He received an ecstatic reception from the packed hall of London teenagers who seemed to be enthralled by his story. He told them how his first break in computers was when he was asked to fix the school computerised timetable system which had baffled his teachers. It brought him two things he told them; control over the school timetables and money.
“I was known as a computer nut. I’d stay on it night and day,” he said.
He continued about how he dropped out of Harvard and started on the road to becoming the Microsoft entrepreneur that made him so famously wealthy. “If I hadn’t given my money away, I would now have more money than anyone else on the planet,” he continued.
It is that giving away that makes him so interesting. His philanthropy is on a grand scale. He plans to eradicate diseases in his own lifetime that have plagued the human race for thousands of years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has to date given £17billion to help fund health, development and educational projects around the world. Even his biggest detractors, and there are many of those left over from his Microsoft days, would have to be impressed by the sheer size of his generosity.
He told the Deptford kids how his foundation was working towards eradicating every last case of polio – a scourge to world health for thousands of years. Indeed, there is a “hit-list” of 12 diseases which he is targeting he told the packed school hall. What had really surprised him was that these preventable illnesses had not been stopped earlier and that there had not been more innovation in vaccines. “I was stunned how little resources had gone into this.”
He says he is applying the same attention to detail that made him such a successful businessman to saving lives. His foundation’s work is carried out with a “hard-nosed mathematical” approach calculating the impact in terms of “dollars per year of life saved”.
“When I was your age, I didn’t know much about poverty,” he told the school, describing his education as “super nice” and a place where he was the kid who was good at maths. He answered their questions in a relaxed, self-effacing style that went down well with his young audience. He has always had his own geek-chic style, from his Windows haircut to his American teen phrases like “cool stuff”.
Microsoft is in the past, he is now immersed in tackling the worst diseases in the poorest communities in the world. “The goal is equity. If we don’t have these diseases, why should people in Africa or Asia?” he asked.
Getting Uncle Bill to an average community school in south-London was an impressive feather in the cap for Keely Wilson who asked, in a roundabout kind of way, for a speaker who wouldn’t bore the kids to death – we bet she wasn’t disappointed.
I wonder if he is any good at talking to bears.