a family friend of the Clintons and if Hillary Clinton wins the election in 2008, is there a White House role ahead? Soni admits he’s open “to those possibilities”. With a grin, he adds: “None of my planning is worth anything in my life, so that’s why I answer that question with a big grain of salt.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to interview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jul 30 2007. 12 51 AM IST