Bill Gates on tech founders and philanthropy

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of Microsoft, chats with Daniel Petre, StartGiving founder and chair, in this episode of the StartGiving podcast.

In a lively conversation, Bill discusses the fulfilment he’s experienced from philanthropy, the benefits of giving now versus later, and how much of their wealth Australian tech founders should consider giving away.

You can also watch this episode as a vodcast.

Antonia: This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. StartGiving acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the hundreds of First Nations across this richly diverse continent. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including to those listening.

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Daniel: Hello and welcome to the StartGiving podcast. I’m Daniel Petre, the founder and chair of StartGiving and your host for this episode.

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Daniel: StartGiving wants to inspire a new culture of philanthropic giving in Australia, creating millions of dollars in additional charity funding. Our goal is to help successful tech founders start their giving journey, launch their personal charitable foundations, and make giving in the innovation sector the default and the expectation. In this podcast series we’ll speak with leaders in the technology and philanthropy space to help inspire this new community of Australian givers.

My guest today is Bill Gates. I’ve known Bill for over 35 years since my time as a vice president at Microsoft in the early 1990s. I’m grateful he’s also an advisory board member of StartGiving. Bill is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest organisation of its kind in the world, with an endowment of over $50 billion, annual giving of around $6 billion, and a commitment to grow that to over $9 billion by 2026. As co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he shapes and improves the foundation strategies, he advocates for the foundation’s issues and sets the organisation’s overall direction. He works with grantees and partners to further the foundation’s goal of improving equity in the United States and around the world.

Bill co-founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen and led the company to become the worldwide leader in software and services that it is today. In 2008, Bill transitioned to focus full time on his foundation’s work, although he remains tightly connected as an advisor to Satya, the current CEO of Microsoft. Through his private office, Gates Ventures he pursues his work in climate change and clean energy innovation, Alzheimer’s research and other health care issues, education and technology. He’s also the founder of Breakthrough Energy, which works to address climate change by supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, big thinkers and clean technologies.

In 2010, Bill, Melinda and Warren Buffett founded the Giving Pledge, an effort to encourage the wealthiest families and individuals to publicly commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organisations during their lifetime or in their will.


Daniel: Bill, thanks for your time today and congratulations on recently becoming a grandfather and joining the grandfather’s club. Has becoming a grandfather changed your view of the world in any way?

Bill: I think it helps you think about future generations that you know somebody born today, you know they’re going to be living during the time when climate change, geopolitical difficulties, lot’s of these concerns will be a reality and, you know, feeling like, okay, what world are we leaving for them? What problems have we not solved on their behalf? It brings it home, makes it real.

Daniel: When you were down here recently, down here in Australia recently, you made the comment that you’d actually prefer to be a young person now than years ago. Is that your view?

Bill: Well, I was very lucky to be young and open minded and, you know, sort of mathematically minded when the microprocessor came along. You know, so I’m glad that I wasn’t born 20 years earlier because, you know, there was nothing to be done in computers, no matter how, how clever you might be. So I got to be there at the beginning of what became, you know, personal computers, the Internet, mobile phones. And now AI. People who are young now are going to be able to take this AI advance and hopefully minimise any negative possibilities and maximise, you know, how to use it for health and education and getting rid of a lot of drudgery work making in a bureaucracy a little less bureaucratic. So, it’s an exciting time. And you know, of course the big challenges, whether it’s misinformation or climate change, you know, it’s not like there’s, everything’s been solved. So I do envy people being in their twenties and helping us with the big problems.

Daniel: Moving to sort of giving, into the main thrust of the interview. I’m fascinated by the motivations or influences that get some people to want to give back, to be philanthropic, to try and help others in some way, whether it’s increasing opportunity or alleviating suffering. What were the motivations or influences in your life that made you want to dedicate a lot of your life and a lot of your resources to philanthropy, to helping others?

