Why Chelsea Clinton Is Obsessed With Diarrhea–And Data

At SXSW, she told Fast Company about her role at the Clinton Foundation helping to solve the challenges of the developing world.

Why Chelsea Clinton Is Obsessed With Diarrhea–And Data
[Image: Chelsea Clinton via JStone / Shutterstock]

The first thing that Chelsea Clinton wanted to talk about during her SXSW keynote Q&A session with Fast Company Editor-in-Chief Bob Safian was diarrhea. “I’m obsessed with diarrhea,” she said. Clinton, now the vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation, was at SXSW to talk about the power of technology and data for global development. And in that context, diarrhea was on her mind.


As Clinton pointed out, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and severe dehydration from diarrhea were leading causes of childhood death at the beginning of the 20th century, even in New York City. But it wasn’t just poor kids getting sick–rich kids were dying too. “The vested interests had a vested interest in changing that,” Clinton noted. Now, deaths from childhood diarrhea are largely relegated to the developing world, where treatment isn’t readily available.

The Clinton Foundation is working on tackling this problem by lowering the cost of zinc packets so that they’re affordable in Nigeria–a move that has helped lower the diarrhea-related fatality rate in the country. Zinc packets aren’t a new invention, but as Clinton pointed out, innovations aren’t always new.

“Our greatest challenge now is that almost every challenge has been solved by somebody somewhere,” she said. Plus it’s not always about being first to solve a problem–sometimes, the best solutions aren’t always the first ones to be developed, she added.

Both in her solo presentation and the Q&A afterwards, Clinton stressed that the world needs standardized metrics and a “solutions hub” to assess which innovations are working and which are not. While startups and nonprofits will play a big part in developing these innovations, Clinton suggested that policymakers need to set the conditions to encourage problem-solving.

Government organization in different sectors have already done this in creative ways. The Defense Department’s research arm DARPA, for example, has launched a series of autonomous vehicle and robot competitions offering significant prize money to the winners. Many of Google’s top driverless car engineers are veterans of the DARPA challenges.

Clinton also highlighted the importance of using data to empower girls and women, citing statistics about GDP growth linked to having more women in the workforce. (If women participated in Germany’s labor force at the same level of men, she said, the German GDP would grow 11% over the next decade). “We need to do a better job of disseminating that data, making that data feel relevant,” Clinton said. Also, she added, we need to start gathering that data in the developing world.


At the Clinton Foundation, Chelsea and Hillary Clinton are working on No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, an initiative to partner with outside organizations to assess the progress that women and girls have made in the past 20 years.

So is Chelsea Clinton going to be the next big political star in her family? At SXSW, her answer was a resounding “I don’t know.” She noted the lack of young people with ambitions to run for political office–the result of an ever-growing number of ways for people to make big changes outside of politics, and an exhausting 24-hour news cycle that could challenge even the most strong-willed of candidates.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.