The U.S. Agency for International Development has brought in former Google engineer and State Department adviser Ann Mei Chang to lead its recently launched Global Development Lab.
Chang will start as the innovation lab’s first executive director, leaving her current role as chief innovation officer with the Mercy Corps, where she focused on helping impoverished communities through the use of mobile technologies. Now she hopes to bring her decades’ worth of experience in Silicon Valley, most notably as a senior engineering director at Google Inc., to the public sector.
“The most effective solutions are those that are cross-sector solutions, because each of the sectors — whether it’s the private sector, the government, the nonprofit sector or academia — brings real distinct aspects and also limitations,” Chang said. “I think that when we can work across all these sectors, that’s when the magic happens.”
USAID’s Global Development Lab launched in April to uplift science- and technology-based development efforts, supporting solutions in water, food security and nutrition, energy, education, and climate change. Most recently, the lab assisted in the innovative response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa through its Ebola Grand Challenge, in partnership with the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Department.
Chang, like many of her former Silicon Valley colleagues, will bring a novel and successful approach to innovation and how it’s conducted, focusing less on specific challenges than broader and more effective workflows that aim to make USAID successful in its mission to eliminate poverty.
“A lot of the value I can add is about approach,” she said. “Most of my time in the private sector I worked in engineering. I knew engineers who were heads down writing code and building products, not necessarily people who were working more on the business side. From that experience what I learned is the ins and outs of how innovation really works in Silicon Valley. It’s not as glamorous as many people might perceive it from the outside. A lot of innovation is just brute force, experimentation, trying different approaches, testing to see what works, taking risks and accepting failure, and coming up with what is the most effective where there can be huge improvements.”
Megan Smith, the newly appointed federal chief technology officer and former Google executive, said in a statement that Chang “will bring that style of leadership to USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab and its partners worldwide as they support under-served communities working to solve some of the biggest challenges of our time.”
While Chang has three years of federal government experience from a previous position with the State Department, this re-entry is an opportunity to pursue her long-term plan to spend the second half of her career as a public servant, “something that felt more meaningful and where I felt like I could make a difference in helping to make the world a better place,” she said.
“I think we’re starting to see more and more of the movement with this next generation and the desire to both participate in the private sector and the excitement there but also be able to bring some of the skills and experience there to the public and social sector,” Chang said. “We’re seeing the U.S. Digital Service really focus on that, which is fairly domestically focused. It’s something I really want to encourage those who are in the technology fields to consider spending part of their career leveraging their skills, which are some of the most in-demand skills around the world right now, to contribute and make the world a better place.”