Bill: Well, I’d say it’s a combination of the kind of values my parents had where they would volunteer time, be very involved in the community. My dad wrote a book that was titled ‘Showing Up for Life’, which was about how he would engage in so many different causes and that, you know, I felt like particularly having the incredible success of Microsoft and the resources that brought that, I could take the spirit of what my parents demonstrated for me and yet do it at a much larger scale. You know, even like creating new vaccines or eradicating diseases. And I was so busy running Microsoft, it was only in the late nineties that I started looking around and saying, okay, what is the high impact thing that hasn’t been done yet? You know, maybe there isn’t anything. And, you know, I found primarily in health and also in education, the idea that getting smart people to work on those problems, particularly helping the poor countries out, that there wasn’t much being done. And so when you say, okay, the portion of this wealth that goes to kids should be limited so that they feel, you know, their own career or financial success validates them and not be overwhelmed by, you know, gigantic inheritance. And then it says, okay, there’s this money that’s available to give back to society and can I take all the skills of building an organisation like Microsoft and create a foundation that although the metric is not profitability, the metric in this case is saving children’s lives, that it’s every bit as excellent as what I got to do during my first for-profit career.

Daniel: You touched on this topic just in your answer then, but I want to just drill a bit more on this issue of if someone asked you, a wealthy person asked you, not necessarily someone with your level of wealth, but someone you know who is still wealthy in they have the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars. If they asked you, how should I think about how much of my wealth I should give away? Now, you touched on them when you talked about leaving a large inheritance, but even in the case of someone, who might have $50 or $100 million of wealth. And they said to you, ‘Hey, Bill, how should I think about how much do I allocate?’ What would your advice be?

Bill: Well, I think the ideal, if you can make it work, is even at that level, to ideally give half away. And so that you are setting an example of supporting important causes and having your children see you do that depending on their age, you know, you might engage them as well. One of the most active parts of a group of philanthropists called the Giving Pledge we’ve gotten together is what’s called the Next Generation Group. And they love meeting and talking to each other. And, you know, many of them are pushing their parents to give more. Many of them are the ones who are up to date and have more time available. So they’re actually helping out, you know, making sure that it’s all very well thought through. And so it can be something that, you know, engages a family and strengthens their sense of values, their role in society. Certainly, as you get to much larger levels, up to hundreds of millions, then I would say pretty strongly you ought to be getting above 50%.

Daniel: In that the Giving Pledge, as you mentioned, and we’ll touch on them again in a minute, you ask people to commit to give away at least half of their wealth, either before they die or on their death. How do you think about the idea of people who have capacity, so they have wealth, between giving now versus giving later and the obvious trade-off between helping alleviate suffering, and creating opportunity now, versus later? And then also the trade off between, as you’ve mentioned, the effort it may take to allocate capital effectively now versus later. So the whole trade-off between now versus later, how do you think about that?

Bill: Yeah, so there’s two scarce elements. There’s time and money and you can have somebody who’s full time engaged in their business and the business is in a very high growth stage so that the value of their ownership is probably going up pretty dramatically. And somebody like that, I would suggest. Probably should just do light philanthropy, but view it as part of a learning curve, that is find to other philanthropists and a little bit of time with them. Pool your money with them so you can see the professionals there and get involved, see which things work out. But you’re just, it’s mostly preparatory for a stage of your life where you have more liquidity and you can start to shift and give your time.

Now, some people will never want to be full time on their charity. They may want to work forever, or these charitable activities may not be the thing that pulls them in. I encourage them to try it because it’s every bit as interesting and, you know, complicated, challenging and perhaps even more fulfilling than what you do out in the private sector and the kind of sharp thinking that successful people bring to these areas where the metrics aren’t as clear as, you know, profit per share. That’s often very helpful. Now you need to mix in people who really understand the challenges and build a team of thinkers to try out new solutions. But, you know, innovations like digital innovations will flourish first in private sector and bringing those to things like poor world health or new ways of doing education. It’ll often be the people who worked in those sectors coming in and making sure they’re applied very well.

If you start giving when you’re young, you can see the impact. You know, you’re at your most talented. You can often draw on other associates from your business who may also want to shift how they spend their time. And, you know, so, you know, very, very smart people that can help you pull this thing together.

