Gates Meets Gates
Our editor-in-chief quizzes the Microsoft founder on his passion about education.
It was one of those irresistible matchups: two guys named Gates facing off at the National Urban League Conference in Boston. One was our own Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root; the other guy was Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the world. Our Gates was tasked with quizzing the billionaire before conference attendees.
"Skip" Gates broke the ice by calling Bill Gates his "cousin." "I'm looking forward to our family reunion. I'll bring the hot sauce."
"If you can't tell us apart," retorted Bill Gates, "he's the Harvard professor; I'm the Harvard dropout." That got a laugh from the audience. Professor Gates asked him his parents' reaction to his leaving Harvard to get into the software business. "They were concerned," Bill Gates admitted. But his parents' anxiety fell when Harvard gave him a return ticket. "Harvard said if I messed up, I could come back." Thirty years later, at his class reunion, Bill Gates received an honorary degree.
The discussion quickly turned serious and focused on the efforts of Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, to improve education in the United States. Their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to which the couple has given $28 billion (link), has become a driving force in the battle against AIDS in Africa, but its focus in the U.S. is education.
He concedes that he came late to philanthropy and educational issues. "It wasn't until my 40s that I started looking at schools," Bill Gates said. He recalled touring Philadelphia schools with William H. Gray III, the former congressman, pastor and head of the United Negro College Fund. Gates said he was shocked at the level of problems minority students faced. The result of that trip was a commitment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the UNCF of $1 billion in scholarships. That number has since been upped to $2 billion, said Gates.
The Microsoft founder explained his commitment to education as coming from his belief that a good early education set him up for his later success, creating the world's largest software company. "It was my education that put me in the position to be so lucky," he said. Some would argue that the spectacular rise of Microsoft had more behind it than luck. Bill Gates is famous for his obsessive vision and sometimes ruthless business tactics, but that's for another story. His success is undeniable, and Microsoft's standardization of hardware and software drove the spectacular growth of the computer industry.