Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Warren Buffett

Two conversations with Warren

Today, our friend and foundation trustee Warren Buffett turns 90 years old.

Like everybody else at the foundation, I stop and listen when Warren comes by to talk. On the occasion of his birthday, I wanted to share two conversations I’ve had with him over the years: The most recent one, and the first.

Early 2020
Shortly after I first accepted the CEO role, I flew out to Nebraska, interested to hear Warren’s insights. We met at an Omaha steakhouse. As we enjoyed our meal (me, a steak; Warren, I believe, had a chicken sandwich and a Cherry Coke), I asked what he saw as the challenges ahead for the foundation.

He often talks about what he calls the ABC’s of business decay: Arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency. As the world’s biggest foundation looking to solve the world’s thorniest issues, he told me, we’re particularly vulnerable to these pitfalls. When you tell yourself you’re working for the greater good, it’s easy to justify more employees, more layers. When you’ve got so many smart people in one place, it’s easy to persuade yourself you’re doing the right thing without truly challenging your own thinking.

Arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency can be the natural inertia of large organizations, he said. My job was to guard against that.

The ABC’s. It sounds simple, but when you unpack it, the points are quite profound. I come back to this lesson week after week.

I’ve thought about it as we challenge ourselves to reexamine our own culture and press forward on our strategic vision to make the foundation a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive place. I’ve thought about it as I look at our global work, and the responsibilities we carry. I’ve thought about it before choosing to use our voice.

I return to this lesson not just because it’s sound advice, but because of how I feel about our resources.

When Warren announced in 2006 that he was donating much of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to the foundation, it doubled the amount we were able to devote each year to fighting disease and inequity. So far, his donations total around $29 billion. But the gift wasn’t simply monetary. It was a vote of trust for Bill and Melinda, for the foundation’s mission, and ultimately, for the work my colleagues here do every day. Bill and Melinda remain diligent custodians of that trust, and I continue that vigilance. 

Not long after I joined here as director of Global Development Policy, Advocacy, and Special Initiatives, Warren visited the foundation and gave a talk. I remember someone asking the question, what can we learn from your experience as an investor? His answer was, “not much.” He explained that he considers himself a low-risk investor. A different approach is required when you’re taking on tough challenges that have defeated lots of previous efforts. “Swing for the fences,” he told us.

There’s something of a double meaning there. Sure, we all want home runs, but the world’s best home run hitters know that even as they take powerful swings, they sometimes miss.

“If you’re not swinging and missing,” I recall him saying that day, “you’re not taking enough risks.” That has stuck with me, and I’m proud of the calculated risk-taking that characterizes our best work. He’s also said that when it comes to philanthropy, Bill and Melinda have a better batting average than he would. While he’s not involved in the day-to-day decisions here, his impact on the work we’ve been able to do around the world has been profound.

Warren hasn’t limited his philanthropic giving to the foundation. In 2010, he, Bill and Melinda created the Giving Pledge, a movement encouraging philanthropists to pledge the bulk of their wealth to charitable causes. Scores of people have made the pledge and have shared their stories. As they see, philanthropy improves their own lives and the lives of others. So, in this 10th anniversary year of the Giving Pledge, we wish you a happy birthday, Warren, with many productive years ahead.

About the Author

Mark Suzman, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leads the foundation's efforts to promote equity for all people around the world.

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