How does the world’s most famous entrepreneur now fill his days? Saving the world, helping startups — and dropping kids off at school.
By Brent Schlender, contributor
When Bill Gates formally stepped away from an active role at Microsoft MSFT in July of 2008, he also hung up his golf clubs. His explanation was as simple as it was revealing: “It takes up too much time to get any good at it.”
So much for anything resembling a typical retirement for Mr. Gates. We should have known, of course, that for him the term is a mere euphemism. This is a guy with an extraordinary capacity for work, a man who used to sleep under his desk rather than lose a minute away from the office while building Microsoft into a software juggernaut.
Although Gates remains its non-executive chairman, Microsoft almost seems like an afterthought nowadays. Gates is busy with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which fights scourges like malaria, rotovirus, and HIV/AIDS. But he also is evolving into something of a techno-activist, using his money and his clout and his celebrated smarts to help accelerate innovation in a wide array of fields from agriculture, to banking, to education, to sanitation, to carbon-free energy sources and geo-engineering techniques that could reverse global warming. He recently started a personal website called thegatesnotes.com that catalogs his many activities and interests, and offers up his opinions on innovations and issues of the day. And you can read his tweets on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BillGates .
Another key activity is attending “invention sessions” every few weeks at the laboratories of Intellectual Ventures, an unusual skunkworks started by another old pal, Nathan Myhrvold, who formerly headed Microsoft’s R&D. (Gates recently ponied up for a state-of-the-art supercomputer in return for IV’s help with some scientific research for his foundation.) And judging from the library carts full of books in his new office, his intellectual curiosity, if anything, has broadened. Now the celebrated college dropout has time to indulge it as never before. “I’m averaging about five books a week,” Gates says matter-of-factly, albeit acknowledging that in a perfect world he would surely read more.
Using the bully pulpit
Indeed, Gates’ notion of an “active” retirement is far more ambitious than most people’s careers. After all, he’s only 54 years old, and he still has an enormous fortune estimated at $50 billion to manage, even after pouring tens of billions of dollars into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Apart from his role as co-chair of the foundation and his side-gig at Microsoft, he also joined the board of Berkshire Hathaway brk.a at the behest of buddy Warren Buffett.
And as he has adapted to his new, post-Microsoft routines, he has more aggressively used the bully pulpit of being both the world’s most celebrated entrepreneur and its most generous philanthropist to influence the world in new ways. He’s always had the ear of the business world, but now he frequently meets with heads of state to lobby for more humanitarian aid for the developing world, and he visits CEOs to urge them to consider ways to serve customers there.
“Because of all of his connections in business and technology and philanthropy, and his raw intellect, Bill brings an integrated, futuristic view of the world,” says Jeff Raikes, a former Microsoft executive who became the CEO of the foundation at about the same time Gates retired. “One day he’s meeting with [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi about not pulling back on foreign aid, and the next day he’s meeting with scientists at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute to talk about progress on an AIDS vaccine, and the next day he’s meeting with Arne Duncan [the U.S. Secretary of Education] on how we’d like to recognize and reward good teachers. He really has a big picture view that is unique.”
Creative capitalism, compassionate philanthropy
Here’s how Gates describes his activities: “Everything I do has sort of a common theme, which is ‘How do you organize innovation to have impact? How do you facilitate the innovation, get the right group of people together, get the right resources, and have it have this impact on a large scale?’ And innovation, in my case, has some type of science or software programming or online information component. I want to help cut years off of how long it takes to solve these problems.”
He has a term to describe the philosophy of his approach: creative capitalism. Like his own interests, creative capitalism has several dimensions, but in a nutshell, he defines it as striving to identify opportunities or challenges that technology could address, where a well-placed push will help jump-start market forces that will sustain them economically. As an entrepreneur, he knows first-hand how enormous new markets can be created out of thin air, especially adjacent to existing ones.
As a philanthropist, however, he is more pragmatic, especially when it comes to developing medicines and other products and services for the world’s poor. And so even though Gates is voraciously curious and fearless in his ambitions, he knows his foundation has to carefully pick its challenges and stubbornly pursue them, rather than dabble on the fringe of areas that traditional markets might serve. You won’t see the foundation fund energy research, for example, but you will see it try to find ways to use cell phone networks to deliver rudimentary banking services in remote areas.
Sometimes Gates’ entrepreneurial and philanthropic worlds happily collide, especially through his involvement with Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, whose staff scientists conduct unusual research projects on behalf of the Gates Foundation, often with the aim of coming up with imaginative inventions to address practical difficulties in the developing world. One example is a hand-crank-operated milk-pasteurizer that needs no external source of electricity to process raw milk, one cow at a time. Another is a super-efficient thermos bottle for preserving and safely dispensing perishable refrigerated vaccinations for long periods of time far from the grid. And then there’s Myhrvold’s favorite — a laser mosquito zapper that can tell the difference between males, which aren’t carriers of malaria, and females, which are.
