By Daniel Runde
My friend and CSIS colleague, Michael Levett, died in his mid-70s over the weekend. A wonderful man who lived a truly interesting life, I feel cheated out of at least 15 years of friendship, and counsel.
Michael, a Californian, grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA and was editor of the newspaper there. He worked for the LA Times out of college for several years. He was active in Democratic politics in the late 60s and the 1970s. He volunteered or was paid staff on a number of Democratic and civil rights campaigns in California. Later, he worked for Lucas Films where he was a Vice President, contributing to the first three Stars Wars films (Episodes 4, 5, 6, of course) and the first Indiana Jones film. He knew George Lucas and all of the film stars and had wonderful stories about working with them. He helped developed the toys and commercial products that are associated with those films. Those toys were important totems of my childhood and of the childhoods of millions of other Generation Xers. I was fascinated about his pilgrimages to Bentonville, Arkansas to sell Wal-Mart on the idea of placing Stars Wars toys in each Wal-Mart. He also worked for a brief time for Dino DeLaurentiis, working on Dune and, I believe, Conan the Barbarian. Given his background, he was kind enough to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with me last September, a real treat.
Michael launched his career in Washington, D.C. a White House fellow in one of the inaugural classes. He was quite young when picked for this great honor. He worked in the Department of the Interior during the Nixon Administration. Always very liberal and idealistic, he loved being a White House fellow but perhaps the Nixon Administration was not the best “fit” for him. He stayed in close contact with his White House fellow alums and made lifelong friends.
At some point along the way, someone convinced him to move to Russia in the late 1980s. He believed that we needed to have dialogue with the Soviet Union and he voted with his feet. He organized rock music concerts and started a popcorn business in the Soviet Union becoming the “Orville Redenbacher of the Soviet Union.”
His experiences in Russia and his ties to Washington generated a phone call asking him to help run the Citizens Democracy Corps (“CDC”) in the mid-1990s. CDC was stood up as part of the Bush 41 Administration’s response to the end of the Cold War. It appointed a star board of American captains of industry and was funded largely by USAID at the beginning. CDC changed its name several times over the years and is now known as Pyxera Global. The original idea of CDC was: 1) private sector partnerships before these were common, 2) leverage the talents of volunteers at scale before this was “a thing” and 3) go where they were needed often to places that others would not go to. In the early and mid-1990s this meant the former Soviet Union and Poland including Central Asia, later this meant Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. Michael spent at least 8 years travelling around the former Soviet Union, building partnerships with multinational companies, acquiring other NGOs, and diversifying CDC’s funding away from US Government funding. CDC, under Michael, were early adapters to leveraging the power of global supply chains for good, creating large scale volunteer programs tied to business activities for companies such as IBM, and creating new programming around the role of travel, tourism and hospitality as a driver of jobs and prosperity. Michael led CDC and its successor organizations for 15 years. Today Pyxera gets less than 20% of its money from the federal government and most from corporate sources.
In the early 1990s, he was the founding president of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). Michael played a key role in mainstreaming “stakeholder” concerns including concepts such as “social license to operate” and “corporate social responsibility” when these ideas were very new and only had a toehold in the most progressive companies. Entire industries have sprung up because of the work of BSR championed and Michael pioneered. The recent statements by large investors and large business groups can be connected in a straight line from his work in the early 1990s.
At CSIS, Michael was a Senior Associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development for the last ten years. I saw or spoke with him at least every two weeks during that time. Given his experience and travel history, he was a constant resource for events and publications on a variety of international development topics. He brought a lot of ideas to the report we did in 2011 on development finance, titled Sharing Risk in a World of Danger and Opportunity. He also helped with a major report, Seizing the Opportunity in Public-Private Partnerships, that same year. In 2013, he was an advisor to a commission we did on the role of the private sector in development. At his instigation, we did a report on the travel, tourism and hospitality sector, Global Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality as a Strategic Sector for Development and Security. He served as an advisor to our task force on reforming and reorganizing U.S. foreign assistance in 2017, and he was a major part of our task force on confronting the global forced migration crisis in 2018, leading fact-finding missions to multiple countries. I have fond memories travelling with him to New York and Los Angeles various times. He traveled with some of my colleagues to Africa and elsewhere. His report on value chains, Maximizing Development of Local Content across Industry Sectors in Emerging Markets, is still read and is recognized as one of the few papers on this relevant and pressing topic. Offering his time and his talents to CSIS, Michael would provide comedic relief and adventure to everything he did. He took time to shepherd and share his experiences with young professionals at CSIS and throughout DC. He had strong, well-formed views and was wonderful to be around. He had a broad sense of the spiritual and the strong sense of what he thought was right or wrong and acted accordingly. Never far from a joke, Michael was a Mensch, and I am really going to miss him.