Making a difference

Bill Gates is determined to make a larger contribution with his foundation

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How much is Bill Gates worth? Who's counting. What matters is that he's giving most of it away to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which specializes in health and education issues.

Which is what brought him to Parliament Hill yesterday morning for an announcement with Stephen Harper of a $129-million initiative to develop an HIV-AIDS vaccine in Canada. Ottawa will commit $111 million, while the Gates foundation will donate $28 million.

This is a new model of program spending, combining public treasury with private philanthropy.

The quest for an effective vaccine for HIV has been compared with Jonas Salk's breakthrough on polio vaccine, the culmination of decades of work by researchers. If, years from now, Canadian and international researchers achieve a similar eureka moment, yesterday might prove to be a seminal moment.

Gates spoke of the search for a vaccine at last summer's world AIDS conference in Toronto, where Harper was booed even more loudly in absentia than he would have been if he had shown up. Their bad manners then, at a conference hosted by Canada, said more about them than it did about him.

Yesterday there was only applause from an invited audience of stakeholders in the reading room of the House of Commons. There were dual podiums and a formal signature, a setup and ceremony normally reserved for visiting heads of government.

Had Harper been announcing government funding alone, the interest groups would have found a way to denounce it as inadequate. But because Gates's foundation was putting up one dollar in four, the announcement was praised as a worthy and promising initiative.

Which says something about the credibility of Gates, as a philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, as opposed to Harper's brand equity as a politician.

Gates was asked if he thought the timing of the announcement was suspect, from a prime minister who didn't attend the AIDS conference, who might now be looking to project a more progressive image in a minority government's runup to the next election.

If funding AIDS research made the government more popular, Gates replied, he was all for it. Water off a duck's back.

When the announcement was over, a member of the prime minister's staff walked Gates to the main door of the Centre Block where he stood coatless and alone under the Peace Tower, waiting for an SUV to take him back to the Westin Hotel, where Microsoft was running its annual CanWin conference, with a theme of creating a skilled Canadian workforce in a global economy.

Gates has strong credentials as the founder of a company that has, since its startup in 1975, revolutionized the global workplace by making work easier.

Somehow, it isn't Gates's wealth or the market value of Microsoft, or its sales of $40 billion U.S. last year in more than 100 countries, that define him. It's more the Microsoft culture of innovation, its standards of governance, its reputation for involvement with civic society.

For example, Microsoft encourages its employees to become involved in their communities, to give something back, as Gates put it. Microsoft matches employee donations.

Then there's the fact that to all appearances, Gates looks and sounds like a dead-normal guy. If he wasn't Bill Gates, with the famous nerd hair, you wouldn't notice, and you get a sense he wouldn't mind. He could have picked his shirt out at Winners and his suit off the rack at Moore's.

There's something grounded about him; that was apparent in his sense of humour at a luncheon presentation yesterday. Pollster Allan Gregg, in a talk-show setting, asked Gates what it was like back in the garage with his co-founder Paul Allen.

"In the beginning, we just hired our friends," replied Harvard's most famous dropout. "The only problem was when we couldn't pay our friends."

Gates could have been satisfied to be rich and famous, or famous merely for being rich.

Clearly, after a lifetime of creating value-added products, he wants to make a larger contribution.

He fits the definition of Jean Monnet, the father of the new Europe: not to be someone, but to do something.

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