Taking flight from a global leadership role at Microsoft to help bring sight to thousands in need with SightLife.
Leading a nonprofit wasn’t really part of Claire Bonilla’s career plan. Methodical, driven, endlessly curious, and armed with a fresh master’s degree from the London School of Economics, Bonilla set out to make a difference in the for-profit sector.
As a consultant for Ernst & Young, her work focused on change management. Scooped up by Microsoft two years later, she climbed a management ladder that touched a swath of the company’s verticals, including managing one of the firm’s premier global assets, Microsoft Technology Centers.
Bonilla found a sweet spot in disaster response, managing that initiative for several years until her appointment as General Manager of Microsoft’s Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance for Operations program.
Eighteen years after joining the third largest tech company on the planet, while leading one of the firm’s most important divisions—and at a point in her career when most executives settle into the roles that will gild their retirement plans—Bonilla walked away.
The Road from Risk Management to Restored Sight
As most high school seniors do, Bonilla spent her last days of adolescence thinking about the future. For many of us who came of age in the 1980s, those thoughts were apt to linger on proms, parties, and the promise of freedom. Not so with Bonilla.
“I was really torn between going into the medical field for global health, and international business,” she recalled.
“At the time, in the late ’80s, there was so much dynamic reshaping in the marketplace and politically. It was an exciting time. I consciously thought, ‘okay, I’m torn, but I’ll go ahead and do international business because it’s so exciting right now, and halfway through my life i’ll switch over and become a doctor.’ That just seemed like a practical path.”
That halfway point arrived when Bonilla was navigating a wildly successful stint at Microsoft. Married with three young children, she was inspired by her youngsters’ efforts to decide what they would each want to be when they grew up. Bonilla and her husband realized that the time was right to follow through with their dreams of making a more personal positive impact on the world.
“I had a very successful career at Microsoft. I felt blessed to move across many profit and loss centers in many organizations, and it was a tremendous learning curve and experience for me as a global business leader,” she said.
“I felt I had acquired all these wonderful skills and assets, and in the defining years of running the humanitarian response, I saw the power of what happens when you can rally and bring together these tremendous assets and apply them in a very intentional way to help developing countries.
“When my husband and I had these midlife crises, for me, it was more about an intentional move from success to being able to apply that success to do something of significance in the world with the experience I’d gained. It was a very intentional move for me.”
As planned, Bonilla began her pre-med studies. However, while working as a board member for the Washington State Global Health Alliance, she met other successful private sector executives who wanted to apply their business skills to areas of societal need, including the then-CEO of SightLife, Monty Montoya.
“I really fell in love with the organization,” she confessed. When Montoya asked her to fill the position of Chief Global Officer, she did. “It was an interesting time, and when my husband and I both decided we wanted to shift jobs we did financial planning, and set out a plan to do an intentional 10-year transition,” she remembered.
“I knew that the time that I could commit to moving the needle on global health at an organizational level. Making a bigger impact for SightLife’s case on sight restoring surgery meant that each month I could probably impact more lives on the health front than if I followed the MD path as an individual clinician.”
That savvy assessment, of course, proved true. Today, Bonilla is the CEO.
SightLife’s Priceless Impact
“The ability to sit back now and say that each month we restore sight to over 2,000 individuals both in the US and developing countries, who, without our work wouldn’t have access to sight-restoring surgery, is a better return on my own investment than I can imagine any day with a for profit company.”
Intention as a Path to Transition
The impulse to share one’s success in the private arena with causes that resonate on a personal level, while common, can be fraught with complexity once put into practice. Coming from a global behemoth with seemingly limitless financial and political resources, Bonilla prepared herself to deal with less-than positive perceptions of corporate influence by her new colleagues in the nonprofit healthcare space.
“Being aware of that potential, I came in hyper-conscious and hyper-sensitive that this could be a limiting factor for me. Luckily, I work with a great group of peers, but from time to time they’d pull me aside and say “you’re doing great, but you might not want to say ‘we did it this way in Microsoft because.’ I had some really great coaching, but I was incredibly intentional about that risk. My first conscious act was to listen, understand, and not assume and direct.”
Bonilla’s time on both the Washington Global Health Alliance board and the Puget Sound Leadership Board for Medical Teams International also helped her find early balance. Coming aboard a mature nonprofit—SightLife was founded in 1969—raised questions of how to best accomplish objectives with a dramatically slimmer budget.
Doing More With Less
“I was coming from a heavily resourced company where decisions with impact happen incredibly quickly, to an environment where scarcer resources mean you may not be able to attract the top talent. You might not have the money to move the needle as quickly as you’re used to. I wondered how it would be in that environment.
