10/18/2007 08:00 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Dad, My Inspiration

The best thing about working at the X PRIZE Foundation is the weekly engagement with smart passionate people trying to make the world a better place. Last week we hosted a health and healthcare summit attended by 50 amazing people representing public health, science, medicine, information technology, public policy, venture capital, and philanthropy. Linda Rosenstock, Dean of Public Health at UCLA, hosted the session. Guest included people like Chris Elias, Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), and Seth Berkeley International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Representatives of Google and Microsoft discussed the important role of health information. Sherry Lansing, former head of Paramount Studios; Alonzo Plough, the California Endowment; and a team from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation discussed their efforts to improve quality and access. Author and radio host Matt Miller discussed the politics of healthcare.

There was one other distinguished guest, my dad. Gary Vander Ark is a contradiction of modern medicine. As a professor of neurosurgery he teaches the most advanced and expensive life saving techniques to interns. As an advocate for access to healthcare he convinces doctors to provide free services to uninsured patients and encourages politicians to extend healthcare access to low income families. In many ways, my father represents the dilemma of modern medicine--many of us benefit from extraordinary medical breakthroughs while millions die from preventable causes.

Service is in our genes; we come from a family of teachers and preachers. When I was 10 years old my father served at Walter Reed Army Hospital. On weekends we worked in a mission church in Washington D.C. When we moved to Denver, we left the comfortable suburbs to work in missions in the barrios of west Denver. For 15 years these weekly trips had the dual purpose of service and setting an example for me and my sister.

After I went off to college, my father grew concerned about the number of low income families that didn't have health insurance. He started Doctor's Care and convinced hundreds of doctors to provide free services to low income patients. Then my parents began sponsoring dozens of immigrant families. Recognizing that arm twisting and direct support would be hard to scale and sustain, my dad formed an advocacy group to extend health coverage to the uninsured. He's in his 70's and still teaches, preaches, and serves on 14 boards.

So what's a young man to do with a father like that? I went off to make money. For 15 years I worried more about my own career than my community service. My wife and I lead a youth group, but my career was about the next promotion, the next car, and the next house. I joined a start up retailer in 1986 and we rocketed from $100 million to $5 billion in sales in just five years. After a well timed sale I had interesting life options--make money or make a difference. At a weekend retreat with my dad I chose service. Long story short, I became the first business executive to become a public school superintendent and I've had the good fortune to make a second career out of making a difference.

My father's service is a faith response--it's gratitude in action. While I share that motivation, it's also quite practical for me. Service is simply more rewarding than just making a buck. The old adage is true, we get more than we give. A life of contribution fully enrolled in a cause larger than yourself is a life full of passion. People committed to contribution work harder and are more selfless than folks just working for themselves and they're just a lot more fun to be around. As a result, my number one objective in a job interview is to find out if the candidate is passionate about making a difference. My dad sets a high bar on that interview scale.

Big prizes and global competitions have the potential to bridge the divide that has marked my father's career. They have the potential to produce innovations that benefit the base of the income pyramid, as well as changing perceptions and producing healthier behaviors in middle income groups.

My father spent 40 years aiding one patient at a time while advocating for better healthcare coverage for low income families in Colorado. He's the person that most influenced my decision to dedicate the second half of my career to making a difference for other people. If we get these healthcare prizes right, I think we both have a chance to make a world of difference.