'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Bill Gates ('Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates')

The man, myth and legend of tech and philanthropy — founder of Microsoft and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — reflects on his trailblazing work with computer software, starting the largest private philanthropic foundation ever and cooperating with a Netflix docuseries.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television
Bill Gates

"This movie is not a biography of Bill Gates, although it does go back and go through my key relationships in a really great way," says Bill Gates — the founder of Microsoft, which brought computer software to the masses and made Gates one of the world's wealthiest people, and the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in history — as we sit down in Telluride to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast and begin discussing Davis Guggenheim's Netflix docuseries Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, which had its world premiere Saturday at the Telluride Film Festival and will debut Sept. 20 on Netflix.

"What it captures," the 63-year-old continues, "is that I'm working on these risky problems that wouldn't get this kind of attention unless I had picked them — like a super-safe, super-cheap nuclear power source to help with climate change; or the sophistication to take polio eradication, which wasn't succeeding, and improve it so it would succeed; and reinventing the toilet." He adds, "So it's not a history-of thing. I mean, it's not like [Errol Morris' documentary The] Fog of War or something, where you're trying to reflect on somebody's entire life. Thirty years from now, I'll call up Davis and say, 'Okay, let's do the biographical one now' — and hopefully we'll have not only polio eradicated, but malaria and many, many other diseases."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 18:58] following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Davis Guggenheim, the documentary filmmaker best known for his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), about Guggenheim's life, career and Bill Gates docuseries.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Gates was born in Seattle to a lawyer and schoolteacher, and, as he readily admits, "By age 13, I was an extreme nerd." It was then that he entered seventh grade and used a computer for the first time. He and three friends, including Paul Allen, who was two years his senior, taught themselves how to operate a primitive device that their school had purchased, and became good enough that they were retained by the school to use the computer to map out class schedules for all students. "That started both myself and Paul Allen on this journey of realizing the magic of software," Gates says. "We thought, 'We need to be in on this revolution.'"

A brilliant student, Gates went off to Harvard, where he and Steve Ballmer, who lived down the hall, became close friends. Allen, meanwhile, relocated to the Boston-area in order to be near Gates, who he lobbied to partner with him on a business venture. "He wanted to do a personal computer company, and I convinced him that we should just do the software piece [software is "data put into a graphical form"], and that became Micro-soft," recalls Gates, who dropped out of college in 1975 to focus on the company. (Micro-soft, short for micro-computer software, dropped its hyphen after one year.) Ballmer eventually dropped out of business school to join them as "a central partner in scaling up Microsoft."

Among Microsoft's early clients was IBM, which Gates says was even "more dominant" in the personal computer field at the time than Microsoft is in the computer software area today. But IBM made a fatal mistake by focusing on hardware instead of software, allowing Microsoft to sell its software to other companies in return for foregoing royalties for sales of IBM computers armed with Microsoft software. As a result, Gates says, "That original dream of the centrality of software, and that we could even manage to become bigger than IBM — our youthful dream — became a reality."

Microsoft went public in 1986, leaving Gates with "kind of a ridiculous amount of money." The company's hallmark software package, starting in the mid-1980s was Windows, but the version it released in 1995 — Windows 95 — proved a game-changer in a way that no computer software package ever had before. "People realized, 'Okay, the graphical approach is the right approach,' and it just wiped out the previous way of interacting with a machine," Gates explains. "We went from being slightly the largest of all the micro-computer software companies to, by 2001, way bigger than anyone else."

In 2000, Gates stepped down as Microsoft's CEO, and in 2008 he began transitioning out of a day-to-day role at the company and into an advisory one. This was all so that he — by that time the richest man in the world — could focus full-time on philanthropy. He had started the William H. Gates Foundation in 1994, but took his efforts to a whole different level in 2000 when he and his wife, Melinda Gates, established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which now contributes more than $6 billion per year to efforts of all sorts around the world, from improving education in America to providing vaccinations and sanitation solutions in third-world countries. And in 2010, he and his close friend Warren Buffett started The Giving Pledge, promising to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. "We have over 200 people [who have since signed on]," Gates says proudly. "I spend a bit of time recruiting people in, because I think it helps people do better philanthropy and do it sooner."

Now, thanks to Guggenheim, whose prior documentaries An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting for 'Superman' (2010) greatly impressed Gates, we have Inside Bill’s Brain, in which Gates opens up as never before about his life, work and philanthropy. What, in Gates' view, makes Gates' brain different than others? "I don't think it's different," he says. "I'm only different in that I've thought a lot about innovation and how you pull together resources around innovations that will make a difference for the human condition."

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WINDOWS INTO BILL GATES

What other person's brain works most like yours?
"In the financial area, thinking about companies and what they do, Warren Buffett."

Is there a God?
"I don't know any better than anyone else about a particular god, and most scientific thinkers question certain of the specifics. But the role of religion? There's a lot of good — and some not good — things that come out of that."

How much cash do you carry on you?
"Sometimes none, sometimes a few hundred dollars."

What TV shows are you into?
"I'm watching a ton of these TV series, but waiting for the next season — [ABC's] A Million Little Things, [Netflix's] Sex Education, [Netflix's] Money Heist, [Netflix's] The Crown. This is a kind of magical time period in terms of the number of great things on TV."

What is the last book that you read?
"I just finished [Safi Bahcall's] Loonshots, which is about how you create an atmosphere for innovation."

Which other company today most reminds you of Microsoft?
"Google is a company that's done a lot of amazing things, hires super-smart people, works on very tough long-term problems."

I heard that when you met with President Donald Trump in March 2018, he asked you to come work for him at the White House?
"I did encourage him to get a science advisor who could help him look at some of the potential innovations the U.S. could lead in. He, in I'm sure a somewhat humorous way, said, 'Oh, why don't you come and do that for me?' I don't think that was a serious suggestion."

What's the greatest threat facing the world today?
"There's unlikely things, like a pandemic coming along or an asteroid or a big volcanic eruption. To me, the U.S.-China relationship, and making sure that doesn't become hostile, that we work in a positive way — which the last year has not been pushing in the right direction — I would push that pretty close to the top of the list. I do think the great inequities, where we don't help the poorest — whether it's with disease or education — we don't get a good grade on that, and so I'd put that right there as something that deserves huge focus. And then climate change is going to cause so much trouble that we need to get going on that one right now."

What do you not have but most want that money cannot buy?
"Infinite time. It would be nice to have even more time."

How would the world be different today if Bill Gates had not developed an interest in computers?
"It's hard to say. Certainly, everything that happened would happen. Would it happen later in a different form? Very hard to do those counter-factuals."