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.
Bill Gates remains optimistic: "Go and spend the day at some of the charter schools that have really changed the rules. Those charter schools are spending less per student than those awful high schools that have really high dropout rates. Something magical is happening."
"How much of the problem is structural, and how much is about individual attitudes?" Professor Gates asked.
Bill Gates cited a study that tracked achievements during a school year, showing black and white suburban kids learning about the same. But in the summer, the inner-city kid lost much of what he or she had learned. "You could explain almost all of the difference at the end of high school by the fact that the summers had been so unenriched for the inner-city kid." He cited a need for really good summer school programs, noting that many charter schools have an extended school day during the year.
In response to a question about the higher black unemployment rate, Bill Gates pointed out that the biggest gap in the rate of employment among blacks and whites is among black high school dropouts and those without an education beyond high school — and that a far higher percentage of African Americans than whites fit into that category. Getting more African Americans educated can go a long way toward closing that employment gap.
Finally, Professor Gates asked Bill Gates how more corporate titans could be persuaded to do philanthropic work. Bill Gates noted optimistically that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently gave $100 million to Newark, N.J., schools. "I didn't get involved in this until my 40s," said Gates. "He's just 27."
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.