“What I was fervently surprised by was that those concerns were completely irrelevant. Not only do we get top talent and intellectual horsepower here, but there’s passion behind it, which is better fuel for impact than dollars any day. I would much rather have inspired, passionate employees that want to change the world than extra dollars I could throw at projects.”
“People find ways to do amazing things because they are convicted and inspired by the outcome. The outcome we have here is incredibly tangible.”
The Impact of Innovative Leadership
As a collaborative leader, Bonilla brings her philosophy of empowerment, accountability and performance-based management to bear on SightLife’s mission.
“Many leaders will say the best way to get alignment is to tell people where to stand. I’m definitely not dictatorial,” she confessed. “When you have talent, the goal is to help each individual reach their full potential. When people have reached their highest potential, aligned with a good strategy, your business will, too. It’s creating development opportunities, creating forums for people to share ideas and take risks against their own ideas, and to thrive. It’s not the CEO that grows the business, the CEO helps grow the people. 100 great ideas will have more impact than five of my own.
“There’s got to be a positive ROI in nonprofits,” she added. “It doesn’t mean a better payout and bigger stock options if there is a positive return; it means that you’re transforming and changing someone’s life. The gift of sight really allows people to reenter the workforce, having marriage and a family when they would have been written off by other countries because they couldn’t see.
“That ROI has a higher meaning and is a higher driver for efficiency in a non-profit. Creating the dynamics so people understand the day to day activities, their spend and their productivity can ultimately impact the number of lives we can change and tying that all together is a very powerful tool.”
Ten million people around the world are living with corneal blindness. In the developing world, the inability to see can severely limit their ability to attend school, find work, and even to be considered as a viable marriage partner or parent.
“We have stories where restoring sight means restoring family unity,” Bonilla explained. “I have an employee right now who is in Nepal who is working with trained community volunteers that had previously had been written off by society: they were widowed, and they were never approved to finish their education.
“We are training these women now to work in their villages and do local screening to prevent blindness and get the right treatment, and even provide some early treatment to eliminate blindness in their community. So they’ve moved from a position in their community of irrelevance to high medical technical relevance, and the self-worth these women get is amazing.”
Bonilla’s team finds innovative ways to stretch every dollar for the biggest impact. “In the past three years since I’ve been running the international side, we’ve grown the number of transplants we’ve provided for developing countries free of charge by an average of 35 percent per year, and there’s only been a maximum increase in operating costs each year of 10 percent.”
This year alone, SightLife will restore sight for nearly 20,000 individuals that otherwise would not have access to sight restoring surgery.
Staying the Course for a Brighter Future
With three children aged 10, 14, and 20, the challenges of being the face of a global nonprofit means lots of time on the road—and too much time away from the stability and comfort of family. This is hardly new territory for Bonilla, who was a road warrior in her time at Microsoft.
“When you’re raising kids it’s a tough decision. Every parent asks, ‘what am I sacrificing with my own children and with the potential weight I put on my partner to leave the house every day and go do business for someone,’” she said.
“The big difference for me here at SightLife is that I love my time in the field. When I travel I’m meeting with the lives we change. For instance, when we are training a corneal surgeon in a remote village in India so they can start to transform the 190,000 blind people in their state that need corneal surgeries.
“Seeing the joy and meaning in the surgeon, to take a bandage off a patient who walked 150 miles just to get that surgery and who has never seen their grandkids before, and to see that joy in their eyes,” she pondered quietly.
A Fresh Perspective
“We live in a bubble here in the US and in developed countries, and it’s easy to lose sight of the need. It’s easy to lose sight that even being blind in the US there’s so much available to help those people to be a member of society that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to take my kids with me and have them experience the harsh realities of what other people have to live with, and what a dramatic difference it makes to step out of your comfort zone and give what is just a little bit of your time and your resources, and how meaningful that is and life changing for someone else in need.
“I have to admit, gratitude has become a character in my kids in a way that it wasn’t before. I’m forever grateful for that.”
Bonilla’s passion, persistence and foresight—buoyed a by an unshakable connection to her family and a belief in the power of intentional living—has led her to reach out for her most cherished dreams. As those dreams become reality, and as thousands of lives improve as a result of her leadership, she remains humbled and awed.
“For me, this is a tremendous marriage of success and experience that I’ve had in the past and I’m applying it to truly make a significant impact in the world.”
For all of her generous heart and indefatigable spirit, Bonilla’s concerns never stray far from the bottom line. When we theorized that she couldn’t have helped nearly as many people in a medical specialty practice as she does through SightLife, she laughed, “It would be interesting to calculate the number of transplants we would have influenced over that time in med school. I’ll have to run those numbers.”