WHEN LINDA MASON was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, her hometown, Homer, New York, wasn’t exactly a gateway to the world. Her father, Sam, had chosen this quiet dairy farming community far north of New York City to open a medical practice. He became the small-town physician who knew everyone’s name, making house calls until the day he retired.
Sam Mason, though, had a sense of duty and adventure that took him well beyond Homer. He occasionally put the practice on hold and traveled the globe to volunteer his medical skills to needier places such as Honduras, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire).
Although Linda Mason didn’t go on those trips, she was captivated by the stories he brought back. One year he even returned with a Congolese nurse, who lived with the family for a time. Her father, through his experiences, became her window abroad. “It just had a profound impact on me,” she says.
For decades, Mason, who is 57 and lives in Belmont, has built on his example. Since cofounding child care company Bright Horizons Family Solutions in 1986, Mason has become a luminary in humanitarian work. Now board chairwoman of the worldwide relief organization Mercy Corps, she and her organization have documented atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan and aided civilians in Congo, a place she once described as “ripped apart by brutality and lawlessness.” They helped Indonesians rebuild huts and fishing boats after the 2004 tsunami. And they trained adults to comfort traumatized children in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. When disaster calls — and it frequently does — Mason often answers.
In each place, those who have known and worked with her say, the mother of three displays entrepreneurial spirit, a big heart, and steely grace. Her calm demeanor, they say, obscures a gritty determination and fearlessness. “You can’t travel with everyone to a war zone, but you can travel with Linda Mason,” says the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, a Boston physician, activist, and minister who accompanied her to Darfur in 2005.
Mason’s first true taste of international aid work came after she earned her MBA from Yale in 1980. That summer, she and two friends — including Roger Brown, who would later become her husband — traveled to the Thai-Cambodian border to help manage camps for refugees reeling from the deadly reign of the Khmer Rouge. Many Cambodians had no means of supporting themselves. “They did not have enough food,” says Phlong Than, a Cambodian with whom Mason and Brown worked and who is now 73 and living in Oregon. (Than features prominently in the 1983 book Mason and Brown co-wrote about their nearly yearlong stint, Rice, Rivalry, and Politics: Managing Cambodian Relief.) “I just never saw the world the same after that experience,” Mason says.
After a few years working in management consulting in the United States, she and Brown went back overseas to build a relief program for Save the Children in Sudan, which, like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, was hit hard by famine in the mid-1980s. The conditions were tough — there’d been a coup, and they worked in 120-degree heat and had little contact with the States — but Mason and Brown stayed on for the better part of two years, returning in the summer of 1986. Exhausted, they sought a new social mission, but closer to home.
That mission became Bright Horizons, a for-profit company whose innovations — establishing top-quality child care centers at big employers and treating employees far better than the industry norm — would earn them wide acclaim. Soon after founding the company in their Cambridge kitchen — with some help from partners, including Bain Capital, then led by Mitt Romney — Mason and Brown launched a companion nonprofit called Horizons for Homeless Children, to help struggling parents find a pathway to economic stability. Bright Horizons, which Bain Capital took over in 2008 in a $1.3 billion deal, now serves some 150,000 children at 750 locations. Mason and Brown (who together held $4.6 million worth of Bright Horizons shares at the time of the acquisition) remain on the company board, Mason as chairwoman.
The success of Bright Horizons, which has centers in several countries and has been ranked among this nation’s best employers, established Brown and Mason’s reputation as something of a super-couple. Over the last decade, each has sought out new ventures. Brown was appointed president of Berklee College of Music in 2004, and Mason began working intensively with Mercy Corps, becoming its board chairwoman in 2007. (Mason has served on several other boards, including a Boston Globe advisory board from 2001 to 2006. She also authored the 2002 book The Working Mother’s Guide to Life.) Gary Hirshberg, cofounder of the Stonyfield Farm yogurt company and a fellow pioneer in socially responsible business, says he has long admired Mason’s consideration of what he calls the “social footprint” of her work. “The impact on employees, on the constituents, on the community is right at the top of her mind,” he says.
White-Hammond recalls both the boldness and humility Mason showed in Darfur, where they, along with former Boston TV news anchor Liz Walker, aimed to draw attention to the rapes, murders, and torture committed by government troops and allied militias. It was a delicate situation, and some Mercy Corps officials — ostensibly there for humanitarian, not political, purposes — were leery of the interviews Mason and the others planned to conduct with local women. Mason appreciated the sensitivity, but she wouldn’t back down, White-Hammond says. “She said: ‘Look, you don’t think we came all the way here just to hold women’s hands? There’s a story to be told.’ ” That trip helped publicize the crisis in Darfur.
More recently, Mason has been working in the Middle East, helping chart courses to democracy and stability. She will soon return to the West Bank and Gaza, where Mercy Corps is trying to spark the Palestinian technology industry. Fostering business relationships among Israeli and Palestinian IT firms, she hopes, will build “an economic bridge to peace.” After Moammar Khadafy’s government fell in Libya, Mercy Corps began training tribal leaders in negotiation and mediation and opened “civil society resource centers,” to help establish a new class of nonprofit and social service leaders. “There’s this thirst to build the country from the bottom up,” Mason says. She will also travel to Myanmar soon and is hopeful of getting back into Syria, which has been ravaged by civil war.
Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer marvels at Mason’s versatility — how she can assist a grandmother in a refugee camp one day and meet with the first lady of a country the next. “She has this amazing ability to be present, to be real, across the socioeconomic strata,” says Keny-Guyer, who worked with Mason and Brown in Southeast Asia years ago. Susan Whitehead, a friend who serves on the Horizons for Homeless Children board, adds, “I’ve never seen anybody occupy their space in quite the same way.”
Those who have known or worked with Mason attribute her success in business and aid work to her pairing of two impulses: a deep empathy for people, especially women and children, and a strong belief in private-sector values: efficiency, professional management, and empowering solutions that work. Indeed, Mercy Corps often seeks out what’s proved successful on the ground and builds from there. It is a departure from the traditional top-down approach to relief: collect resources and dump them into a disaster zone. That, Mason says, can backfire by gutting local markets and dampening people’s impetus to help themselves. “Where we get most excited is where we see these incredible pockets of initiative,” Mason says.
In their book on Cambodia, Mason and Brown wrote, “Relief organizations have no armies, no large staffs, no resources on a grand scale, and very little formal political power.” What humanitarian efforts must do, they said, is “capitalize upon the few sources of strength that are theirs.” Mason insists that no success has been hers alone, but it’s evident she has long been a wellspring of strength for so many.
How is she not overwhelmed by the persistence of need, the vast and stubborn crises? First, she’s an optimist; she says she couldn’t do the work otherwise. Mason also keeps in mind something she heard decades ago from Mother Teresa, with whom she volunteered at homes in Calcutta that each served 90 destitute and dying people. A journalist said to Mother Teresa: Great for the 90, but what about the millions dying in misery outside your doors? Her reply, Mason says, was this: “Son, one by one by one.”
These days, Mason travels abroad every two or three months. When she returns, her refuge is a community of friends and family in Belmont. She treasures the restorative walks with her girlfriends through Mass Audubon’s Habitat sanctuary. She also treasures exposing her three children to the world, transcending what her own father did with her. Each of them — 16- and 23-year-old daughters and a 21-year-old son — has accompanied Mason on relief trips. Her oldest daughter spent a year before college volunteering with Mercy Corps in Jordan. They are all humanitarians-in-training. It’s hard to imagine Mason having it any other way.Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.