The $33 billion philanthropist
FRIDAY INTERVIEW:As chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes runs a complex, highly visible and scrutinised organisation with a truly mind-boggling asset trust endowmentJEFF RAIKES’ notion of retirement is a bit different from the norm. When the former president of Microsoft’s business division stepped down from his role in 2008 after almost three decades with the company, it wasn’t to take up watercolour classes, travel or catch up on reading. Instead, he barely paused for breath before stepping into the biggest job in philanthropy: chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Granted, he did go from overseeing 17,000 employees to a comparatively modest 1,000. But as head of what is, arguably, the world’s most powerful, and certainly the best endowed, charitable foundation, he took on a challenging task running a complex, highly visible and scrutinised organisation with an asset trust endowment of a mind-boggling $33.5 billion. That’s almost three times bigger than the next largest philanthropical organisation, the Ford Foundation.
Visiting Ireland recently to give Philanthropy Ireland’s annual Ray Murphy lecture in Belfast, Raikes says in an interview that running the Gates Foundation is certainly far from what he thought he’d be doing after growing up on the family farm in Nebraska.
But, he says, “One of my great values that my father intuited, and indirectly taught me, is that you should always have a plan, but be open to opportunity”.
After graduating from Stanford University with an engineering and agricultural economics degree, he assumed he would work in agriculture policy. But he bought an Apple II computer for his brother to help him run the family farm, found himself obsessed with it instead, “and the next thing I knew, I was working for Apple”.
He wasn’t there long before Microsoft lured him away in 1981 to work on that young company’s applications marketing strategy. Raikes says he ended up having “a tremendously fun and challenging career” as Microsoft grew to be one of the world’s biggest companies. “So I’ve kind of learned that there are these twists and turns [in life],” he says.
At Microsoft, the final twist took him into one of the company’s most prominent and influential positions. “In early 2000, Bill [Gates] and Steve [Ballmer] asked me to take on the leadership of the business division.”
While in that role, he tackled the task of revitalising the company’s Office suite of productivity software.
“I thought Office had plenty of life in it yet, and I spent 2000 to 2007 focusing on really driving that. I thought we could double the business in 10 years – and we did it in seven.”
He retired from Microsoft in 2008, and wasn’t initially sure of what he might do next.
“I thought I might work with my brother. I thought I might teach in a business school. I thought I might get involved in philanthropy.” Then the Gates Foundation leadership role suddenly opened up.
It wasn’t exactly a low-key position for a retiree? “Exactly! As Melinda said to me in one interview: ‘This is no retirement job.’ But I probably don’t really come from a retirement family,” he laughs.
“My dad worked on the family farm until he was 71, and he then continued working on other things. My grandfather was, at one point, the oldest taxi driver in LA. I knew I’d be very busy doing a number of things.”
The breadth and scope of the Gates Foundation certainly offers any number of things, but he also is busy with his own philanthropical Raikes Foundation.
“I’m a person who enjoys the hands-on experience of anything I do. Get your hands dirty – that’s the thing that drives and motivates me,” he says.
“The Raikes Foundation gives the opportunity to be very hands-on, as does the Gates Foundation. One of the challenges at the Gates foundation is, we have more than 25 different strategic areas.”
His personal interests in the Gates Foundation include almost anything on the agriculture front, given his own upbringing, and he’s also worked closely with the team focused on eradicating polio. But he says it is hard to identify any single area as his favourite.