Our Stories

The Human Face of Technology

When floods, earthquakes or hurricanes occur, most people are exiting a disaster zone, while Claire Bonilla '95 is busy working her way toward ground zero.

As senior director of Microsoft's disaster management team, she provides the technology that connects resources to people in need.

Disasters often result in chaos. Sometimes computer systems crash because of massive donations pouring in, or Internet capacity is disrupted by a catastrophic event.

"When tragedies strike, information can become as precious as food, potable water and shelter," Bonilla says. "The effectiveness of rescue efforts relies heavily on the ability of first responders to share information and manage resources. By enabling communication and collaboration, technology can literally save thousands of lives."

Responding to Disasters

Before Bonilla's position was created in 2007, Microsoft responded to global disasters with donations of money, volunteers and software, but now the company concentrates its relief efforts on what it does best: providing the technical solutions that allow emergency operations and first responders to operate until local systems are up and running again, or to enhance existing functionality.

Bonilla sometimes spearheads the creation of an Internet portal that allows relief workers to organize the inflow of volunteers, donations, equipment and supplies. She helps people identify where medical assistance, shelter or water is most needed.

Or she collaborates with the International Red Cross, the United Nations and local nonprofit organizations, coordinating the volunteer efforts of employees in 166 Microsoft offices around the world.

"We have a 24/7 rotation of volunteers who can build out IT solutions in three to five days," Bonilla says. "We distribute free software, provide custom development to create the right type of information technology, help migrate information over, and work to restore local telecommunications."

Traveling the Globe

Bonilla has spearheaded 32 response efforts, ranging from disasters like the 2008 Schezuan earthquake to the 2008 Myanmar cyclone to California wildfires.

Her work sometimes involves time away from home. One trip involved working with the United Nations to coordinate care for children in refugee camps.

Her 4-year-old daughter asked when she would return home and what she was doing, and Bonilla told her she was helping children. Her daughter was silent for a minute, and then told her to stay as long as she needed.

"The most rewarding work you can do is something that brings together your passion and your talents," says Bonilla, whose credentials include a background in IT, extensive international experience, familiarity with non-governmental agencies and experience leading global cross-company initiatives.

Career Rooted at Willamette

Bonilla's degree in economics and German fed her interest in international relations and global commerce.

"My first taste of that came at Willamette," she says. "Because of the broad-based curriculum, I was able to explore my intellectual interests. At the same time, I could explore my passion for working with nonprofits by reaching out as a volunteer. That experience provided the roots for my current work."

Bonilla's advice to Willamette students?

"Never underestimate your power to create opportunity. Identify your passion and find a way to fuse your professional capabilities with your idealism and turn your work into something meaningful. If you can come up with an idea and your heart is in it, you will ultimately find success."