This is the first annual letter I plan to write about my work at the Gates Foundation. In this letter I want to share in a frank way what our goals are and where progress is being made and where it is not. Soon after Warren Buffett made his incredible gift, which doubled the resources of the foundation, he encouraged me to follow his lead by writing an annual letter. I won’t be quoting Mae West or trying to match his humor, but I will try to be equally candid.
Melinda will be sharing some of her thoughts in a video format each fall. Neither of these communications will replace the full annual report that we publish each year at www.gatesfoundation.org/annualreport.
This past July, I went from being full-time at Microsoft to being full-time at the foundation. I took a few weeks off for some family time, including a trip to Beijing for the Olympics, but I was anxious to keep myself mentally challenged and so the pause between jobs was brief.
Many of my friends were concerned that I wouldn’t find the foundation work as engaging or rewarding as my work at Microsoft. I loved my work at Microsoft and it had been my primary focus for over 30 years. I too would have worried if I had paused and thought about it enough. My job at Microsoft had three magical things. First there was an opportunity for big breakthroughs—including changing computers from being expensive and only for big companies to being inexpensive and empowering to individuals with a wide range of great software for almost any task. I wanted a personal computer with great software for myself and everyone else. Second, I thought my skills would let me help create a special company that would be part of a whole new industry. I felt I belonged in the software business, having thought about the engineering and the business possibilities maniacally from age 13. Finally, the work let me engage with people who were smart and knew things I didn’t. The day-to-day work always involved new problems and new ways of drawing out the best efforts from other people. We were always taking risks—some of which didn’t pay off and some of which did. Most people don’t have even one job that has all those elements, and my friends thought I wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing my new work to what I had had at Microsoft.
Despite that high bar, I love the work at the foundation. Although there are many differences, it also has the three magical elements. First there are opportunities for big breakthroughs—from discovering new vaccines that can save millions of lives to developing new seeds that will let a farming family have better productivity, improve their children’s nutrition, and sell some of the extra output. Second, I feel like my experience in building teams of smart people with different skill sets focused on tough long-term problems can be a real contribution. The common sense of the business world, with its urgency and focus, has strong application in the philanthropic world. I am sure I will make mistakes in over-applying some elements from my previous experience and will need to adjust. For instance, the countries where Microsoft does business are far more stable and have a lot more infrastructure than most of the places where the foundation does its work, so I’ll need to better appreciate how difficult it will be to execute our strategies. However, I am equally confident that our maniacal focus on drawing in the best talent and measuring results will make a difference. Finally, I find the intelligence and dedication of the people involved in these issues to be just as impressive as what I have seen before. Whether they are scientists at a university or people who have worked in the field in Africa most of their lives, they have critical knowledge and want to help make the breakthroughs. The opportunity to gather smart, creative people into teams and give them resources and guidance as they tackle the challenges is very fulfilling.
A special addition for me at the foundation is getting to work with Melinda. I met her at Microsoft, but we didn’t get to work together as peers like we do now. She and I enjoy sharing ideas and talking about what we are learning. When one of us is being very optimistic, the other takes on the role of making sure we’re thinking through all the tough issues.
The foundation has learned a lot and has had a significant impact. I want to thank all of our employees and partners for what they have accomplished so far. I should acknowledge three people in particular. First is Patty Stonesifer, whom Melinda and I trusted to run the foundation and provide the leadership that built the teams and programs. The second is my dad, who plays a key role and embodies the thoughtfulness and the humility that the foundation hopes to achieve. I still have a lot to learn from him. I feel lucky that because of both of them we are already nine years down the learning curve. They both have done an amazing job. Finally I want to thank Jeff Raikes, who took over as CEO from Patty last fall, for the great work I know he will do with us in the years ahead.
There are so many interesting and important topics to write about that it’s a challenge for me to keep my comments short. Each year I’ll touch upon some of the things that are top of mind. In this year’s letter I will share some observations and learning from the three areas we work in: Global Health, Global Development, and our U.S. Program. I will close with an update on three diseases that are particularly interesting and some thoughts on the role of foundations and the challenges caused by the global economic crisis.