‘I’m driven to make the world a better place:’ Antony Chiang, president of Empire Health Foundation, uses bold thinking to drive social change

Written and published by The Spokesman-Review, December 23, 2017

At Empire Health Foundation, Antony Chiang’s coworkers often tease him about his relationship with his white board. 

Some of the region’s thorniest social problems get listed on the board above his desk. Marker in hand, Chiang - the foundation’s president - diagrams and analyzes strategies for addressing them.

Childhood obesity? Bring scratch cooking back to school lunches.

Adults with tooth pain cycling through local emergency rooms? Help them find a dentist.

High numbers of kids in foster care? Allow families stay together while the parents get drug treatment. 

Under Chiang’s leadership, Empire Health Foundation has developed a reputation for bold thinking. It finds successful programs in other communities, then works with local partners to adapt them for Eastern Washington. 

The foundation’s work goes beyond writing checks from its $80 million endowment. By partnering with others, Chiang wants to make system-wide progress on issues like reducing kids’ waistlines, getting people access to health care, reducing school suspensions and building resilient families. 

“We’ll do whatever it takes to move the dial,” Chiang said. “My dream is that no matter who you are in this community, you would have vibrant health. When everyone has access to good health, the community wins. Everybody wins.”

Chiang, 49, is the son of immigrants from Taiwan who spent part of his growing up years in California’s Silicon Valley. People who work with Chiang describe him as entrepreneurial, analytic and compassionate. 

“He’s a visionary leader. He’s always pushing people to think bigger and bolder,” said Sarah Lyman, the foundation’s executive vice president. 

When people leave meetings with Chiang, “they’re both overwhelmed and inspired,” she said. 

Innovation and making a difference

Chiang joined Empire Health Foundation in 2010, shortly after it was created with funds from the sale of Deaconess and Valley hospitals to a for-profit Tennessee hospital chain.

He was recruited away from TechSoup Global, a nonprofit that administers corporate philanthropy for Microsoft and other tech companies. At the time, Chiang and his wife, Caroline Yu, were living in San Francisco with the oldest of their two daughters, now ages 12 and 5. 

In some ways, Chiang was an unlikely choice to lead Empire Health Foundation. He has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and a Stanford University law degree.

“I wasn’t a doctor or a public health official. I’d never done grant-making,” he said. And until the interview, “I’d never set foot in Eastern Washington.”

But the board’s vision for Empire Health Foundation appealed to Chiang’s entrepreneurial instincts. 

“We wanted to create a new foundation, a learning organization. We didn’t have any of the answers, but we were passionate about advancing health equality,” he said.

At TechSoup Global, Chiang led a team that streamlined the cost of administering grants in other countries. He also had started two tech companies that serve nonprofits.

“I’ve always been at this intersection of innovation, making a difference and systems,” Chiang said.

Busting stereotypes

Chiang credits two sets of parents for influencing his outlook and career path.

His dad and mom divorced when he was 5. He grew up close to each of his parents and their new spouses. Since both parents moved multiple times for jobs, Chiang attended a dozen different schools before he started high school.

In some schools, he was the only student of color in his class. Others schools were racially and ethnically diverse. Chiang said his school experience reinforced the importance of “busting stereotypes” by getting to know people of different backgrounds.

At Empire Health Foundation, he’s worked to create an inclusive culture. “We have a diverse staff and a diverse board,” he said.

Chiang’s family also is racially diverse. “My dad remarried a blonde, Caucasian woman. My siblings are ‘hapa,’ which in the Asian American community is the term for half-half,” he said.

The only grandparents he ever knew were his step mom’s parents.

“They could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” he said. “Some of the most loving people in my life didn’t look anything like me.”

‘A nerdy kid with a big backpack’ 

Chiang graduated from high school in Cupertino, California, better known as the home of Apple. He was “a nerdy kid with a big backpack,” whose mentors steered him toward computers and engineering.

Chiang thought he wanted to work for NASA - his step dad was a rocket scientist. But after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, he wondered about the future of space missions. He decided to go to law school. It was the first of several abrupt career turns for Chiang. 

“I went into public interest law thinking I was going to fight against evil in society,” he said.

After he graduated, he worked as a law clerk for several nonprofits. But Chiang found fewer bad guys than he expected. Sometimes, the system itself was the problem.

“It felt like what we were doing was band aids. I wanted to address the root cause,” he said. He gravitated to philanthropy, in jobs where he could take a systems-wide approach to social change.

Looking back, Chiang sees the strong influence of his dad and step mom on his eventual career.

His father, whom Chiang describes as a “big personality,” started several companies, including a thriving Silicon Valley real estate business. His step-mom was an elementary teacher and “the most loving, caring person I know.”

“I guess it’s in my DNA to want to be entrepreneurial,” he said. “I’m driven to make the world a better place, using all the best approaches from the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds.”

“Everyone deserves health’ 

In Spokane, Chiang has found an ideal environment for innovation. 

“I call it the Goldilocks factor,” he said. “Eastern Washington is not too big and not too small. It’s just the right size to have a sense of community and shared values. There’s a ‘help your neighbor’ ethic.”

Cooperative efforts are essential to Empire Health Foundation’s work. The income from foundation funds about $4 million of work annually. Through partnerships and other grants, millions of dollars flow into the initiatives.

“It would be ridiculous if we went around saying we would lower obesity rates by ourselves, or reduce the foster care rate,” Chiang said. “We have to do it with key partners.” 

Childhood obesity was one of the foundation’s first big projects. About one in three Eastern Washington students is overweight or obese. Rather than trying to change individual students’ eating habits, the foundation took a system-wide approach, zeroing in on processed food in school lunches. 

“Instead of relying on kids to choose a salad, we’re offering all healthy choices,” said Lyman, the foundation’s executive vice president. 

Since 2011, the foundation has worked with nine school districts to bring scratch cooking and local produce back to the lunch menu. To transform school kitchens, the foundation provided $2 million in grants for new equipment and staff training. 

This year, the districts will serve 4.7 million scratch-cooked meals. The foundation is tracking changes in students’ body mass index. To date, Cheney School District has seen the most progress. Among K-5 students, the BMI has dropped 4.5 percent.

At Spokane Public Schools, Superintendent Shelley Redinger also credits Empire Health Foundation for training that helps staff work with students who’ve been exposed to trauma. Those students also receive training to help them “self-regulate” emotions to reduce disruptive behavior. 

The foundation’s work with Spokane Public Schools addresses both physical and mental health, said Kevin Morrison, director of communications.

“If we have students coming to our classrooms who are hungry, or having sugar highs or unregulated behavior, our teachers can’t teach,” he said.

Empire Health Foundation also works on initiatives to improve graduation rates and reduce school suspensions. 

In the health field, the foundation is a partner in efforts to increase the number of family doctors in Washington and help people sign up for health insurance. In rural areas, the foundation works on aging and Native American health issues.

Strengthening families to keep kids out of foster care is another focus.

In Spokane County, children are in foster care at higher ratios than the state average. So in October, the foundation and Catholic Charities launched Rising Strong, a residential program that allows parents to stay with their children while they’re getting drug and alcohol treatment.

“What we’re doing is leveraging the power of the love for their children to become clean and sober, and change the trajectory of that family,” Chiang said.

Chiang wants Empire Health Foundation to be known as a champion for health equity, and an organization that makes real impacts on people’s lives. 

“Everyone deserves health,” he said, “no matter their economic station in life, no matter their race, no matter their religion.”