Travelling with Bill Gates: Change knows no logic

Will poverty end in their generation?

Will poverty end in their generation?

By Prasoon Kumar
4 November 2018

Disruptive change knows no logic, and no one knows it better than you, Bill Gates. Let us crush poverty and not just overcome it. This is your opportunity once again, do not let it go. The new generation is behind you. 

Last month, when I had to travel to the United States, I had the challenge of finding a flight that would depart Singapore after breakfast on a Tuesday and be in New York City before dinner on Wednesday. I had meetings in both these cities that could not be moved. While 36 hours is a long enough window to fly between the two cities none of the over 200+ flight options on Skyscanner would match my timing or budget. I ended up building my own itinerary. I found a $300 ticket from Beijing to New York on Cathay Pacific with a layover in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, Hong Kong to New York ticket on the same Cathay Pacific flight was 2 ½ times more expensive at US$ 750. This defied all pricing logic. I then purchased a separate ticket from Singapore to Beijing on Malaysian Airlines for $150 and reached NYC in just $450. I covered this journey in 34 hours and was present at both the meetings.

Now, why am I sharing this? Firstly, I had a sense of slight pride in pulling this unusual itinerary off and making it on time in NYC after three layovers. More importantly, even with all the information and data around us, there is still room to defy logic and build irrational solutions that do not conform to the system.

As I boarded my flight from Hong Kong to New York, I picked a copy of The New York Times from one of those wheeled trolleys kept at the end of an aerobridge. The front page carried an opinion piece by Bill and Melinda Gates, “Progress on poverty, precariously”, The New York Times, International Edition, Wednesday, September 26, 2018. The Gates’ write that while the common perception is that there is more poverty in the world today than it was 25 years ago, the reality is the opposite. More than a billion people have emerged out of extreme poverty during this period and now earn more than $1.90 a day, $57 a month or $684 per year.

During the 25 years (1993-2018) when more than a billion people have come out of extreme poverty and now earn more than $1.90 a day, Bill Gates’ wealth increased by $89.4 billion, or 15.19 times. Since he retired in 2008 as CEO of Microsoft, he continues to earn over $10 million a day for not working!

The poor are poor not because they earn $1.90 a day. They are poor because the rich are too rich and keep getting richer.

In the time it has taken to bring a billion extremely poor out of poverty, the rich have raced far ahead. Bill Gates recognised this phenomenon, gave away almost his entire wealth and encouraged many other billionaires across the world to part away from their wealth too through 'the giving pledge.'

Encouraged by this trend in poverty reduction, the Gates are extremely optimistic of the future and I quote, “ the good thing about projections though is that they are based on the status quo (and) we don't’ believe in the status quo”. This resonated with me as billionBricks is founded to question the status quo. Since we are unable to catch up with rising homelessness, we know the status quo is failing us and not working, and billionBricks is here to change that. Who could be better than Bill Gates to question the status quo? Didn't he break all the rules and challenged the status quo when he quit his studies, founded Microsoft, wrote some brilliant codes and negotiated the most fantastic deal with IBM that changed the course of technology and our lives.

None of what Microsoft achieved conformed to precedents, any existing business models or projections that could be assimilated rationally.

This approach to using one's ambition for change and bulldoze on a growth trajectory made Microsoft into one of the world’s dominant and wealthiest corporations. It made Bill Gates the richest person on this planet for over two decades.

Will he be able to bulldoze his way through ending poverty as well, I thought as I read through the article? I looked forward to the solution that the Gates would present. How would their solution question the current approach and status-quo towards solving poverty? Their answer to overcoming poverty: invest in health, education and innovation. The Gates give the example of China, on how its investments over generations are now reacting with unprecedented benefits. How agricultural innovation in India increased wheat productivity by four times in 50 years in defiance of 1960 predict of family and food riots in the book, 'The Population Bomb.' This is where my enthusiasm waned, and disappointment began as the rest of the piece read like a report from the World Bank. Their solution had none of the zest, creativity or radicalism that I would expect from the founder of Microsoft.

This strategy of solving poverty has been presented to us by various institutions for decades. It has been applied, and the progress has been nothing but dismal. Educating the poor and making them fit for a high skilled job would take at least 25 years. Building an education system that the poor can access and that can compete with the schools and colleges where the rich would go, would take another few decades, or could never be built. Building such an infrastructure is a socio-political issue and can rarely be solved by external parties like The Gates Foundation. All nations that have developed such a system have done it on the backbone of their political class.

Shall we then not rethink the strategy of solving poverty itself.

Maybe the strategy (though seems correct) is blinding us from change. Let us not be blinded by positive and optimistic numbers of growth and change. Statisticians know how to tell a good story with numbers that makes us feel good. While India's food production may have increased by four times, I have seen the Indian farmer. He doesn't look four times better off. Numbers are politicians tools to look good on television, in speeches and win elections. Bill Gates doesn't need numbers. Success stories such as Microsoft are not built on projections and numbers but on the gut of what is right.  

And finally, when it came to presenting the strategy on implementation, the Gates' passed the baton of change to the new generation asking them to lead. Bill Gates successor for Microsoft was Steve Ballmer who did not belong to the new generation, neither does Satya Nadella. So then why does a far greater responsibility of bringing billions out of poverty rest with the new generation? I founded billionBricks at the age of 36. In my five years, I have never met any decision maker who could give me either money (foundations, corporations or high net worth individuals) or permissions (Governments and civic institutions) that belonged to the new generation. The wealth and power rest with the older generation, then the responsibility of wisely using it and making a change should lie with them too.

We are solving the wrong problem when we look towards the poor as solutions to poverty. We should instead be looking at the rich and the powerful.

It is the status-quo in the system of wealth creation and concentration that is slowing the ending of poverty. According to an Oxfam study, 42 people own the same amount of wealth as 3.76 billion people. This statistic is illogical and hard to explain. If we can break this system, the poor will empower themselves out of poverty. They will receive what they deserve.

Gates have done this before with 'the giving pledge'. It is now time for them to do it again, in a way which is more sustainable and empowering. They need to ask a simple question, how can someone be out of a job and still earn $10 million a day?

Bill Gates has the experience of seeing the unseen and leading the way into the future. Let us encourage Bill Gates to lead once again, this time for a vision bigger and bolder than Microsoft, in a way which knows no logic.

Disruptive change knows no logic, and no one knows it better than you, Bill Gates. Let us crush poverty and not just overcome it.

This is your opportunity once again, do not let it go. The new generation is behind you.  

Click to know, "why the best minds are not solving the world's biggest problems?"

Prasoon KumarComment