Playing “bad cop” to Nathan Myhrvold’s “good cop”
These ideas are the product of periodic “global-good invention sessions” — basically all-day brainstorming meetings — some of which IV holds expressly for the Foundation. Anyone sitting in on one of these sessions immediately notices how Myhrvold and Gates use a good cop/bad cop version of the Socratic method as they preside over them. Myhrvold’s imagination tends to run wild with possibilities, encouraging the dozen or so scientists in attendance to think “around corners,” while Gates provides the cold-water splash of the realities of business, or of the daunting scope of the problems and the simultaneous need to move quickly.
At recent session Myhrvold and the Foundation assembled a group to explore the possibilities of developing a special kind of imprinted blotter paper the size of a postage stamp that can be used to collect traces blood, saliva, and urine on a single sample for blood typing, and to detect genetic markers in DNA for the predisposition toward certain disease, etc. Such tests could be administered just about anywhere and would have the potential to save millions of lives.
Gates also participates in what IV calls Invention Science Fund (ISF) sessions. These are similar brainstorming meetings in which Myhrvold invites a select group of scientists and specialists mainly from academia, and sometimes some actual basement inventors with radical ideas about a particular technology or issue. Unlike the “global-good” sessions, these are intended to result in innovations with rich commercial potential. They’re funded by a small group of investors like Gates who allow IV to underwrite research of its choosing. In that sense, it is like a very early stage venture capital fund, but the goal is to find ideas that could be turned into patentable inventions that an existing company might want to acquire, and the original investors and inventors would split the proceeds.
“We have an explicit strategy to swing for the fences. We try to do those punctuated equilibrium things,” Myhrvold explains, referring to transformational technologies that can change the fundamentals of an industry. (Gates calls them “miracles.”) “And our basic proposition in ISF is over the course of one of our funds, we’ll do a couple thousand inventions. And they have the property that if one of them works, it pays for everything. And if two of them work, oh my God.”
Some of the ideas sound a little far-fetched, but scientists at IV believe they can prove the efficacy of many by modeling them on the supercomputer that Gates bought for them, before going to the expense of building prototypes. One example is the notion of spraying relatively small amounts sulfur-dioxide, a common waste material from chemical processing plants, into the polar stratosphere, by means of an eight-mile pipe made of Mylar and suspended by intermittent helium balloons that also support small, solar powered pumps. Once it hits the stratosphere, 100-mile-an-hour winds spread it around the globe like a thin layer of gauze that subtly reflects sunlight. Basically, the idea is to simulate the effect of enormous volcanic eruptions, which historically have had a slight global cooling effect.
The $16 billion side-gig
Compared to all of this, Microsoft seems to have receded in importance, at least from outward appearances. (Gates owns some 641 million shares of the company, valued at more than $16 billion.) But Gates picks his moments to stay involved. He helped put together the engineering team that built Bing, Microsoft’s new search service that has actually picked up some market share versus Google GOOG . He occasionally makes public appearances when the company has a special new product to show off or gives employees awards, and he is a guest at executive retreats. He has helped Myhrvold design IV invention sessions oriented toward technologies that Microsoft might want to fund or pursue. And, of course, he presides over meetings of the board of directors.
Asking Gates to name his favorite thing about his post-Microsoft life is sort of like asking a parent which of his three children is his favorite. He loves different aspects pretty much equally for different reasons. But right up there near the top is that he can share much more time with his family
A man on fire
Among the biggest changes in his new life is that he can be a little more spontaneous, especially in his family life. When he’s in town, he makes time to either drop off or pick up his three kids from school every day. The entire family almost never misses spending Sunday evenings together, and on other nights he and Melinda have even been known to call up friends out of the blue for an impromptu cookout or card game. That never happened before.
It’s not just that he’s around home a little more, but that he has made a commitment to play a bigger part in the lives and education of his children now that they’re older: two are grade-schoolers, and one is in middle school. He has become their unofficial science teacher and takes them on unusual field trips to places like a toilet-paper plant, an aircraft carrier, and even the city dump for Seattle’s East Side.
Last year the family spent an extended period of time as a family in Europe, so their three kids could learn first-hand about the origins of western culture and visit museums and landmarks that could bring history to life.
Just as importantly, he is able to work more closely now with his wife, Melinda, at the Foundation. “We’ve always been peers in raising the kids together, which is a huge project,” Gates says. “But at Microsoft, we weren’t really professional peers. She understood some of my challenges because she had a perspective for it, but we weren’t peers. Now we have the foundation work where we are real peers, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Melinda Gates says she’s never seen her husband more energized. “He’s on fire,” he says. “I wondered about how purposeful he would be, because at first when you retire there’s this backlog of friends who want to see you for this or that, and I wondered, ‘Oh my gosh, is this a good use of his time?’ But once he cleared some of that out, he was very thoughtful about what he really wants to do.”