Bill Gates made a life-changing announcement on Friday: he's stepping down from the boards of directors at both Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway to focus on his philanthropy.

It's a chance to "effectively prioritize my commitment to addressing some of the world's toughest challenges," Gates wrote.

This is a big announcement, and it's a long time in coming. In fact, while I know this will sound very specific, you can trace his decision back to a specific moment: July 5, 1991--and the lunch Gates wound up having that day. 

The big transition

To understand, it helps to realize that Gates passed a huge milestone recently--yet, an oddly unrecognized one.

As I wrote last month, it was the 20th anniversary of two big things:

  • when he stepped down as CEO of Microsoft--and very soon after,
  • when he announced he was pumping $5 billion into the newly renamed Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of course, Gates stayed involved with Microsoft: He was the chairman of the board until 2014. And he joined the board at Berkshire Hathaway.

But in the meantime, he was making an enormous, nearly unprecedented transition.

In short, he's one of the few people in history--certainly during the 20th and 21st centuries--who reached the absolute pinnacle of one field (tech/business/entrepreneurship) only to step aside, and then climb the pinnacle of another field (philanthropy).

'Mom, I'm busy!'

But, the roots go back to the 1991 lunch. It was Gates's parents who invited him to it.

He didn't want to go at first, even though a very high-profile person was going to be there (a mutual friend of his parents had introduced them), and his parents insisted he was someone their son would want to meet.

As Gates told the story in 2005:

It was a funny event because my mom's very sociable, always getting people together. I at this time didn't believe in vacations, was totally focused on my job. So when she said to me, "You've got to come out and meet Warren...," I said, "Mom, I'm busy!"

"Warren."

As in, Warren Buffett.

Gates picked up the story in a 2016 blog post, remembering that he told his mom:

"Look, he just buys and sells pieces of paper. That's not real value added. I don't think we'd have much in common." ,,,

Eventually, she persuaded me to go. I agreed to stay for no more than two hours before getting back to work at Microsoft.

It's worth looking up and remembering that July 5 was a Friday that year, so almost everyone in America was enjoying a four-day Independence Day weekend. But Gates was insisting he had to be in the office.

Gates gave in and went, of course, and he and Buffett completely hit it off. They spent hours together. Now, they both say now that they're the best of friends. By all accounts, Buffett has had an immense influence on Gates. 

(It's reassuring, right? Even someone like Bill Gates needed a mentor.)

And while their friendship is valuable to them, it might well be much more valuable to many other people.

'If I had a billion dollars'

Let's let Buffett pick up the story:

We met on July 5, 1991, and hit it off immediately. Bill was a little reluctant at first, but he got there. ... 

The big thing that really came out of one of those discussions really was the Giving Pledge. That's worked out so much better than I ever anticipated.

Almost 30 years later, between the Giving Pledge, and the combined efforts of Gates and Buffett themselves, we're now talking about billions and billions of dollars in philanthropic efforts, largely benefiting the poorest people in the world.

"They are the John. D. Rockefellers of this generation," Brad Smith of the Foundation Center said of Bill and Melinda Gates, after they were named the No. 1 philanthropists on his organization's Philanthropy 50 list for the fourth time.

Bill and Melinda Gates wrote just last month on their blog:

At the core of our foundation's work is the idea that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life. Twenty years later, despite how much things have changed, that is still our most important driving principle.

Now, Bill Gates will have even more time to devote to this second act. And who knows how much of it ever might have happened, if Gates hadn't met Buffett at that lunch in 1991.

Published on: Mar 15, 2020
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