So I encourage people to at least look at doing what’s worked so well for me, which is to turn it into your second career. And it’s a very nice career in that you, you know, you don’t have to abruptly quit. You can kind of phase down as you’re getting older, you know, taking more time off, but still be involved in those very key decisions.

You know, if you find somebody who’s cause is amazing, you can just view it as an act of delegation, like, more like an investment than like an operating company. Many philanthropists don’t like the idea of having full time staff because their agenda might differ from yours. If you have periods where you want to go, focus on other things. They’re kind of there waiting, you know, maybe pushing you at a time when you’d rather just focus elsewhere. And that’s great. I think, you know, even some of the bigger philanthropists will work by funding organisations.

The Gates Foundation is kind of the extreme opposite, where we now are up to almost 2,000 people worldwide. And you know, we’ve got a tuberculosis team, a malaria team, you know, polio eradication team. We’ve got a team that covers the donor governments, we’ve got teams in Africa. So it’s more like what I built at Microsoft in terms of an operating entity, although with kind of a weird bottom line in that it’s about number of lives saved.

Daniel: At StartGiving we talk to founders who are still building their companies, thinking about their early or their light philanthropy as their MVP. Think of it as your MVP of philanthropy and you’re as you say, you’re trialling and hopefully they get the bug as well, the fulfilment of doing something for someone else while not distracting themselves too much from their day job.

Just to talk about the Giving Pledge a bit, which is an extraordinary group of people and you should be incredibly proud of having created that. I want to ask a question about the tech founders in the Giving Pledge versus the other people in the Giving Pledge. And, and we’re fortunate that Mel and Cliff from Canva have also joined the Giving Pledge.

Do you see a different approach from, say, the tech founders, you know, in the Giving Pledge versus other founders in the Giving Pledge? Is that a different way they operate or think about philanthropy?

Bill: Yeah, there’s somewhat of a difference. I mean, at the extremes, you’d have a family that worked on businesses that grew fairly slowly but over a period of generations using their own capital and by trusting their relatives to be in the management of that company, they’ve done well. And if they give away their capital, there’s no easy way, you know, where they operate to, to get that. And so if you think in terms of multi-generational sort of dynastic fortunes, they’ll often be generous with the profits, but not so much with the capital.

When you have tech fortunes, they’re made very quickly. You know, there was a huge element of luck, you know, that it’s not like your children are going to take over the business and keep running it. I mean, things move way too quickly. And so I can’t think of any company where you’re thinking of your children, and so you bring in professional managers. And for most people, as the company gets big and plateaus out a little bit the skill sets that you’ve applied there might be better either starting more companies or bringing that sort of entrepreneurial new way of looking at things, drive innovation quickly, bringing that to how you, you give your money away.

In terms of calling people up to join Giving Pledge, I’ve had the greatest success with people in the tech industry and in a way, because the fortune is built very quickly, they don’t build up their personal spending that fast. And so they know that it’s outsized relative what they think of normal consumption and also what they want to make sure, no matter what their children have available. Even when they think about philanthropy, when you first say to them, you know, hey, you should give 50 million to this, it’s like what? You know, a million is a gigantic amount of money. I’ve never spent, you know, $1,000,000 on anything. But, you know, because their fortune is so vast you say, you know, hey, you might be able to give 5% of that away every year pretty much for the rest of time. And that’s, even though you don’t start out there, unless you prefer to have your heirs do it, you know where you won’t have the joy, the involvement of doing it, then that’s the kind of scale you ought to start to get your mind around.

And so I have a lot of philanthropists who, you know, they’ve got to go from million dollar gifts to 10 to 50 to even, you know, several hundred million. Jon Dore is a venture capitalist who just gave 1.1 billion to Stanford for climate work. And I remember, you know, as I was calling him up at Stanford, was encouraging me to talk about it. And when I said 1.1 billion, I thought, wow, that is a lot of money. And so. You know it, it can be such a fulfilling activity.

And one thing I would say about philanthropy is if it’s going on as just kind of an obligation, it’s not fun. It’s like, oh, geez, I have to go do that. Then you should rethink it because you should pick causes that you enjoy being involved with, where you know the expectations, the results or something you’re engaged with, it should be very, very fulfilling.

