The Ezra Klein Show on Smash Notes

Melinda Gates (live!) on stopping climate change, ending malaria, and the problems money can’t solve

The Ezra Klein Show

Melinda Gates is the co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the United States. With more than $40 billion in assets, the Gates Foundation works on a dizzying array of issues, from eradicating polio to feeding the world to treating HIV to stopping climate change to reforming the US education system.

Gates has also been working, in recent years, on increasing diversity in the technology industry. “If you [only] have products created by white guys in their 20s, you’re gonna miss the mark,” she says.

I sat down with Gates at South by Southwest for an interview that covered a lot of ground. We talked, among other things, about bioterrorism, comic sans, climate change, the culture of Silicon Valley, the Damore memo about gender and technology, the future of food, the problems money can and can’t solve, what makes America culturally distinct, and more.


Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Episode notes last updated on August 14, 2019 17:19


In this episode

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Smash Notes summary for this episode

What is the origin of Comic Sans?

Microsoft Bob was one of the biggest failures in Microsoft at the time when Melinda Gates was working there, but one of the surviving components was the font which became Comic Sans, made just for that product.

What was it like to build an encyclopedia from ground up?

One of the products Melinda Gates was working on was Encarta, a digital encyclopedia product that Microsoft ran for a over a decade. At the time, it was really tricky to pick what to include in this encyclopedia because media was still distributed on CDs, and people would not want to buy too many.

How do you create a culture where employees do not fear to speak up?

As a leader, you have to be honest with yourself. Most often, if you have created an argument for the sake of argument, you already know it, and it is on you as a leader to avoid it. People do not like to be criticized. Set up your company in a way that people around you are able to give you honest feedback, and you can share honestly with them; measure it. Ask your employees if their best ideas got heard, if they felt safe sharing those ideas, what happened when they were discussing those ideas...etc.

Why do you think startups might be ill-positioned to create "elder tech"?

When products are built by young people in their 20s and 30s, it is very likely they do not fully understand the needs of older people. Imagine if you are losing your eyesight or cannot drive anymore, losing abilities that you've relied on your whole life? The way you treat young kids, vs. adults, vs. older people is very different, and Melinda thinks that "white guys in their 20s" might not have the empathy required to work on these products, nor a good understand of the needs.

Why is diversity in workplace so important?

The Silicon Valley right now is at the point of cultural friction. Some believe that to create the best products you need to have a diverse group of employees, and some are just trying to be politically correct about the hot issue and don't actually believe it.

Melinda Gates says that companies who are not truly hiring for diversity are leaving opportunities on the table. Your products will be better and you will reach more markets if you hire employees that understand those segments.

The demographics of our country are changing, the distribution of men vs. women in the workforce is changing. What used to be the minority will soon become the majority. The way women use tools online is very different vs how men do it...etc. If you don't have a good mix of employees in your company, you will miss all the opportunity and be left behind.

Why are women more likely to join a team that already has women on it?

Having other women around makes an enormous difference to how women feel and how they perform. Whether it is a group of women in a rural village, or a group of board members of a large company, when people are able band together, that is the only way they are able to create a societal change.

Being an outlier in a group is most likely to cause that person to conform with the groupthink [or get ousted], but having a few other people to back her up, might empower them to question the norms and to leverage their power to make change.

How can we encourage more women to study Computer Science and Math?

We have to create pathways by which more women are encouraged to enter computer science. Women tend to prefer more application-based problems to theories, so if colleges could have an introductory course that focuses on real-world applications of computer science, more women would sign up and then stay.

Colleges have to start getting creative. North Easter, for example, is now admitting liberal arts majors into their graduate computer science programs, realizing that maybe prior knowledge of CompSci is not a requirement. Other colleges are moving away from long four-year programs and enabling their students to go on paid internships in between semesters, empowering students who would not otherwise be able to afford this type of education.

Does the overt political correctness and focus on diversity threaten our country's growth?

That's just an old boy's club thinking. People in power would always want to hold on to their power and not want to change, but political correctness and window dressing isn't going to solve anything. Let's figure out how to use innovation to solve our problems by putting money where it matters. It doesn't have to be charity, but use it where it can create the most net impact.

Are globalism and technology threatening our way of life?

These fears are very dangerous and also completely not true. Thanks to innovation, the world has grown many-fold in the last decades. We are opening up whole new markets and products to serve them. If we want to grow as a nation and to live in peace, we have to empower the world to get better. That will create opportunities for jobs and new products, and will keep our world healthy and secure. It's the only way.

What does Warren Buffet think of climate change?

Back in the day when we just started to have modern cities, and it was still just horses and buggies on the streets, you "would have thought we would drown in shit." But, we invented our way out of that problem. We have to measure what is important, like levels of pollution, and once we have visibility into what is broken, we will figure out how to solve it.