Sylvia Mathews Burwell was born to Greek-American parents in June 1965 in Hinton, West Virginia, where she was raised. While earning a bachelor's degree in government from Harvard University during the 1980s, she interned for Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat. Burwell subsequently worked for the 1988 presidential campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and earned a second bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
From 1990-92 Burwell was an associate at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. She worked for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, and was named manager of his White House transition team after the election that November.
From 1993-95 Burwell served as staff director for Robert Rubin, Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. In 1993 she helped Rubin get the newly created National Economic Council up and running. And when Rubin was appointed U.S. Treasury Secretary in 1995, Burwell became his chief of staff and held that post for two years.
In 1995 Burwell was called to testify before a Senate committee inestigating whether First Lady Hillary Clinton may have instructed White House officials to remove potentially incriminating documents from the office of her close friend and former law partner Vince Foster, shortly after the latter had been found dead—apparently of suicide—in a Virginia park on July 20, 1993. At issue was the fact that Foster, in the months prior to his death, had handled many sensitive political and personal affairs for the Clintons—including the couple's controversial Whitewater land venture, for which 15 Clinton associates were ultimately convicted of more than 40 separate crimes. In her testimony, Mathews recalled that: (a) Secret Service personnel did in fact give her a special bag of garbage (from Foster's office) containing classified and sensitive papers; (b) she then asked White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum for his advice on what to do with the documents; and (c) Nussbaum instructed her to return the bag, unexamined, to the Secret Service so that its contents could be destroyed.
In 1997-98 Burwell served as one of President Clinton's two deputy chiefs of staff, the other being future Center for American Progress founder John Podesta. Burwell and Podesta both worked under chief of staff Erskine Bowles.
From 1998-2001, Burwell was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, under director Jack Lew. During that time period, then-Washington Post reporter John Harris described Burwell as “a liberal who favors spending on social programs for the disadvantaged.”
During her eight years with the Clinton administration, Burwell developed a deep affinity for the President. As she later told the Seattle Times: “I made a decision that I believed, and do to this day, that while President Clinton made a mistake [vis à vis the Monica Lewinsky sexual scandal], that the contributions he made to this country and the important changes are so profound that I would continue to serve, and serve with my head held high.”
After President Clinton left office, Burwell joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where she served as executive vice president from 2001-02, chief operating officer from 2002-06, and president of the foundation's Global Development Program from 2006-11.
In January 2012 Burwell was named president of the Walmart Foundation, a postition she held until April 2013 when she became director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama.
On April 11, 2014, Obama nominated Burwell to succeed the recently resigned Kathleen Sebelius as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
In November 2014, Burwell made a public appeal for immigration reform and for extending Obamacare benefits to illegal immigrants eligible for DREAM Act status, meaning those who: (a) were between the ages of 12 and 35, (b) had arrived in the U.S. before age 16, and (c) had lived in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years since their date of arrival. “DREAMers are not able to be covered in the [Obamacare] marketplace,” Burwell said in response to a question about whether families with mixed immigration statuses could obtain health care coverage. “And this is an issue that I think is more than a health care issue—it is an immigration issue.” Added Burwell:
“And I think everyone probably knows that this [Obama] administration feels incredibly strongly about the fact that we need to fix that. We need to reform the system and make the changes that we need that will lead to benefits in everything from health care to economics to so many things — a very important step that we need to take as a nation. Everyone should come on [to the Obamacare exchanges]. And folks should not be scared, because this is not information…no questions will be asked, this is not an immigration issue.”
In addition to her aforementioned governmental and philanthropic pursuits, Burwell over the years has also been a Board of Directors member of the Council on Foreign Relations; a Board member of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa; an Advisory Board member with the Next Generation Initiative and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation; a Professional Advisory Board member of the ALS Evergreen Chapter; a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, the Trilateral Commission, and the Nike Foundation Advisory Group; and a director of both MetLife Inc. and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (from early 2004 through early 2013).