Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gates to Heaven

Rich people are interesting. I've never been around the very rich until a few years back--and what struck me when I did is how generally unhappy they are. Maybe it's just the ones I met, but probably not. Even with all the money in the world to do anything they want, the uber-wealthy are still struggling like the rest of us with health issues, children troubles, and legal problems. Seems that more money can equal more difficulties as they become the target of the jealousies and money-hunger of those beneath. According to reports, psychologically the more you have, the more you want--like a hamster in a cage. Who knows, these folks might miss at a deep level a unity of consciousness with others less well-off and maybe even harbor a guilt about hoarding their wealth to the detriment of the rest of society. The very wealthy must know at same layer the trickle-down effect of their money is not enough.

There are a few that have decided to bridge that gap between their wealth and the universe's expectations and in the process are creating an enlightened model for the very wealthy. They understand that to whom much is given, much is expected. A contributor sent an article from Fortune magazine (1-21-08) about one such person who has been getting notoriety in the last several years for her push to literally change the world. Melinda Gates, married to the wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates, has taken the world of philanthropy by storm.

Born to an upper-middle class professional family in North Dallas, Melinda attended an all-girl's school where she graduated as valedictorian. After achieving high grades and several degrees in computer science and economics from elite universities, she landed at Microsoft as an underling, but soon her bright-bulb shown. One of those drawn to her warmth was Bill Gates, the CEO of the company. After first briefly meeting at a conference, he ran into her later that fall and awkwardly asked for a date,"Will you go out with me two weeks from Friday?" Her response was emblematic of their future relationship. "Two weeks from Friday? That's not nearly spontaneous enough for me. I don't know. Call me up closer to the day." The fact that Mr. Gates was her boss's boss and had just become a billionaire did not phase this spunky gal a bit.

Well, the rest was history. They obviously did have that first date, although it was that very night, and soon planned to marry. But Melinda was actually put off by all Bill's wealth and plans for a huge, impersonal mansion, and told him so. She wanted two things: a way to give all his money back to the world and a smaller, more family friendly home. She got both.

In so doing, Melinda became the catalyst and veritable powerhouse behind a tidal wave of global philanthropic transformation. This revolutionary enlightened change has come in three major areas: 1) distribution of 95% of their wealth in their lifetimes; 2) close collaboration with others both private and public, thus multiplying the effect of their limited funds; and 3) a business model basis of studying, planning, implementing, data collection, studying results, tweaking, and trying again with changes. In my executive days, we called this a PDSA Cycle: plan, do, study, act. It works.

Together with funds from the Warren Buffet's foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will probably give out in its lifetime over $100 billion dollars. Though this sounds like a colossal amount of money, in reality, it is a drop in the bucket compared the amount needed to offset the ills plaguing the world. The Gates know this, but stay tuned to catalyzing change in the areas of global health, global development and US programs particularly in education. Of their mission, Melinda said: "We literally go down the chart of the greatest inequities and give where we can effect the greatest change." As an example, one of their newer endeavors is sustainable farming and a WSJ (1-25-08, p. B6) headline proclaimed that the "Foundation Plans $900 million Aid With a Local Focus" based on the advances inspired by the Green Revolution, although it will focus on local soils and peoples rather than fertilizer and pesticides.

Historically, the foundation has targeted malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS eradication, and Melinda has become an expert in these areas--a humble and involved expert. Bill Clinton, who himself has a globally focused foundation, is quoted as saying that when traveling to Africa with the Gates two years ago, "Bill and I thought we were so smart. We showed how much we knew about all these issues, you know, and we asked all the right questions. Melinda just sat their patiently. And then when we shut up, she bored in and said, 'What are you doing in education? What are you doing on prevention? How many people are using condoms?' We wilted. Melinda showed that in the end, women are stronger than men when it counts." He should know.

Bill Gates is obviously no slouch in the brainpower department, however. Fortune magazine comments that in their foundation work, the couple demands impact which "comes from a combination of Melinda's vision and Bill's brainpower." In addition, his good friend, Warren Buffet said of him, "Bill is an awkward guy. He's lopsided, but less lopsided since he's with Melinda." You can see this geeky, uncertain quality when looking at pictures of the the couple: he looks like the rumbled, slightly stooped professor, she looks like a radiant, over-achieving but self-assured CEO. Bill was at the top of his game when in 2007 he gave the commencement speech and received an honorary degree from Harvard--the place from which he dropped out so many years ago. In his opening remarks, he quipped: "Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree. . . it'll be nice to have a college degree on my resume." Wry humor aside, the very serious thesis of his remarks showed his metamorphosis because of Melinda's influence:
"We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism--if we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or at least make a living, serving people who are suffering from the worst inequities. We can also press governments around the world to spend taxpayer money in ways that better reflect the values of the people who pay the taxes. If we can find approaches to meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world."
This theme was further expanded last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where, according to front-page reporting by the WSJ, Bill issued a forward-thinking call for a kinder capitalism (1-24-08, A1.) He told the Forum participants: "We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve the wealthier people serve poorer people as well." In an interview with the WSJ, Gates said "that he has grown impatient with the short-comings of capitalism. He has seen those failings first-hand on trips to places like the South African slum of Soweto and discussed them with dozens of experts on disease and poverty. . .in particular he is troubled that advances in technology, health care and education tend to help the rich and bypass the poor."

This heralding call has started to sound forth from other wealthy celebs as well. Bono was a one man anti-poverty band when he began his crusade several years back. I always liked his positive, but powerful respectful approach to the leaders to whom he spoke. He put down no one, but instead tried to garner promises of help where it was possible. Yet, Bono embraced capitalism and has tried with success to use its inherent force to both educate and make money for his projects. Yesterday a long article in the WSJ (2-1-08, W4) outlined his many enterprises, and they showed imaginative diversity. One of his successful business strategies is to partner with large global corporations who then donate millions to his causes. But he also invested in a hotel in Dublin, backed a clothing line of t-shirts made in Lesotho and sold at Nordstrom, and, of course, toured in his blockbuster band, U2. Bono too mentions the Gates as a powerful force in global problem-solving: "Sometimes I call him Kill Bill. Lots of people are enraged and we sweep ourselves into a fury from the wanton loss of lives. What we need is a much slower pulse to help us be rational. Melinda is that pulse."

Many others are joining the wealthy philanthropic bandwagon. Only time will tell if this new mind-set will change the tide of giving to make the wealthy contributor feel better with little comprehensive impact on the problems of humanity or giving to make a real difference in global ills. But with Melinda Gates holistic vision and brain power
behind the movement, its success is more assured. After all, she presciently envisioned her responsibilities when delivering the valedictorian speech at her commencement from high school in 1982 when she said:
"If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped."

OF NOTE: It may show a trend in itself that four different articles in one week landed on my desk regarding the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had already archived Bill Gates commencement speech from last June as an example of enlightened change. I send my great appreciation to the contributor of the Fortune magazine article about Melinda Gates.

Weather report: 30 degrees and snowing lightly. Overcast. Roads worsening throughout the day. Yesterday Springfield IL received 12.9 inches of snow as did most of that area in an unusually prolific snowstorm that also hit Chicagoland.

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