I recently attended a conference for one of our fund managers and the keynote speaker was none other than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and Co-Chair and Trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For the 0.0001% of you who may not know who Bill Gates is, he co-founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen and the two of them grew it to become the largest personal computer software company in the world. Bill Gates has consistently been at the top of the Forbes List of the wealthiest people in the world. However, he was recently dethroned by Jeff Bezos whose net worth increased by nearly $40B in 2017. Sorry Bill. 😦
To set the stage, the event was held just outside of San Francisco tucked away in the hills/mountains just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an intimate setting of maybe 120 people seated under a white tent, with Bill and the moderator seated on a two-foot-tall by 15-foot-wide stage in the center of the room. I was seated on the front row about 15 feet away from the stage.
I have never seen Bill in person, but he looks and sounds exactly the same on television as he does in person. I’m not sure if I consider him just a celebrity, because he’s so much more than that. Bill is not famous just because of his wealth, but because of the many contributions he’s made to the advancement and innovation of technology over the last two+ decades. And now, he and his wife (Melinda) are making an even bigger impact with the Gates Foundation whose mission is to improve healthcare, education, and working conditions in some of the most impoverished nations in the world.
Bill was there to share his thoughts on a number of topics including artificial intelligence, the future of healthcare, genomic sequencing, robots in the workplace, clean energy, and the role that venture capital plays in driving these things forward. Bill also spoke of Breakthrough Energy, a venture capital fund which invests in companies creating technology to reduce greenhouse gases. Unlike a traditional venture capital fund, Breakthrough Energy has a 20 year time frame (compared to 10 years for a traditional VC fund) and its performance is measured by the impact its portfolio companies make on society, not just return on investment. If you’re interested in learning more about Breakthrough Energy, check out the website.
Bill shared a number of contrarian views, including how he doesn’t think healthcare costs in developed countries will become less expensive as better technology is created because it costs more to take care of a healthy person who lives longer than it does to take care of an unhealthy person who dies sooner. He also commented on artificial intelligence and the impact it will have on improving workplace productivity, thereby reducing human labor. Bill doesn’t view this as a negative because humanity has always find a way to remain relevant regardless of the major advances in workplace productivity (via automation). Bill was quick to point out and correct those who believe corporations have a responsibility to create jobs. Quite the contrary. Corporations are usually seeking ways to reduce the number of employees they need so that they can offer their products at lower costs, thereby enabling more people to purchase them.
While some of Bill’s views are contrarian, he justifies his positions with a significant amount of data and states them with great conviction. Bill is a leader and it shows in the way he’s able to understand and analyze problems at the root level, but at the same time he’s able to define and paint a clear picture for developing solutions at a high level. I like to call this “Next Level Thinking,” and I believe it is a skill that can be learned over time with sufficient exposure to the right people and the right situations.
Similar to Warren Buffet who reads four or five hours a day, Bill reads a lot as well. In this short, one-and-a-half-hour presentation, he referenced several books that he’s read over the last few weeks that have helped shaped his views on things. He jokingly said that the only reason he may not be a fan of artificial intelligence is because he doesn’t like the idea of someone or some “thing” being smarter than he is!
At a high-level, what I learned most from listening to Bill is to try to seek new ways to broaden my perspective on how things work in the world and to continually think about how those things can or should change. Not all of us care to think or be like Bill Gates, but given his track record I think he’s certainly one person we should try to learn a few things from. Cheers – KM