Daniel: You’ve done extraordinary work across a vast array of areas, as you’ve already mentioned. Is there one project or project area you’re most proud of and if so what would that be?

Bill: Well, our work in global health, which is over 70% of our spending has gone far, far better than we expected. And that is, the world wasn’t getting all these vaccines that were going to rich kids, going to the poor kids and the poor kids in areas like diarrhoea, which is a rotavirus vaccine, is the majority of all diarrhoeal deaths. That vaccine, you know, we got it down to a dollar and we got it out now to about 90% of the kids in the world. And that’s a meaningful part of why the number of children who die has gone down from over 10 million a year now to under 5 million a year. You know, during the years that the foundation has been involved. And that’s not just the Gates Foundation. We’ve orchestrated, you know, country givers, including the U.S., Australia, many others.

But we’ve become a central player in the field of global health, particularly driving the creation of new vaccines and using digital tools to make sure the coverage is good and there’s no corruption or anything like that.

So, you know, we will always be most proud of how we cut that death rate in half. And over the next, even 15 years, we should be able to cut it in half again.

Daniel: It’s extraordinary. As a last question, and I think you sort of touched on some of your thoughts on this, but I’d like to sort of have a summary view from you. If you’ve now got a large number of Australian tech founders listening to you on this podcast, what would your parting message to this tech founder community be, in terms of the opportunity with philanthropy?

Bill: Well, anyone who’s come out of a tech company is somebody who’s very curious. And when I was running Microsoft, there were a lot of areas that I wanted to read about or places I wanted to travel to, but in that intense phase, you have to curb your desire. And, you know, in some ways your tools are mostly being used by well-off people. Yes, they get used in classrooms and small businesses, but you’re not really quite the agent of reducing inequity that you might want to be through the entire course of your life.

So the idea that you get the freedom and at first you can move pretty slowly and take trips, meet great scientists, meet other philanthropists, you know, it should be a fun learning journey and you can decide, you know, is your spouse on that with you? Some of the people from your business, depending on how old your kids are, it might be fun to have them be on part of that journey with you. And you know, what a great privilege to have resources to be able to give away. And then, you know, these things within two or three years you can see what the impact of that work looks like. Okay, some scientific things might like, you know, your funding, a new medical thing that can take five or ten years, but you can see that there’s great progress there.

So, you know, I view it as part of a, you know, kind of complete life to not just drive the wealth, but also see that it gets used in the best way. And, you know, it’s been fun to see other people go down this journey. There’s not one cause that’s better than all the others. It’s a little bit in terms of what’s happened to you, what’s happened to people you know, things you see as you travel. The variety of philanthropy that people pick different targets is part of its strengths, that it doesn’t just all, you know, work in, in one area. You know, I encourage people to look at global health, but that’s, you know, just one way to have very big impact.

So I’m thrilled that we’ll get more people involved and that they’ll be an inspiration, you know. And, eventually the idea would be that people who’ve made significant fortunes, even though they’re not required to, they feel a strong need to set an example and to apply the same kind of energy and genius that created their success.

Daniel: There’s no doubt, obviously, Bill, that you are an inspiration to people in the tech community, not only in the way you built Microsoft and I was very fortunate to be a small part of that journey, but in the way you’ve taken your resources to help alleviate suffering and create opportunity. And I think as a leader in the tech community, you are a great inspiration for those who will follow you in terms of trying to do, do more with the wealth they have.

It’s been a complete joy talking to you today, as it always is. And I really want to thank you for your time today.

Bill: Yeah, great to see you, Daniel. And anytime you or anyone wants to come to Seattle, we’d love to brainstorm about this more.

Daniel: Terrific. Thanks, Bill.

Bill: All right, see you.

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Daniel: This podcast was written by Catherine Feeney and Daniel Petre and produced by Audiocraft. And thank you, Bill, for being our guest today. Visit for this episode’s show notes and learn more about what we do. You can subscribe to the StartGiving podcast wherever you get your podcasts or watch a version of this conversation as a vodcast on YouTube.

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