Investing in making a difference

Studying at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) gives you opportunities to explore the world – and yourself. That is just one of the upbeat messages delivered by Bart Cornelissen when discussing the part that his education at RSM played in getting him to where he is today; senior finance manager at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, USA.

By Brian Bollen

Looking back, Bart acknowledges that his time at RSM helped to shape his world view. ‘The work done at RSM was perfect preparation,’ he says. ‘The School encourages a sense of curiosity. As a result, I never hesitate to ask questions and that is one of the most important aspects of my role today.’

Financial management discipline

Bart joined RSM after completing high school in 1996 and graduated with an MSc in Business Administration. His studies included a semester exchange at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, which in turn led to an extended period working in that country, Germany and Austria.

What exactly does he do at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? ‘I lead the financial management support team for malaria and what we refer to as neglected tropical diseases, in the Foundation’s global health division,’ he replies. ‘My job is to apply financial and management discipline to a portfolio of possible new drugs and vaccines, just as traditional asset managers would apply to their investments in bonds, equities and other asset classes,’ he continues.

Active involvement

The Foundation, which has a work force of around 1,500 people, does not just passively award research funding. Instead, it sees the beneficiaries of the money as partners. It is famous around the world for this approach, which helps it to maximise the benefit from each dollar committed. In total, the Foundation invests about US$5bn a year.

‘We vet each potential partner and proposal thoroughly before deciding to invest and then afterwards manage the investment actively,’ he says. ‘Very actively,’ he adds, for emphasis.

‘We rely on our partners to deliver the clinical tools that are needed to tackle the diseases that we target,’ he says. ‘For instance, we are currently trying to develop a new anti-malaria drug. But we bring far more to the table than just money. We bring discipline, experience, expertise and a determination to achieve a positive outcome.’

Repeatable strategy

The process is relatively simple, repeatable and above all effective, he explains. ‘First, we develop a strategy, to tackle sleeping sickness, for example. Second, we identify potential applicants for investment and ask them to submit a pre-proposal. We call this concept development. Third, they set out what they mean in detail, and what they need.’

‘The next phase is development, and this is the first time that I engage personally with a proposal. We set out a rough estimate of the finance needed and might do an assessment of the organisation’s capacity for carrying out the work. Do they have the right team and the right governance in place? At the same time, the would-be recipient carries out more work to assess the eventual impact of the funding; in short, to show us the return that we can expect.’

Fighting inequality

‘Then we assess the budget and we define how we will structure payments,” he says. “This process can take months, especially when there are tens of millions of dollars involved. We do make big bets.’

‘We sign an agreement but we are still not done. We set out a programme detailing how the investment will be managed over, say, a five-year timetable, with one or two meetings a year to chart progress.’ The process is rigorous, involved and time-consuming.

Bart grew up in the small town of Leerdam in the Netherlands, around a 15-minute drive from Utrecht. Inspired by the example set by his family, he acquired a taste for helping others in early life. In particular, a trip to India as a volunteer worker made a lasting impression.

‘The experience of realising how privileged we are in the western world hit home, hard,’ he says. ‘You set foot in India and you see people who share our ambitions to go to school, and beyond, but simply cannot. We all ought to think about helping to solve such inequality.’

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2018 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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