After a magnitude 7.0 earthquake ravaged Haiti in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, Alec Ross had his mind on one thing: texting.
As the senior adviser for innovation under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ross led the State Department team that came up with the 90999 code that people could send a text to and automatically add $10 to their cellphone bills as donations to the American Red Cross relief effort in Haiti. In two weeks, more than $40 million was raised through the cellphone campaign.
This is 21st-century statesmanship, and Ross is one of its key players.
While working at the U.S. State Department carries with it an air of distinction and gravitas, the role of senior adviser for innovation, a position created specifically for Ross in 2009, is hardly some exercise in pinkies-up, tea-sipping diplomacy. Or, as Ross calls it: “White guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties. Over a mahogany table. With a flag flying in the background.”
Granted, Ross, 41, spends nearly three-quarters of his time abroad—he had just spent a week in Lebanon and the West Bank when we met in mid-December—and has racked up 939,000 airline miles during almost three years. But his position is a hybrid of diplomacy and technology. It’s Ross on his BlackBerry tweeting foreign policy messages to his more than 370,000 followers. It’s devising technologies that keep Syrian activists safe from Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless grip. It’s setting up tech camps in African countries, taking “hipster CEOs” and “rock star American techies” and having them work on projects to identify sources of clean water. Or it’s paying Afghani police forces quickly through mobile phone banking so they won’t be forced to fight for the Taliban in order to feed their families.
Ross grew up in Charleston, W.Va., studied history at Northwestern University and moved to Baltimore in 1994 as a Teach for America fellow. For two years, he taught social studies and language arts at Booker T. Washington Middle School; his wife, Felicity, was part of the same cohort, teaching math in the classroom across the hall. Whereas Felicity remained a teacher for 10 more years, Ross took what he saw in the classroom and co-founded One Economy, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to provide those at the lower end of the economic spectrum access to digital tools essential for success in the 21st century.
“We were witnessing the changing nature of the economy in cities like Baltimore because of globalization,” says Ross. “I got into technology because the kids that I taught at Booker T … I knew wouldn’t be able to get jobs at Sparrows Point or at a factory or at the port.”
One Economy’s efforts include getting broadband Internet access installed in affordable housing units, providing community technology education and training youths in software programming, media production and a slew of other new economy skills.
“He likes to go out into the field and find out answers,” says Jared Cohen, who served as Ross’ counterpart at the State Department before leaving in 2010 to head up Google Ideas. “There are very few instances where he would generate traditional ideas.”
The penchant for unconventionality served Ross well at One Economy, where his strategy for getting in touch with hotshot CEOs was to come up with 15 variations of their names in an email address then message them all. It also proved useful when he volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, where he was selected to help craft media and technology policy. And it caught the eye of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, which, once she was named secretary of state, eventually pulled Ross into the State Department, and out of One Economy.
“[We] used to refer to him as a pit bull,” says David Saunier, president and co-founder of One Economy. “He aggressively pursues everything he wants to have happen.”
“I’ve been called a pit bull more than once,” Ross says. “I’m not gonna let anything stop me, but I’m also dog loyal.”
When asked how he and the big dog, Secretary Clinton, communicate, Ross politely says he can’t comment on her texting habits. But he does admit that when he first started out as the senior adviser, he had to fight the urge to engage his detractors on Twitter. “At first when I would read these messages, I would want to respond—it really pissed me off—but then I came to understand these were people with just too much time on their hands,” he says.
People who aren’t worth any time when your days involve booking flights to refugee camps in the Congo, meeting with Clinton about making Internet freedom a global human rights agenda and crossing a Hamas procession walking through the streets of Hebron in the West Bank to speak to students at Palestine Polytechnic University.
As for Ross’ plan once Clinton steps down as Secretary of State, he says he may remain in government and continue to promote an innovation agenda within the State Department.
According to Cohen, two types of people live inside the Beltway: those who are concerned about their job titles and those who take jobs because they want to solve problems. Ross is the
latter—the job doesn’t matter, as long as he’s doing something that he defines as a “global challenge.”
And, anyway, he doesn’t live inside the Beltway-—he lives in Guilford with his wife and their three children, including 5-year-old son Sawyer, a zealous Ray Rice fan. Since leaving teaching,
Felicity now does education consulting and serves as the chess coach for her children’s school. “Part of what appeals to me about Baltimore is it’s a real city with real people,” says Ross.
“Nobody’s looking over your shoulder to see if there’s somebody more important around. It’s not my goal necessarily to move to New York or Washington.”
For now, Ross is sure of only one thing: “Whenever I do leave government … I imagine that it could be hard for me to be doing work that isn’t on the front page of the newspaper.”