2020 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Thomas Debass

Created public-private partnerships to advance America’s foreign policy interests while promoting economic growth and entrepreneurship in developing nations across the globe.

Listen to Thomas Debass discuss his work:

Every year, the State Department, in cooperation with private sector companies, sponsors highly successful summer camps for teenage girls in countries from Peru to Namibia to expose them to careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. 

The State Department’s Women in Science STEAM Camp initiative is just one of dozens of innovative foreign policy projects currently led by Thomas Debass, who works with the private sector and civil society partners to advance America’s national interests and promote economic growth and entrepreneurship in nations around the world. 

“Since 2008, Thomas and his team have worked with more than 1,600 public and private sector partners and mobilized more than $1.7 billion in resources to make a significant diplomatic and economic development impact,” said Constance Tzioumis, the director in the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships. 

Debass, the managing director of the office, has led programs focused on issues such as combatting human trafficking, providing career opportunities for American veterans, elevating women in entrepreneurship and developing solutions for the sustainable management of fisheries in developing nations. 

“He is very entrepreneurial,” Tzioumis said. “He knows how to leverage the best of the private and nonprofit sectors.” 

In 2018, for example, Debass and his team launched public-private partnerships to promote and defend religious freedom around the world in cooperation with 30 interfaith representatives. He recently supported startups that are countering foreign state and nonstate propaganda and disinformation efforts, and last year assembled a group of private sector representatives to explore investment and collaborative opportunities in Ethiopia.  

Several years earlier, Debass coordinated a partnership with the late philanthropist and entrepreneur Paul G. Allen to build first-of-their-kind biocontainment units that greatly improved U.S. medevac capacity in Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. 

Debass described his office as “a startup that reaches out to embassies across the globe to identify the intersection between their policies and private sector interests.” 

In developing the science camps for girls, for example, Debass targeted a foreign policy imperative for women empowerment and melded that with goals and needs of for-profit companies and civic groups that are active in developing countries.  

The three-week summer camps offer secondary school girls leadership training and skills-building as well as encouragement to pursue higher education in such fields as science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. The camps take place in a different country each year and have been run in cooperation with companies like Google, Intel and Microsoft, and organizations including the AOL Foundation, GirlUp and NASA.   

To date, the camps have trained more than 1,000 girls from 20 countries, with the vast majority completing their higher education. Ninety girls are now working in their local communities to empower other young women. One of the girls from the first camp in Rwanda, for instance, held computer coding camps for girls at her high school. 

“I initially thought it was just going to be a small thing, and now we get very moving letters from girls who said, ‘it is because of this camp that I’m at Stanford’ or ‘I’m doing something great,’ ” Debass said.   

David Gilmour, director for East African Affairs at the State Department, worked with Debass on another program, one he described as “the biggest exchange program in Africa that’s been launched since the 1960s.” 

To accommodate a 2012 White House request to reach out to a new generation of African diplomats, Debass and Gilmour and their teams set up partnerships with leading American universities to host the diplomats for six-week fellowship programs. 

“I continue to be impressed with what an innovator he is, and how he thinks outside of the box,” Gilmour said. “His office is so unlike any other in the State Department. They get to innovate and dream up things from scratch.” 

Debass said his role combines “diplomacy and development assistance” by bringing the resources of the federal government and the private sector together to assist nations all over the world. 

Malika James, deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said he worked with Debass to bring private sector opportunities to the Caribbean.  

“Thomas brought a lot of vision and creativity. He’s the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets things done,” James said. “We would not have done this kind of public-private partnership if Thomas didn’t have the kind of energy and skill that he has.” 

For John Heffern, a former ambassador and career senior Foreign Service Officer, the changes Debass has made within State are as impressive as the programs he has established.  

Heffern referred to a time when civil servants at State were precluded from working with for-profit companies. “We had very restrictive policies,” he said. “Thomas worked with our legal team to change the rules so that we can do formal partnerships and exchanges with for-profit companies. It may not be sexy, but it was a huge institutional change.” 

“Our job is to represent America to the rest of the world,” Tzioumis said. “Thomas does it with creativity, with finesse and a can-do spirit.”