As a brilliant entrepreneur who became the world's richest person and a major philanthropist, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has the potential...

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As a brilliant entrepreneur who became the world’s richest person and a major philanthropist, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has the potential to lay out an inspiring vision for how to do well and do good.

That’s why I was disappointed when he used his speech at the World Economic Forum on Thursday to urge the world to embrace a mushy concept called “creative capitalism.”

As Gates described it, creative capitalism is “making profits and also improving lives of those who don’t fully benefit from today’s market forces. For sustainability, we need to use profit incentives wherever we can. At the same time, profits are not always possible when business tries to serve the very poor. In such cases, there needs to be another incentive, and that incentive is recognition.”

That’s creative?

A free copy of Windows Vista to anyone who can explain what’s so creative about that.

Gates, who is donating billions to improve basic health care in the developing world, offered some examples: There was the Dutch company that gave away the license to its cholera vaccine to manufacturers in developing countries while retaining the rights for the developed world.

And the Red campaign, in which companies like Gap, Apple — and now Microsoft — sell a Red-branded version of their product, with some of the profits going to fight AIDS in Africa.

The vaccine donation sounds like old-fashioned philanthropy. And pledging a small slice of profits to charity is a shopworn marketing strategy used by many companies.

Still, Gates is right: We need a lot more money and innovation directed at solving the problems of the world’s poorest people.

So let me offer you my translation of his speech — what Bill Gates should have said. (And Bill, in the spirit of philanthropy, you’re free to appropriate as much of it as you want.)

Companies need to take an active interest in the fate of the world’s poorest people, even if there’s not an immediate and obvious profit in it.

Yes, the principal business of corporations is to make as much money as possible delivering the best products and services to customers.

But making money feels a lot better when you’re making the world a better place at the same time. A culture of generosity makes employees happier.

More important, today’s poor can be tomorrow’s customers and leaders — if they get a good education and don’t starve or die of a preventable disease.

The race to get cheap laptops into the hands of poor kids around the world shows how tech companies can blend philanthropy and business. When a nonprofit called One Laptop per Child (OLPC) announced a few years ago that it wanted to get cheap computers to the poor kids of the world, the tech world laughed.

One-laptop idea

Now everyone sees money and good karma in the idea. Major companies like Advanced Micro Devices, Google, eBay and Quanta have joined the OLPC effort, and nearly 250,000 computers have been handed out.

Walter Bender, president of software and content at OLPC, said partners make a bit of money from their contributions to the $300 laptop, although “it’s not clear to me that we have demonstrated that it’s a good thing for them to do from a business perspective.

“But from a social perspective,” he said, “it’s becoming more clear to more people there are lot of problems in this world, and the solution to a lot of those problems lies in learning.”

Perhaps the next Bill Gates is surviving on less than a dollar a day somewhere in the developing world. Wouldn’t it be a shame if no one was willing to help him flourish?

Vindu Goel is a columnist

at the San Jose Mercury News.