Last week Bill Gates stunned many people by announcing his plan to transition within two years away from driving Microsoft’s strategy to turn his near-full-time attention to solving some really hard problems: the educational crisis in the U.S., and the health crisis in the world. I wasn’t surprised. I remember sitting in Bill’s parents’ living room in December 1996 with a few other industry notables, when Bill said “I sure hope I’m not still running this company after I’m 50, I have other things I want to do with my life.” When I asked “like what?” he said that he wanted to focus on philanthropy.
I find it really encouraging that so many technology and e-entrepreneurs are investing their wealth and their considerable brain power to addressing many of the world’s toughest problems. Like Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, along with Jeff Skoll are deeply involved in supporting a variety of world-changing initiatives through Omidyar Network. And these are just the “big names.” I’ve found scores of people who did well in the high tech boom and are now very active—many of them full-time—in helping to change the world for the better. This is really exciting!
My own passion is supporting the “African Renaissance” by empowering women from poor backgrounds to be visionary leaders and community transformation specialists at the new African Rural University which is launching in Kagadi, Uganda this September. These young women will be using many of the customer-led innovation techniques that I’ve been writing about—envisioning (and helping others in the community envision) their ideal outcomes, and showing them how to harness their own creativity to realize their dreams. Helping each family and each community create its own vision and helping them achieve results through integrated rural development (agriculture, social justice, nutrition, health, entrepreneurship, micro-finance, etc.) is a grassroots-developed recipe that has been generating great results for 20 years in this area of rural Uganda.
By contrast, imagine Larry Ellison’s chagrin when the lead story on the front page of the Financial Times on June 21st reads “Harvard Left in the Lurch over Ellison Donation.” The story explains that while Larry Ellison promised a $115 million donation to Harvard University in March 2005, he still hasn’t come through. “The planned Ellison Institute which was to study and disseminate ways to assess health policies around the world, would have marked a big increase in philanthropic support by Mr. Ellison, estimated by Forbes to be the world’s 15th richest man with $16 billion in net assets.”
Of course there are complications. The “charitable donation” is part of a law suit settlement that hasn’t yet been finalized. Larry may not want to give this money before the settlement terms are set, because it might not count and he’d have to give more money to some other cause. But the obvious disparity between Bill Gates’ commitment to making a difference and Larry’s maneuvers which have caused Harvard to delay the hiring of twenty researchers, to renege on the appointments of five top academics, and to fire three staff people is certainly brand-damaging for Larry and for Oracle.
To be fair, I’m sure that Larry Ellison has a healthy set of causes to which he’s personally committed and generous. It’s too bad that this particular promise-turned-sour is damaging the Ellison/Oracle brand. In the ongoing Ellison/Gates one-upmanship game, Bill Gates scored big this week!