When you’re busy saving the world—you know, reducing childhood mortality, improving maternal health, getting schools built and getting the water flowing in rural communities—you don’t have a lot of time to brag about what you’re doing. That’s why it was so gratifying that both Bill and Melinda Gates volunteered to contribute stories to this year’s TIME 100 issue. But make no mistake, they were writing not to celebrate themselves for the good works of their Foundation, but to applaud instead two unlikely people—Aliko Dangote and Christy Turlington Burns—neither of whom is usually associated with the business of saving lives.
Dangote is Africa’s richest man, with interests in a diverse range of enterprises including shipping, food processing and construction materials. Burns is, of course, a supermodel. And there the descriptions of the two TIME 100 honorees used to end. But Dangote has turned his considerable attention, wealth and energy to increasing access to health care for all people—especially children—across Africa, and is guiding his multiple businesses so they grow in ways that can increase wealth across class lines. The rising tide that too often lifts only selected boats in developed countries like the U.S. and elsewhere will, if Dangote has anything to say about it, lift them all in Africa.
Burns, for her part, is working to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality around the world. That’s a mission she embraced after suffering a hemorrhage during childbirth — she realized that while such an incident is a manageable emergency in the West, it is often a death sentence for mother and baby in other places. She has since founded the advocacy and fundraising group “Every Mother Counts,” which provides supplies, transportation and health education to women in the developing world as well as here in the U.S.
Taking a page from the way the Gates Foundation does its work, Burns is a demon when it comes to efficiency and accountability. Every $1 raised by her group must translate into $1 in the hands of the people in the field directly providing aid—none of this thirty cents on the dollar business with the rest going to overhead and staff salaries.
Efforts like hers and Dangotes’ and, of course, the Gateses’, are paying off. Childhood mortality has been slashed by about 40% since 2007, polio has been pushed to the brink of eradication, mothers and families are getting a fighting chance that they never would have had in the past. A problem as vast as global health requires solutions that are just as broad. It’s not just about doctors and nurses and community clinics. It’s about smart, compassionate people like Aliko Dangote and Christy Turlington Burns who could easily be spending their time on less challenging, more indulgent things, but instead leverage their particular skills to give back to others.
That’s why both Bill and Melinda Gates took the time to write about Dangote and Burns. And that’s why TIME made sure to honor work that easily places them among the 100 most influential people in the world.