With the words "Hello World," Bill Gates created a new-media personality practically overnight.
With the words “Hello World,” Bill Gates created a new-media personality practically overnight.
With that greeting he found his voice on Twitter last week, received a shout out from actor Ashton Kutcher and spread the news of his trip to the Sundance Film Festival, where photos were snapped of him dancing with 20-somethings at a party in Park City, Utah. Then he mused about “What’s been on my mind lately” in The Gates Notes, his eclectic new Web site. That’s in addition to updating his 72,469 fans on Facebook.
No platform was missed as Gates reappeared Monday for an all-day media blitz, starting with “Good Morning America” and ending with “The Daily Show.”
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Is this the ultimate revenge of the nerd?
Embracing a more public persona, Gates has been discussing everything from his annual letter about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the current U.S. economic situation to censorship in China.
In an interview Monday with The Seattle Times, Gates said he is using the latest social-media tools to share his enthusiasm for global health and other issues he tackles through philanthropy. He also sees it as a way to get feedback from the public, for better or worse, on his work.
“I think it’s important to take young people’s interest in what’s going on in these poor countries and help them learn about it, help them get involved,” he said. “I think I’ll learn a lot about the reaction I get.”
Gates has heard criticism from some people for not making climate change part of his philanthropic mission. But he said that improving the health of poor people in the developing world can achieve the same thing. Families that can count on their children surviving past the age of 5 tend to have fewer babies, reducing the population over time. And Gates is backing development of seeds adapted to more severe weather conditions brought on by climate change, such as flood or drought.
But Gates the private investor said he has put tens of millions of dollars into alternative energy and clean technology recently. He contributed more than $20 million to Khosla Ventures, started by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.
“We need hundreds and hundreds of entrepreneurs to try new approaches … all we need is an approach that works,” he said.
Gates has been reflecting on his experience over his first year as a full-time philanthropist. The richest man in the world directs a private foundation that now holds $34 billion in its endowment. Whether the new channels will make the foundation any more transparent or accountable is another question. The Web site and Twitter page are still largely controlled conversations.
“The loop is somewhat artificial,” said Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “Everything’s got to be through the machine. If he wants real feedback why doesn’t he start serious consultations with people who might tell him what he doesn’t want to hear?”
“Gates has so many resources they’ve been able to devote to wonderful stuff in global health,” said Stephen Gloyd, executive director of Health Alliance International and professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington. But, he said, “they can create and support paradigms of work and directions in global health that are largely without accountability. They have no public sector to come out and say is this the right way to go about it.”
Looking at health efforts in Africa, Gates talked about the surprising success of adult male circumcision and upcoming results of HIV vaccine trials. Regarding a proposed bill in Uganda that would make homosexuality illegal, Gates said, “there’s a tendency to think in the U.S. just because a law says something that it’s a big deal,” he said. Gay men and people with AIDS face a stigma no matter what, he said. “In terms of how many people are dying in Africa, it’s not about the law on the books; it’s about getting the message out and the new tools.”
Regarding the crisis in Haiti following recent earthquakes, Gates said the outpouring of support from Americans has been great to see, but the country will need long-term investment.
“A lot of giving we do is way before the crisis takes place,” he said. “Haiti was the poorest country in the region before this. I’ve been down several times. There’s a lot to be done there. I hope this is not just a one-time thing.”
The Gates foundation has grown to almost 1,000 employees and is moving into a $500 million new campus next year. Asked how he supports innovation within its walls, Gates pointed to the foundation’s Grand Challenges research grants, which are open to anybody in the world and encourage participation from developing countries.
“The real innovators are the people we fund, and the key to the foundation is to be very open-minded to unusual ideas and approaches,” he said.
“We need to keep reinventing ourselves and being smart,” Gates said. “My annual letter lets me talk about mistakes. My being out on the Internet will let us know what people think and what they agree or don’t agree with.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com