Ellen Agler of END Fund - Under the Big Tree book trailer
Ellen Agler lived in an apartment on the Basque Block. She loved Bar Gernika and Flying M Coffee. She also tried never to miss a show at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
But she’s been away for a couple of decades now, saving the world. Now 46, Agler has served as the CEO of The END Fund, a philanthropy that works to treat neglected tropical diseases, for almost eight years.
This year, Agler was named one of Fortune magazine’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” She also released her new book, “Under the Big Tree: Extraordinary Stories from the Movement to End Neglected Tropical Diseases,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press. And she landed a $50 million TED Audacious award to scale up the END Fund’s work to deliver deworming treatment to 100 million people.
“The Audacious Project’s goal is to give lift-off to social entrepreneurs who have bold visions and actionable blueprints for a better future – and Ellen Agler and The END Fund are no different,” Anna Verghese, executive director of The Audacious Project, said in an email.
The END Fund seeks to end diseases that affect more than 1.5 billion people by delivering neglected tropical disease treatments to those in need. The organization fights five diseases, including river blindness and intestinal worms. Neglected tropical diseases can often have lifelong disabilities such as blindness or stunted growth.
Agler said the diseases don’t get as much attention or funding because they affect some of the poorest people in the world. In the time that The END Fund existed, however, she has seen the elimination of some of these diseases.
“What we’ve been really excited about recently is that these diseases can be ended,” Agler said in a video interview with the Statesman. “Tackling these diseases is a way to have a lever into transformational growth for a country. It improves economic outcomes, education outcomes, as well as health outcomes.”
Even though Agler has traveled to almost 80 countries, she thinks Idaho is one of the most special places in the world. Her parents and brother still live here, and she loves when she gets the chance to visit. Without her time in Boise, she thinks she wouldn’t have discovered the world of global health or be who she is today.
As a child in Mountain Home, she wanted to be a writer, but her school didn’t have a student newspaper. She started working at the Mountain Home News in high school. Her family moved to Boise, where she worked in the Idaho Statesman newsroom and graduated from Boise High in 1991. She then studied at Boise State University, graduating in 1997.
“I felt like this door was wide open, and if you had an entrepreneurial mindset, if you’re trying to do something innovative, if you’re proactive, that it was possible in Idaho,” she said.
While working in news, she met people in politics. Agler started working on campaigns. While still in high school, she worked with Mike Burkett, a Democratic state legislator from Boise, and in communications for then-Gov. Cecil Andrus.
She petitioned the school board to start attending school part-time so she could keep taking opportunities like these.
“If I had been in a system that was more structured or thought, ‘That’s not what you do when you’re 14,’ or ‘Oh, no, you can’t have access to governors when you’re that age,’ it would have shifted the whole way that I developed,” she said. “I think it just made me ... think outside the box.”
The more Agler started reporting, the more she started getting more attached to her stories. She wrote stories on organizations and later would want to volunteer for them. She realized she wanted to do something where she could both follow the story and be part of it.
That thought led her to her current journey. The work she did in Boise led to work in global health, to get a master’s degrees from the Harvard School of Public Health and the London School of Economics.
Agler later worked at Operation Smile, an international medical charity that provides free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other dental and facial conditions. She was the charity’s senior vice president for international programs before she left in 2012.
Now she helps people — and tells their stories — as CEO of The END Fund.
“The amazing amount of support I got in Idaho set this trajectory,” she said. “I can honestly say if I hadn’t had those early experiences in Idaho, I wouldn’t be in a place now to help hundreds of millions of people.”