Bill and Melinda Gates announced the death of Sam Dryden, a friend and mentor who was the Director of Agricultural Development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dryden, who was 67 years old, died on August 10. Bill and Melinda Gates said that a recent illness forced him to step down from the foundation.
“We were deeply saddened to learn that our friend, mentor, and advisor Sam Dryden died this morning. Sam led our foundation’s agricultural development work for years, shaping the way we think about development in general, and even after his illness forced him to step down, he continued to work tirelessly toward a better future for smallholder farmers in developing countries,” the statement reads.
“We spent an afternoon together and it changed my mind,” Dryden, who didn’t want to take the job with the Gates, told Girst. “I told him I had no idea how to do this job, and there were other people who could do it better. He said, no, he didn’t think anyone had ever had this job before. And he knew I had this condition, and we knew it had about a five-year window. He said he had looked into it and, while it didn’t have a happy ending, it had some productive years and we ought to use them.”
Here’s what you need to know about Dryden’s life and career.
1. Dryden Was the Director of Agricultural Development for the Gates Foundation
According to Dryden’s LinkedIn page, he served as the Director of Agricultural Development Strategy at the Gates Foundation from 2010 to 2013, when his illness forced him to leave. It was the foundation’s largest strategy area and made $400 million in annual investments in farmer productivity in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Dryden noted on LinkedIn.
“Sam’s generosity as a friend and mentor to us and countless others was legendary. He was as likely to be on the phone with the waiter at his favorite restaurant or the young son or daughter of an old friend as with the head of the World Food Programme or the minister of agriculture of a large country,” the Gates said in a statement. “Sam was curious about everyone. He loved everyone. And so many people loved him back. As two of those people, we thank him for what we learned from him, for the impact his work had on millions, and for the joy he brought into our lives.”
When Dryden was hired in 2010, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, told the Seattle Times, “His strong leadership qualities will help the team deliver on our strategy to help small farmers improve their lives.”
2. Dryden Worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce
Dryden graduated from Emory University in 1973 with a B.S. in Economics. After graduation, he worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis for a year. After that, he took a job at Union Carbide. He also founded Agrigenetics Corporation, and was President of Big Stone Inc.
The Seattle Times notes that Agrigenetics is part of Dow AgroSciences now.
When Dryden joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it was under a cloud of suspicion from critics who thought Gates hiring him was a sign that the billionaire was backing American-style chemical-based companies that hurt poor famers. Dryden rejected this notion, telling The Guardian in 2012 that only five percent of Gates’ agricultural money was directed to transgenic research. The rest of the funds is devoted to bettering farming practices by traditional means.
In a post on Impatient Optimists in 2013, Dryden wrote that he felt most passionately about was providing poor farmers a choice when it comes to GMOs (genetically modified organism).
“What is so often missed in the debate about GMOs is choice: the choice for a poor farmer to consider planting a maize crop which could cope with droughts that are becoming ever more frequent; the choice to grow rice that provides the nutrition her child needs to prevent blindness; or put simply, a choice that we in the west take for granted,” Dryden wrote in 2013.
3. Dryden Was Married to Documentary Filmmaker Sandy McLeod
Dryden’s widow is documentary filmmaker Sandy McLeod, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 2003 film Asylum. Her first full-length film was Seeds of Time, which debuted at the South By Southwest Film Festival in 2014. The film is about the state of food around the world.
“Once I got over the initial shock that such an incredible coincidence could happen, I decided that I wanted to meet Cary to see if there was a film there,” McLeod told Indiewire. “After that first interview, I began to understand the importance of what he was doing and realize that this information is fundamental to an educated conversation about food security (which we need to be having more of).”
As The Ledger Independent notes, Dryden was the son of Hazel and Ray Dryden, who both served as superintendents.
4. He Was Also a Senior Fellow at Imperial College
After Dryden left the Gates Foundation, he took a position as a Senior Fellow at Imperial College in the U.K. There, he was a co-leader of an “action oriented research initiative advocating for digital technologies that advance African farmers’ productivity in a sustainable and inclusive manner, with Kofi Annan and others.”
He collaborated with Kofi Annan on Foreign Affairs articles that discussed how food and agricultural policies in Africa should be changed.
“Food systems cannot be created quickly out of whole cloth. They tend to evolve incrementally over time. But in digital technology, today’s African leaders have a powerful tool they can deploy to help clear away the primary obstacle to progress: the profound isolation of the vast majority of smallholder farmers,” Dryden and Annan wrote in 2015.
5. He Was the CEO of Emergent Genetics, a Cotton Seed Company Now Owned by Monsanto
According to Dryden’s Bloomberg profile, Dryden had over 25 years of experience in the agriculture and biotechnology field. He was also a member of the Design Advisory Committee of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and other international organizations.
Before working with the Gates Foundation, Dryden was CEO of Emergent Genetics from 1997 to 2007 and Managing Director of Wolfensohn LLC from January 2007 to January 2010.
As Southwest FarmPress reported in February 2005, the Monsanto Company acquired Emergent Genetics for $300 million. At the time, Emergent was the third-largest American cotton seed company. Dryden was CEO of the company with Mark Wong.
After leaving Emergent, Dryden worked at Wolfensohn. As the Seattle Times notes, that firm was founded by former World Bank President James Wolfsohn. Dryden’s focus there was on alternative energy investment.