In Memoriam: Michael Levett

When we raise our glasses later this year to toast the anniversary of PYXERA Global, there will be a hole in the circle of our friends and family celebrating three decades of enriching lives and livelihoods. And it will be a big hole, because a great presence once occupied that space. Michael Levett died Saturday, February 22, 2020.

He leaves his partner Isabel Hill, his children, Kate Levett, Christopher Levett, and Kate Kvasnicka and his grandchildren, Charlotte Prescott and John Calvin Krasnicka. We join them in mourning his passing at the same time we pause and marvel at what a blessing he was to so many people.

In 2002, CK Prahalad, Ph.D. and Stuart Hart, Ph.D. published the seminal article, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, first outlining the ‘prodigious opportunity’ for the world’s wealthiest companies to seek their fortunes in low-income markets and at the same time bring prosperity to the poor. But Michael had already been operationalizing that for years, as the CEO of Citizens Democracy Corps (and then Citizens Development Corps, and then CDC Development Solutions). The very founding of the organization came with the recognition that the power of business could remarkably and positively create thriving economies and communities in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This now may sound obvious, but in 2002 it was news to business. In 1994, when Michael became CEO of the organization now known as PYXERA Global, it was radical.

But that was Michael. Radical. In the best sense of that word. First radical insight and then radical action, which enabled those lessons of bringing the power of business to accelerate inclusive opportunities and thriving communities in Eastern Europe into Africa and Latin America, and eventually around the world.

But that was Michael. Radical. In the best sense of that word. First radical insight and then radical action.

Michael inspired PYXERA Global’s leadership in promoting and supporting ‘local content,’ a practice required in some industries and adopted in others as a way to develop reliable, sustainable, responsible supply chains (especially in metals, fossil fuels, and agriculture). In the mid-1990s, he realized that the best way to build small and medium enterprises in Sakhalin, Russia, was to build their capability and link them to opportunities in the oil and gas supply chain. His report, Maximizing Development of Local Content across Industry Sectors in Emerging Markets, which is still widely recognized as one of the most important papers on this topic, is even more relevant today.

Michael was CEO when IBM first approached PYXERA Global with the idea of seconding their high potential employees into nonprofits in emerging economies in order to build the capacity of both the organizations and the ‘international corporate volunteers.’ This is the practice of ‘Global Pro Bono’ practiced by dozens of companies, large and small, around the world for more than a decade. Thousands of professionals have served hundreds of nonprofits who in turn have improved millions of lives in more than 90 countries.

When Michael left PYXERA Global as CEO, he was scarcely ‘retiring.’ He went on to the Center for Strategic and International Study (CSIS) where he was a Senior Associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development for the last decade. He led fact-finding missions, published papers, and was a constant resource for events (including the Global Engagement Forum: Live) on a variety of international development topics.

Mid-way through his seventh decade, he was still a live wire, someone who could always be called upon for a lively and intelligent debate and often (maddeningly) right on target with his challenges while generous with his advice, experience, and expertise.

Mid-way through his seventh decade, he was still a live wire, someone who could always be called upon for a lively and intelligent debate and often (maddeningly) right on target with his challenges while generous with his advice, experience, and expertise.

He was also radically kind. With a keen eye and articulate voice to the global socio-political scene, he never failed to remember individuals and their families.

Amanda MacArthur, Chief Program Officer at PYXERA Global, remembered, “Michael was truly interested in you as a person and everything that contributed to that. The last time we had lunch was in the fall. We discussed politics, college basketball, our families, Star Wars and the global refugee crisis over three courses and a glass of white wine. Looking back now, I recognize that’s one more gift that Michael had that I hope to always emulate – to always be interested, in things that are big and small and precious and mundane.”

CEO, Deirdre White recalled, “Michael’s impact was as outsized as his extraordinary personality. He was absolutely clear that this organization could not follow a status quo that wasn’t delivering positive impact. Michael always said that his job was to ‘hire good people and get out of their way.’ He gave his employees incredible latitude in redefining this organization over time. And he was one of those rare leaders that, when it became clear the time was right, graciously stepped aside, but was always a phone call away for advice, and was always raising the profile of PYXERA Global in whatever circles he found himself. Michael and I would meet quarterly for dinner and drinks, where we would parse the current state of affairs in the United States and around the globe and cook up ideas for a still-never-written book. He would start every dinner asking about my family, then go down the list of all of the PYXERA Global staff he had worked with in the United States and the Country Offices, and he was utterly sincere in wanting to know about all of their wellbeing. His last text to me a couple weeks ago was asking about my father’s health and included a link to an article about some nonsense in Davos. That text so perfectly encompasses the way he cared about individuals and the whole world.”

He was a blessing to the world. He was a blessing to his friends. Rest in peace, Michael. And thank you.

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