As Bill Gates makes a career change from full-time computer giant to full-time philanthropist, he — like anyone contemplating an unprecedented transition — searches for touchstones. But when you are one of the most recognizable success stories in the world, who, outside of family, is the first person you call? Warren Buffett, of course.
Speaking to a standing room-only crowd at Carnegie Mellon’s University Center, with thousands of alumni watching the talk online, Gates said Buffett has been a guiding force in his decision-making, thanks to what he describes as Buffett’s “sense of focusing on what counts, integrity, and how business is done.”
Gates visited campus for the last stop on his farewell tour as he transitions from the day-to-day operations at Microsoft, where he will remain chairman, to working full time for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he founded in 2000 and which ballooned in 2006 with a substantial investment by Buffett. Gates recommended that his audience read some of Buffett’s writings for similar inspiration: “There is a lot of very broad wisdom, not just about what stocks to buy.”
In recognition of Gates’ charitable works, Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon presented Gates with the original office chair belonging to Andrew Carnegie (see homepage photo), a gesture that Cohon said symbolized the connection of “the greatest philanthropist of the 21st century with the greatest philanthropist of the 20th century.”
Philanthropy, as with business, relies on several key factors to be successful, Gates said: ambition, the ability to hire smart people, and the willingness to fail. Analytical ability trumps conceptual thought in decision-making, he noted. In business, the scorecard is profitability over the long haul; in philanthropy, the benchmarks can be measured in human terms.
For example, Gates said if 10 million children die unnecessarily each year of curable diseases, in 15 years, that number should fall to 2 million — an admittedly ambitious goal, but Gates added that in the name of accomplishing much, “I’m willing to fail.”
Gates says principles of science and economics drive intelligent choices in charity, just as they do in business. He encouraged companies to become involved, saying, “If you do it the right way, it really reinforces the values of your company.”
He cited “better living through software” as one example of Microsoft’s approach to business and outlined an array of upcoming products that teased the imagination, such as tables with embedded software that can read objects placed on its surface.
“Instead of talking about a computer on every desk, we’re talking about a computer in every desk,” he said.
As television becomes more universally connected through the Internet, people will be able to further personalize content to suit their tastes, said Gates. Televisions will be programmed to show the portions of the news that individual viewers decide to see, or Olympic events, or game shows. People will be able to use their TVs to search for home video clips posted by relatives. Advertisers will be able to narrowly target the demographics they want to reach.
Educationally, Gates believes the marriage of television and Internet will also help to scale lectures and accreditation programs. Right now, Gates — who famously dropped out of college to found Microsoft — is in the midst of taking a solid-state physics course online, he said.
Yet with all the advances on the horizon, Gates worries that not enough is being done to help the poorest two billion people of the world. Farming production and nutrition are low for the bottom third of the global population, and infectious disease is high, he said.
“We have what I refer to as a market failure,” says Gates. “Billions are being spent on curing baldness … a million children a year die of malaria.” Yet less than 10 percent of the money spent on hair-loss remedies is being funneled toward malaria treatment, he said.
He urged students to think about how advances to which they contribute will affect those poorest two billion, adding: “I’ll be fascinated to see the wonderful things you do.”