Deputy Director of China Program, Head of Health, Innovation & Partnerships - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
‘We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes’ so goes the old saying and for Alex Ng it’s a line that has particular significance.
A top student in chemistry throughout his time at school, he remembers one particular exam in his 6th Form year at Auckland Grammar; not for the result but for the lesson it taught him early in his career.
“It was an end of term exam and I did very poorly and actually failed which was unheard of for me. But this wasn’t just any exam; it would be used to decide who would be selected for the International Chemistry Olympiad training camp and I desperately wanted to be included. Two of my teachers asked me to stay behind after class and the first thing they asked was how I was feeling and sought to understand whether there were reasons for my unusual underperformance. But there were none. A couple of weeks later when it was time to announce the students selected for the training camp, I was very surprised to hear my name read out. My teachers had believed in me and I had been given a second chance.”
Alex says the experience has been imprinted in his brain ever since and proved to him the power of second chances and demonstrating a belief in others.
“I was more motivated than ever to prove to them that I was worthy of their trust. The short-term outcome was my selection for the NZ International Chemistry Olympiad team but I also went on to gain 1st place in all my subsequent chemistry exams and graduate as dux of AGS.”
Medicine had always been the obvious career goal. Graduating with a Bachelor of Human Biology, including winning the overall senior prize and going on to complete his MBChB with distinction and then completing a Postgrad Diploma in Informatics at Otago while being a first year house officer, Alex says he had always been drawn to working in public health.
“Getting into public health came with its own set of complications. My ideal setup would be to concurrently dual train in clinical medicine and public health. However I was advised to specialise in clinical medicine first before pursuing studies in public health, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I always get driven a lot more when I want to prove someone wrong!”
So after completing two years as a resident at Middlemore Hospital and against the wishes of the medical establishment it was off to Harvard to undertake a Master of Public Health in Health Policy and Management.
Despite being eligible for both Fullbright and Commonwealth scholarships, Alex decided to go it alone in order to avoid the restriction of being unable to stay in the U.S. following the completion of his studies, which is a requirement of the student visas that come with the scholarships.
As it turns out, it was a fortuitous decision. Not long after starting his studies he was offered a role within the healthcare practice of the global management consultancy McKinsey & Company based in New Jersey for two years before being assigned to the Hong Kong office in 2008, where his first task was to work on the healthcare reform for the China Ministry of Health.
In 2015, opportunity knocked once more, this time in the form of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The world’s largest philanthropy fund was after someone to lead its Health, Innovation & Partnership team in China and Alex admits he didn’t need a lot of convincing.
“The opportunity to build partnerships with key health stakeholders in China, including the Chinese government, the private sector and global health providers is the ultimate challenge for someone like myself, particularly when you have the scale and influence of an organisation like the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates himself.
It allows us to identify, develop and deliver high-quality, low cost health products, effective programs and policies in China and other developing countries, in order to tackle endemic diseases and urgent health needs to support sustainable development in these countries.”
And what’s it like to work with the great man himself?
“It’s always fun convincing him of something and getting him to agree. He has this phenomenal pulling power by virtue of who he is so he can basically pick up the phone and get to whoever he wants. He comes to China once to twice a year and I get to sit in on all his meetings so I’m constantly learning from him.”
Alex sums himself up this way: “As a physician, educator, management consultant and leading a health-focused philanthropic program in China, my personal mission is to support the under-privileged, the under-served and make this world more equitable.”
And the big goal: “To one day lead the World Health Organisation or a similar type of body that can really drive home the global health I aspire to deliver.”