Diversity at the Top

Martha Choe — an established leader

By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly


Martha Choe

Martha Choe is a jack of all trades. She started out as a high school teacher, moved to commercial banking, then to government services, and now she’s working for the largest global private foundation in the world.

Choe has been sought by former Gov. Gary Locke and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for her firm and effective leadership.

Early life

Choe is the daughter of Korean immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1948 as post-graduate students. Her parents were early immigrant pioneers and settled in New York, where Choe was born.

The Korean community there was small. “It was unusual to see a lot of Koreans back in the day,” Choe said. “But it is really exciting to see Asian American communities grow.”

Seattle has been home to Choe since she was 12 years old. She graduated from Roosevelt High School and studied speech and ethnic studies at the University of Washington.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

On Dec. 4, Choe is being recognized as a Top Contributor by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation for her contributions to the Asian American community. She is currently the chief administrative officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and oversees the Foundation’s Information Technology, Security, and Site Operations teams.

Choe joined in 2004 as the director of the Global Libraries initiative in the Foundation’s Global Development Program.

Choe has had a passion for making the community stronger. “It has been my lifelong passion to give back to the community,” Choe said. “I believe in building the community and making sure we invest in [it].”

At the Gates Foundation, her work ranges from helping children, to serving the most needy community members, to infrastructure, and all the different elements a functional and vibrant community requires.

“We’re connected to a lot of things,” she said of the Gates Foundation. “Most of the work being done in the Pacific Northwest and in Washington has to do with early learning, homelessness, and education.”

Choe said that it has been exciting for her to do global work that focuses on reducing the greatest inequities in the world. Some of Choe’s responsibilities at the Foundation are centered on operations, support work in programs, information technology, facilities, and cross-Foundation initiatives. One of her current projects is centered on the new office opening in Europe.

Giving back

“Giving back and the role of philanthropy is a key partner to making a difference,” Choe said.

Choe has been active in different parts of the community, whether it was through teaching or volunteering her time to the Gates Foundation.

“She has great human relations skills. She can bring people together,” said Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges.

“Martha Choe has not gotten to where she is by getting used to the way things are,” Maury Forman added. He is the managing director of the Washington State Department of Commerce. “She has a history of making a difference in politics, banking, community activism, teaching, and philanthropy. She combines her vision and passion, especially for those less fortunate for the sole purpose of changing the world and making it a better place to live.”

Choe was the director of the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and served on the Seattle City Council for two terms. During her years in the government sector, she covered both community and economic trade because it was important for both the urban and rural parts of Washington.

“Martha gets things done. She’s honest. That’s why Gov. Gary Locke asked her to be the director of our State Department of Commerce, Economic, Trade, and Development,” said Peter Ku, board member of City University.


Significantly, Choe partnered with different government officials to help put together a winning bid to keep Boeing from moving out of state in 2003. At the time, the Boeing work was attributed to Gary Locke, but the multi-jurisdictional team across government agencies also cooperated closely with Boeing. Choe led the team of approximately 200 people.

By being able to be self-critical, they decided who they thought were competitors and asked questions to sharpen their thinking. And in turn, Boeing was able to reflect and make their final decision. “We were aggressive about putting together a winning bid,” Choe said.

The glass ceiling

Choe felt that every position that she has held has been different and wonderful.

“Being the first [woman and Korean] sends encouragement and a promise that others can follow,” she said.

“Martha has been a personal role model for me,” said King TV anchor Lori Matsukawa. “She gets a lot done with few fireworks. So quiet, yet so effective.”

Choe said that much of the community saw her leadership as a possibility for their children to do the same. “Glass ceilings have continued to fall.”

One of her life lessons has been that “regardless of what our jobs or where we work, we need to know how change is going to come our way.”

Today, Choe makes sure that she is a continuous learner who knows how to leverage her past experiences to current situations. “For me, that’s worked well because it’s been fun and exciting to see what unfolds and evolves,” Choe said. ♦

For more information about the Gates Foundation, visit www.gatesfoundation.org. For more information about the 2009 Top Contributors to the Asian Community awards dinner on Dec. 4 or to buy tickets, visit top.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.

Nina Huang can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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