Helene Gayle is looking ‘to bring Spelman to the world and the world to Spelman’
By Maria Saporta
As the next president of Spelman College, Helene Gayle is boomeranging back to Atlanta — her on-again, off-again home for decades.
Gayle, in an exclusive Zoom interview with SaportaReport, Gayle recounted all the times she’s come and left Atlanta — never intending to return.
“I guess now it’s my 5th time coming back,” Gayle said. “I laugh because people always think Atlanta is the draw. I’ve left Atlanta three or four times, always swearing I would never come back. Not because I don’t like Atlanta. It’s always been a job that’s pulled me to the city, and I’ve ended up loving both.”
Gayle first came to Atlanta in 1984 to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She then went on assignment to Washington, D.C. first with the CDC and then with U.S. AID.
Gayle returned to Atlanta in 1995 to work with the new HIV/AIDs Center. She then got a job with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where she was for five years.
In 2006, Gayle returned to Atlanta to become president and CEO of the Atlanta-based international relief organization — CARE — where she spent nearly a decade.
Gayle left Atlanta in 2015 to head up a non-profit arm of the McKinsey consulting firm, and then in 2017, she was named president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s largest community foundations.
During her tenure, the Trust’s assets grew from $2.8 billion to $4.7 billion. It also adopted a strategic plan that sought to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap in Chicago.
“When I took this job at the Chicago Community Trust, I fully expected it would be the last full-time job I would have,” Gayle said. “I was really, and still am, very happy to do it. It’s been an incredible opportunity to do a lot of the things I did at CARE, but at a community level. It’s the first time I lived in a city where my job had something to do with the city.”
Gayle expected to stay in Chicago for at least a couple of years, but then she was contacted by the search firm looking for Spelman’s next president to Mary Schmidt Campbell, who is retiring at the end of this academic year in June.
Gayle has become increasingly focused on opportunities to mentor the next generation, saying “mentoring the next generation has always been very important.”
For her, Spelman offered her an opportunity to build upon the legacy of “this historic, iconic” HBCU.
“Its whole mission is to inspire and shape the lives of young women of African descent, women who want to be change-makers — women who believe they can make a difference in the world,” she said. “There could be nothing more inspiring.”
Spelman ranks at the top among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). For 15 years in a row, U.S. News and World Report has named Spelman as the highest-ranked HBCU in the country. In 2022, Spelman was named as the National Science Foundation’s number one baccalaureate institution of Black or African American science and engineering doctorate recipients, and the institution is a top producer of Fulbright Scholars.
“I just felt this was an opportunity that met with my passion,” Gayle said. “This was how I wanted to make the biggest mark at this point in my life.”
Given the racial unrest of the past couple of years and a greater sensitivity to diversity, equity and inclusion, HBCUs are finally gaining greater appreciation for the roles they have played in education.
“They really have stood the test of time,” Gayle said. “But I do think we’re at that kind of breakthrough moment where there is more appreciation and respect for the role of HBCUs. Compared to other HBCUs Spelman punches way above its financial weight, but I think there’s an opportunity to really break into another category. Spelman has the largest endowment [among HBCUs], but it still isn’t where it could be.”
Gayle said many students who would like to attend Spelman can’t afford the tuition, or they end up being saddled with high debts upon graduation.
“First and foremost, I want to make sure that every young woman who wants to get the Spelman experience has that opportunity and finances are not a barrier,” said Gayle, who added Spelman also could benefit from greater investments in faculty and facilities.
“Even though as we are already shooting on, on all cylinders. I still think there’s more that can be done,” Gayle said. “There’s a real global opportunity. Spelman already attracts women from the African diaspora. And there’s even more opportunity to bring Spelman to the world and the world to Spelman. It is an institution that has such a global reputation, and there’s even more that could be done to make it even more global, more accessible to other parts of the world.”
Gayle’s international experiences with CDC, Gates and CARE could lead to Spelman growing as a global institution. While in Atlanta, Gayle helped convene other global nonprofits to work more closely together and solidify Atlanta as a center for global health.
“I’ve had a life of service that allowed me to make contributions to society,” she said. “That was what I started out my career hoping to do, and I’ve been able to do that in a really remarkable ways with several remarkable, institutions.”
Gayle also has another strong tie to Atlanta. Since 2013, she has served on the board of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., another global powerhouse.
So, Gayle not only is envisioning stronger relationships between Spelman and Atlanta’s global health community, but she also believes there can be greater collaboration among its universities and colleges.
“Atlanta has an incredible depth of institutions of higher ed,” Gayle said. “I believe there are more opportunities to deepen some of those partnerships with Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory, Agnes Scott, Oglethorpe and the rest of the Atlanta University Center.”
For example, she said she would be open to Spelman students joining programs in other schools as well as other schools to “share in the Spelman experience.” She also sees an opportunity for “Spelman to get even more involved in the Atlanta community” by students getting “immersed in the city where they live, understanding how cities work” and ways to get engaged with Atlanta. The city would benefit, and so would the students, Gayle said, mentioning she would like to see greater engagement with the neighborhoods around Spelman.
Gayle, 66, plans to transition from Chicago to Atlanta in July, and she’ll be fully in place on Aug. 1. In the interview, Gayle said she now has come to accept that Atlanta is her home base.
“There’s something going on in Atlanta with the city having the kind of institutions that attracted me to it,” Gayle said. “I also love Atlanta. I’ve spent more time in Atlanta than any place my entire life. It does feel very much like home.”