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Bill Gates has pledged to give back to humanity all but a tiny fraction of 1% of that fortune

By WcP.Story.Teller - Posted on 20 July 2008

Gates will divide his time among three offices: one at Microsoft, one at his foundation, and another one equidistant from the other two


(Fortune Magazine) -- The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft has always been something of a utopian. In his mind, even the world's knottiest problems can be solved if you apply enough IQ. Accordingly, Gates, who has been spotted on Seattle freeways reading a book while driving himself to the office, covets knowledge. It's as if he's still trying to make up for dropping out of Harvard, as he spends just about any spare waking minute reading, studying science texts, or watching university courses on DVD. Some say his wealth and famous opportunism are reminiscent of the robber barons of yore. Yet here is a man who has set a goal to eradicate malaria. Rich as he is - his net worth is an estimated $50 billion - you can't call the man greedy when he has pledged to give back to humanity all but a tiny fraction of 1% of that fortune.

Bill Gates at age 9, in 1965

These traits only begin to explain why Gates, at 52, has chosen to redirect his efforts toward more altruistic pursuits. On July 1 he stepped away from an operating role at Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) to devote more time to philanthropy and other interests. The shift has been on his mind for nearly a decade, and it reflects some important experiences over his lifetime. Like that seminal time back in 1968 when his mother, Mary, spearheaded an effort to install a used Teletype terminal in his school so that her already autodidactic junior high schooler could teach himself how to program a mainframe. There was his epiphany when he first met fellow billionaire Warren Buffett in 1991 - and realized that it quite literally pays to follow your curiosity beyond your own area of expertise. And there's the poignant letter his mother wrote in 1993 to his fiancée, Melinda French, cluing her in to the Gates family credo: "From those to whom much has been given, much is expected." (Mary Gates would die the next year.) That letter, in turn, led to the self-conscious irony in the slogan he and his wife hit upon for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: All lives have equal value.

Gates in Bellevue, Washington office in 1979; the company had revenues of $2.4 million that year

Bill Gates 2.0 will have three offices: one at Microsoft in Redmond, a second about 15 miles away at the Gates Foundation in downtown Seattle, and a third almost exactly equidistant between the other two (and much closer to home). In typical hyper-systematic fashion, Gates has allocated blocks of time to each location: a day in Redmond, two at the foundation, and two at the personal office, which he suspects will be his real "center of gravity." There will be a lot of overlap among his three roles. That's because the guy's greatest pleasure seems to be in finding connections among things he's interested in.

Gates with Steve Ballmer and Jon Shirley

Gates' official title at his foundation, which he shares with his wife and father, is co-chair, but his real role will be as the organization's chief strategic thinker. And Gates is teeming with ideas, especially about things scientific. Unlike most benefactors, he doesn't merely want to eradicate malaria and AIDS; he wants to understand the nuances of immunology. He wants to learn about what happens on a molecular scale when a plant's genes are altered to improve hardiness. He insists on knowing the precise legal reasons women in developing countries are robbed of their estates when they become widowed. "Here's how Bill thinks," explains Nathan Myhrvold, the former head of Microsoft's R&D labs. "He is always interested in looking at big systems in the world and understanding them at every level that he can. As an example, I got this e-mail from him today as part of this whole discussion on corn prices and crop yields and shortages resulting from ethanol production, and at the end Bill says, 'I really need to understand phosphates more.'"

IPO day for Microsoft - Frank Gaudette, Jon Shirley, Michael Rome and Bill Gates, 1986

Another big part of his new job will be to make more public appearances and do more arm-twisting of governments and corporations to do more for the world's poor. "I'm uniquely able to reach out to the big companies, to ask them not just to write checks but to offer more of their innovative power," Gates says. "There's a big category of my time for talking to drug companies, cellphone companies, banks, and technology companies, as well as talking with other people who are lucky enough to have superbig fortunes about how they want to give those back to society." That does not translate to fundraising - on the contrary, the foundation plans to exhaust its $100 billion endowment by the end of the century. Gates is talking about setting an example for the plutocracy. Jeff Raikes, the former Microsoft executive who was just appointed CEO of the foundation, thinks that effort could have as much impact on the world as the works of the foundation itself: "He has an incredible opportunity to help shape the thinking of other multibillionaires by getting them to think about the process, the structure, the best practices."

Gates signs autographs for Harley-Davidson fans, 1991

In his younger years, Gates' gimlet-eyed idealism manifested itself in stubbornness and self-righteousness, an unusual boldness, and a tendency not to suffer fools. Most people who have worked closely with him can recall more than one instance in which he reacted to a comment or idea by standing up and hissing, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life." He hasn't lost that inclination toward intellectual arrogance. But in his philanthropic work, the shoe is sometimes on the other foot. He's not, after all, a microbiologist or a geneticist. Moreover, with age and maturity, Gates has become much better able to acknowledge what he doesn't know or when he's wrong.

Gates has taken a greater interest in kids since having his own

For many years, as he built Microsoft, his field of vision was of necessity rather narrow. One of the most important experiences that jostled him out of his single-mindedness was his first meeting with Buffett, on July 5, 1991. As Gates tells the story: My mom called me at the office to come out to Hood Canal for a Fourth of July barbecue because she wanted me to meet Warren Buffett. And I said, "Mom, I'm working." But she insisted. So I took a helicopter so I could spend my couple of hours there and then get back quickly and work on software. Then I met Warren, and I thought, "Oh, wow, this guy isn't just about buying and selling stocks and businesses. He is thinking about how the world works." And he asked me questions that I always wanted somebody to ask me, about why hadn't IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) been able to do what we had done, and how software gets priced, and why does one company have a defensible position. He wanted to understand the dynamics of the industry. To me it was way far away from, "What is your company worth?"

Newlyweds Melinda and Bill Gates at a charity raffle, 1994

Then he explained to me about how Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) had not only changed things in its business, but how it had an effect on newspapers because they thought of their advertising differently than individual local stores had. And he talked about how banking really worked in terms of credit risk. The whole time all I could think was, "Hey, I'll be smarter about running Microsoft after I talk to this guy." And so I stayed the whole day. Ever since then, Gates has tried to make more time to broaden his knowledge, and his capacity to absorb ideas has served Microsoft and the foundation well. But now reading, learning, and blue-sky brainstorming will be considered an integral part of his job description, and no doubt they will yield something.

Buffett, who knows him as well as anyone, says the notoriously competitive Gates will have to find new ways to judge his accomplishments rather than by market share or in dollars. "He'll be competing with his own standards," Buffett says. "In the end, he is going to want people to look at the Gates Foundation 100 years from now and say, 'This guy did it the way it should have been done.'" With all he did at Microsoft, Gates has a tough act to follow. "Bringing personal computing to billions has totally changed the world, and it's changed it, net-net, way for the better," says Myhrvold. "So even before you look at what his foundation has done for Africa or for the poor, he's already done more for the good of the world than essentially anyone else in our lifetimes."


Photos courtesy of Microsoft Archives, Fortune, and Robert Maxwell

Original Source (with slideshow and video): Fortune

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