Barbara Bush: Making Her Own Path

With an embarrassed laugh Barbara Bush moves four dying house plants from the windowsill of her third-floor apartment in a Greenwich Village walk-up. In the past year she’s been to Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and several U.S. cities. “They’ve come back every time I’ve tried to revive them,” she says of her neglected plants. “I swear!” In two days the former First Daughter, now 31, heads back to Uganda as CEO of the nonprofit Global Health Corps. “I’ve spent so much time in Africa, I know the taxi drivers at the airports.”

During the eight years her father, George W. Bush, was President, Barbara might have said the same for the stewards of Air Force One. While her twin, Jenna, has made a splash as a correspondent for NBC’s Today, this more private sister has been quietly building Global Health Corps. It’s an idea that she and a partner, Dave Ryan, who had worked for a student-run AIDS nonprofit, launched in 2008 to fund talented young professionals who would spend a year bringing their expertise – from fields such as communications, business, finance and IT – to seemingly intractable problems like infant mortality or malnutrition. “Our fellows are thinking about these issues in a way that hasn’t been thought of before,” she says.

Bush’s group “is attracting thousands of young people to the cause,” says Cheryl Dorsey, president of the nonprofit Echoing Green, which gave GHC seed money to help fund its first 22 fellows. Bush brought on corporate funders like Exxon Mobil and Bank of America, but also familial ones: Dad annually sponsors a $25,000 fellowship as a Christmas gift to her mother, Laura. “Barbara does it all,” says Dorsey. That once included booking all the fellows’ travel on her laptop, something Bush no longer does, as the paid staff has increased to 12 and the fellows to 106.

But Bush remains immersed, sometimes to the surprise of those who assume she is only a fortuitously named figurehead. “My parents asked, ‘Have you seen her?'” says fellow Kaylyn Koberna, 23, headed to Malawi. “Ha! Barbara knows all our names. She leads from the center, radiating out.” That includes team-building bowling nights (“Bowling is a great equalizer,” she notes) and talent shows. “I sang a Taylor Swift song with a fellow from Burundi,” Bush admits, sheepishly.

There was a time when Bush, who tinkered with a sewing machine as a girl and interned with fashion’s Lela Rose in college, fancied a career in design. That changed on a 2003 White House trip to Africa, during the summer before her senior year at Yale, when she met a Ugandan girl dying of AIDS: “She was so sick only because she was born somewhere that didn’t have the drugs she needed.” At 27, after working in a South African children’s hospital, Bush and Ryan wrote GHC’s business plan over a weekend.

Now her artistic energies are channeled into the look of, assisted by her boyfriend of four years, Miky Fabrega, a painter and creative consultant in Panama. “He’s our design intern,” Bush jokes. She keeps the relationship private, saying only, “We live in different countries.” But he was with her at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. And she allows that her father, who has taken up painting (he’s made two portraits of her cat), likes Fabrega, 37. “My dad is obsessed with art right now. So anyone that likes art, he is excited about.” (Barbara declined to comment on his recent heart surgery, when she was in Uganda.)

Unaffiliated politically, Bush supports gay marriage and would like to see the “unbelievably accomplished” Hillary Clinton run for president, even if her vote isn’t a lock: “I don’t know who she’d be running against.” In GHC, she partners with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move. “We want results. We work with people doing great work,” she says.

With time at home so rare, she names loafing there as a “dream vacation,” followed by hiking in Rwanda: “It’s so lush. You pull a branch and there’s a gorilla!” In her travels she picks up trinkets for Jenna’s baby daughter, Mila. “I love having her to spoil,” Bush says, adding that she’d like to give Mila a cousin one day. “It’s just not what I’m focused on right now,” Bush says. “I never felt like there had to be a path that I followed.”

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