Bill Gates' new mission: Saving lives

  • Opinion – Chicago (IL) - When you already have transformed the way the world works, what do you do with the second half of your life? Ask Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, the insanely rich guy we so often loved to hate, but who is being credited with bringing computing to the mainstream. Today, Gates released the first annual letter describing his new role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What we read is a passionate introduction to the challenges and goals of his charity. And I remember the old saying: There are those who say they are saving lives, and those who actually do.

    Bill Gates retiring from Microsoft was one of the big news items last year. Back then, we knew Gates would not be able to leave Microsoft entirely and given the economic times and the challenges that Microsoft is facing, it is probably a good idea that he will drop by occasionally. However, Gates also mentioned that he would like to focus more and more on his charity in the future. And for those who thought this work might just be a hobby and less intensive than leading Microsoft, they have been proven wrong today.

    Gates released what he describes as the first of an annually published letter detailing some of the focus areas of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates spends some time in the letter addressing doubts (download the 20-page PDF) that his charity may not be as fulfilling as Microsoft was and claims that his tasks are actually quite similar.

    "Many of my friends were concerned that I wouldn't find the foundation work as engaging or rewarding as my work at Microsoft. I loved my work at Microsoft and it had been my primary focus for over 30 years. I too would have worried if I had paused and thought about it enough." He mentions that his job at Microsoft had "three magical things" - an "opportunity for big breakthroughs", he felt he has "skills would let [him] help create a special company that would be part of a whole new industry" and the work would "let [him] engage with people who were smart and knew things [he] didn't."

    Gates says his Foundation also has "three magical elements" – "opportunities for big breakthroughs", he believes that his "experience in building teams of smart people with different skill sets focused on tough long-term problems can be a real contribution" and he noted that "the intelligence and dedication of the people involved in these issues [are] just as impressive as what [he has] seen before."

    Within his letter, which you can read in its entirety online here, Gates outlines the efforts in Global Health, Global Development, and a dedicated U.S. education Program. In health, he provides insight in a program that accounts for 50% of the spending of the Foundation and concentrates on 20 diseases, such as "diarrheal diseases (including rotavirus), pneumonia, and malaria—which mostly kill kids—and AIDS and TB, which mostly kill adults."

    "With a handful of new vaccines, we should be able to save a year of a person's life for well under $100. If we waste $500,000, we are wasting 5,000 years of life. This is the kind of trade-off I ask our employees to consider when they are deciding which areas to get involved in and which grants to make," Gates writes.

    There is also the Global Development program, trying to address rural development and starvation. "About 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day. More than 900 million suffer from chronic hunger, and most of them live in rural areas of developing countries," according to Gates. "This is why the foundation added our Global Development Program to complement the Global Health group two years ago. We are working in areas like financial services, including savings and insurance. Our biggest investment is in improving agricultural output, another area where innovations have made a huge difference for millions of people but have not reached the poorest, especially in Africa and South Asia."

    He hopes that "new seeds and other inputs like fertilizer allow a farmer to increase a farm's output significantly, instead of just growing enough food to subsist. This innovation is just as important as developing and delivering vaccinations."

    The U.S. Program is aimed at improving education to "help reduce inequity". Gates not only shares what is being done now, what is being funded, but also what has been achieved already, such as this: "Lee High School, Houston, Texas. But a few of the schools that we funded achieved something amazing. They replaced schools with low expectations and low results with ones that have high expectations and high results. These schools are not selective in whom they admit, and they are overwhelmingly serving kids in poor areas, most of whose parents did not go to college. Almost all of these schools are charter schools that have significantly longer school days than other schools."

    Reading through the activities of the world's best-financed charity is an amazing eye-opener of what can be done with enough resources and dedication. One can only hope that the effort pays off and the results of Gates' new journey will be as significant as the ones he achieved with Microsoft. Even if it is Gates' choice to spend his time with his charity and many would be willing to change roles with him, his work should not be taken for granted. There is no better way that Gates could allocate his time or spend his wealth. It makes me think about other sparkling executives and company founders in the IT industry. Especially those who continue mentioning how they will save the planet by driving a hybrid/electric car, but then spend their fortune on yachts and jets.

    So with that thought in mind: Thank you, Bill Gates.