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Featured Alumnus: Steve Davis

May 31, 2024

During his keynote address to faculty and students at the 2023 Jackson School Convocation, Steve Davis, recipient of the Jackson School’s 2023 Distinguished Alum Award, described the “pinball approach” he has taken to his life and career, “zigzagging among interesting ideas, opportunities, and jobs.” Since graduating from the Jackson School in 1984 with an MA in East Asian Studies and a focus on China, Davis has had an interesting and varied career.

Currently, he serves as a senior advisor for McKinsey & Company, as a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous roles include serving as the executive strategic advisor and interim director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, China Country Office, and co-chairing the World Health Organization & Digital Health Technical Advisory Group.  He is also the former President and CEO of PATH, a leading global health innovation organization, the former CEO of Corbis, a digital media pioneer, and was an attorney at K&L Gates. He authored the book Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism (Publisher: Wiley 2020), and speaks and writes frequently on topics related to corporate engagement in the areas of social impact, social innovation, and digital health.

Reminiscing about his experiences as a student at the UW, Davis said, “my time here at the Jackson School was only a brief period in a now very long career, but it impacted me in ways that I cannot even describe.” It was during his time in the program that Davis came to love the study of China and “its dynamic place in the world”. In the early 1980’s, China was only beginning to open after the Cultural Revolution and the US had only recently recognized the PRC. At that time, “Chinese Studies was considered pretty esoteric,” according to Davis. While in the program, Davis had the opportunity to be one of the early graduate students to study in Beijing, spending a summer at Beijing University soon after its re-opening. “It was one of the most transformative summers of my life,” Davis said, “I think about it still a lot, and I still have many, many wonderful friends from that summer.”


Photo Credit: Kerry Dahlen


Thinking back on his career, Davis said, “I’ve had the privilege, in my life, to work on a lot of really gritty issues from death penalty reform in China and human rights work as a lawyer, to shaping the information superhighway before we even used the word internet, to fighting for gay rights around the world, to working on health and development in some of the poorest communities around the globe.” How did he keep up his energy while working on such complex issues? “It’s the privilege of working with smart, engaged, globally minded, diverse, and innovative young people,” he said.

More recently, as the executive strategic advisor and interim director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, China Country Office, Davis had the opportunity to work on a project reimagining U.S.-China collaboration on big global concerns, including health security, food security, climate, and humanitarian response. “This is one of our centuries biggest problems to solve,” he said. “I leave almost every conversation inspired and even, at times, optimistic, by the fresh thinking, the creativity, the insights, and the determination of young international experts, scholars, and activists, who are determined to shape a better world in the midst of this new great power competition.”

Addressing the graduating students, Davis said, “I hope you are boundless in your aspirations and excited about your potential for impact, which this degree in International Studies has prepared you for.” He encouraged the students to “take today to celebrate, then tomorrow, put aside any cynicism… and go use the knowledge that you’ve gained at the Jackson School to contribute. Go change the world for the better.”

You can learn more about Steve Davis here.