Inside the Italian villa that launched some of the world’s great philanthropic programs

A photo of a picturesque Italian town on the shores of a lake.
The Villa Serbelloni overlooking Lake Como in Italy, home to the Bellagio Center, as it looked in 1910. | Universal Images Group via Getty

For more than 60 years, the Rockefeller Foundation has hosted scientists, academics, and artists for a unique summer program.

In the annals of ostentatious philanthropic giving, it’s hard to beat Helena Holbrook Walker, an American heiress turned Italian noble. In 1959, shortly before her death, Walker gifted her gorgeous Villa Serbelloni on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como to the Rockefeller Foundation for “purposes connected with the promotion of international understanding.”

That became the Bellagio Center, where each year Rockefeller hosts dozens of hand-selected scientists, artists, academics, and more for a four-week residency amid the Italian Alps. Their mission, as Zia Khan, Rockefeller’s senior vice president for innovation, told me, is to combine their disparate skills and experiences to “create a new shared knowledge” that can be put to work solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. (Disclosure: The Rockefeller Foundation helped support Future Perfect in 2018 and 2019.)

Bellagio alumni include names like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maya Angelou, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Center provided a launching pad for historic initiatives like the Green Revolution and the delivery of badly needed HIV drugs to the Global South, which was crystalized with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, put into place two decades ago this year. Today Rockefeller will announce its 2023 residents, including names like data scientist Cathy O’Neil, journalist Julia Angwin, and filmmaker dream hampton.

I spoke with Khan and Rockefeller vice president of innovation Sarah Geisenheimer about Bellagio’s history, the challenge of mixing academic disciplines, and the need for a renewed kind of public intellectual.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bryan Walsh

What can Bellagio do that other convocations or summits can’t? What’s special about gathering these people at this specific place, beyond the backdrop?

Zia Khan

There’s a phrase that we use sometimes, which is that Bellagio operates outside of time. People are trying to learn, to connect at such hyperspeed today, that Bellagio can solve a specific problem, which is really giving the time and space for people to meaningfully think, talk to each other, and create a new shared knowledge in a way that I don’t think you can do anywhere else. Because it’s connected to the Rockefeller Foundation, we can help sense and steer things and pick up on the back end as well.

Bryan Walsh

Sarah, it’s your job to oversee the nuts and bolts of putting together a class of residents. So what do you look for when you do that? What does a successful class look like, and how do you know this is working?

Sarah Geisenheimer

It’s really about a constellation of different factors. Individual by individual, we’re looking for breakthrough ideas or the potential for a breakthrough, as well as someone who’s well established in their career so that they can actually make that idea come to fruition. And then we also look for something that’s a bit more intangible: curiosity and collegiality. People go into Bellagio thinking, “I’m going to work on my book and maybe I’ll get to meet some interesting people,” or, “I’m going to work on this strategic plan.”

But they come out of Bellagio consistently transformed. You’ve got a poet having dinner with an astrophysicist and they could not figure out from reading their bios on the page before they arrive in Italy how they might connect. But they somehow figured out they’re either friends or they’re teaching each other’s classes, or they figure out how to reframe what the other is doing. When we think about strategic philanthropy, our theory of change, it can be hard to measure that, but it’s truly transformative for people and the world.

Bryan Walsh

So many of the problems we face today aren’t siloed in a single field, whether it’s climate change, AI, or global poverty. At the same time, academic or creative fields tend to be siloed; it’s hard enough for any one expert to master their field, let alone master others. So is this kind of cross-pollination all the more important at this moment?

Zia Khan

Let me give you a metaphor I really liked. If you have a bunch of different fruit, and they’re just on their own side by side, you get fruit salad. What happens at Bellagio is we get smoothies because the residents take the time to deeply understand what each other is talking about and they can really blend their ideas in an effective way, and make something new that didn’t exist before.

Bryan Walsh

You’ve mentioned that you’re looking for a mix of disciplines in the residents, but what other qualities do they need?

Zia Khan

It’s interesting because the selection criteria has become more important now than it used to be when we started because of this whole industry that has been created around the concept of thought leaders. And we’re not looking for thought leaders in terms of people who have an idea or want to promote an idea, who have a business model around their idea. We’re really looking more for public intellectual types. That means people who engage on a wide range of topics who are processing the world, evolving their thinking, and don’t necessarily have just one thing that they’re trying to hang their hat on. I’m not trying to criticize any other group, but it’s not the person who has nailed the 15-minute presentation of their idea.

Bryan Walsh

But is there also somewhat of a throwback element to this, back to a time when the work of a public intellectual meant something important?

Zia Khan

I think things did move slower and people were more reflective and took more time and were in person a little bit more as they produced knowledge. I think back to the time when the president of Harvard University was someone whose opinion mattered, in the 1920s in the 1930s, on big public issues that arose. The problem is that it wasn’t a very diverse set of people — public intellectuals were a narrow group of people in the northeast of the country. But the public had a certain trust in them.

We’re looking for people who are working on bodies of work. But there’s also a certain type of person who can be really curious and who can inform someone else’s thinking through their broad life experience and just take in ideas. And we think that collective benefit is much stronger if we can find those people.

Bryan Walsh

How does Bellagio fit into the larger goals of the Rockefeller Foundation? When you’re working on specific projects, like in global health or climate change, you can have specific metrics that you’re looking to measure. But what are you aiming to measure with this?

Zia Khan

We’re always trying to really push the frontiers because the problems are just too big out in the world. We will always have a strategy, and every 10 years, the focus changes. But in general, we’ve been around for a long time and the world expects us to be on the frontier of many, many issues. So even though we don’t have an explicit gender strategy, we believe gender is important. That’s why Sarah’s team will put out a call for people who are focusing on gender work. Same with racial and economic opportunity.

The second is we are a foundation that focuses on innovation. And so this is a great way to spot people who are thinking about creative and interesting ideas. With innovation in the social sectors, you might have a great solution, but it really needs to get adapted, twisted, and formed to fit into a bigger system. Maybe two years down the road, there’s a window where someone’s come up with a great solution, but they’re missing a policy expert. We can sort of weave them into that.

Sarah has used a phrase I like: “Let’s use what we find.” That’s just a very different approach than to go hunting for something. It’s the challenge we always face: How can we describe the impact if there’s no single measure? It’s just these stories, but we have so much confidence in the people that we can point to the examples.

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