Real Leaders

How Tech is Disrupting Poverty, Energy & Health Care

At the recent Bloomberg Global Business Forum, held in New York, one of Wall Street’s most prominent figures, David Rubenstein, the founder and co-CEO of the private-equity firm The Carlyle Group, hosted a panel discussion between Aliko Dangote, Bill Gates, Indra Nooyi and Masayoshi Son.

David Rubenstein: I’d like to ask each of you; clearly there’s going to be a lot of innovation over the next ten years, 20 years, 30 years. All of us might not be here 30 or 40 years from now. We might if we’re lucky.

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If you had the chance to give up everything you currently have; your wealth, your fame and accomplishments, and live through the next 30 years or so of innovation and start all over again, would you rather live through the next 30 years of innovation and see what the world’s going to become or would you like to stay where you are right now?

Dangote: I will give up, yes, because I’m sure great things are going to come.

Gates: Living longer is worth the better deal.

Nooyi: I’d like to say something my two kids told me. I asked them what they’d like for their birthday. They said, “We’d like a week without the Internet.” So in a way, I’d like to go back to those days when life was a little simpler.

Son: Oh, I’ll go for everything for the future.

What has been the most important innovation that you have seen in the last 10 years in the world in which you operate? What’s been the most crucial change or innovation?

Son: I think in the world in which I operate, in Africa, there’s this massive GSM revolution. If you look at us in Europe, we had about 500,000 lines in 2001. In 2017, we already have 139 million lines. So it’s a massive jump, and you can also see what happened in India, where they were able to create 100 million lines in 170 days.

Gates: I had an early career in the digital revolution, and that’s still the fastest-moving thing. It’s so horizontal in nature that it’ll change banking, education, scientific research, sales and marketing. Today, a lot of my focus is more on health, and particularly miracle vaccines – developing malaria, HIV and TB vaccines. I get to back amazing scientists.

The digital revolution isn’t slowing down. So we get the benefit of that. But regarding equity, it’s the health breakthroughs I’m most excited about.

And you think people with health breakthroughs can live to be 90, 100, 110?

Gates: Well, I’m not working on that problem. There are other Silicon Valley billionaires who want to live forever.

My main focus is on inequity. It’s 100 times more likely for a child in Africa to die than a child in the United States. And these are all solvable diseases; we can get rid of that inequity. Extending life is very difficult because your many body parts, including your brain, wear out. So I’m not in that field. I’m in the malaria, HIV and nutrition game.

I don’t think your brain’s going to wear out, but OK.

Nooyi: I think every aspect of our life is changing because of what people are doing with technology. The single biggest thing I feel good about is how technology is enabling gender inclusion. Women are being enabled a lot more and their voices are being heard. And I hope that progresses going into the future.

Well, let me ask about that. You have done two things in your career that were very innovative. One, you’re an immigrant to the United States and became the CEO of one of the most important companies in the United States and the world, but you’re also a woman. Was it more challenging to become the woman CEO or the Indian immigrant CEO?

Nooyi: All of it. I came into the workforce when there were hardly any women in senior executive positions. It’s different now, but 20 or 30 years ago when I first started working, there weren’t many women. It was difficult. Being an Indian got me attention because I was often the only colored person in the room. And so that got me attention, but I had to work harder to prove that color and gender should not be counted against me – that I could do a damn good job, too. 

Well, you have to be better qualified than white men, right? 

Nooyi: Way better. A lot more. 

What’s the most significant innovation that you’ve seen in the last ten years? 

Son: Not just ten years, but the last 30 years. Using the microprocessor as a base for creating the Internet has changed the life of almost everyone on the earth. But going forward, it’s accelerating even more on that. 

Earlier in your career, you were a technology innovator. And at one point, I think in the year 2000, you lost $70 billion of net worth. What did it feel like to lose $70 billion of net worth in one year? 

Son: Well, it was a crash. Everybody crashed. But somehow, at the bottom of the crash, I actually revived my fighting spirit, so it was good. By the way, what Bill doesn’t know is that for three days, I became richer than him. But 12 months later, I was almost broke. I had a 99% drop in our share price in one year. 

At one point, you made an investment of $20 million in a little, unknown company called Alibaba. It became worth around $90 billion and is now worth about $130 billion. How did you decide that Alibaba was a good investment and do you have more like that you could recommend to us? 

Son: Well, it was about Jack Ma. Not because of his business model or technology, but because of his charisma and leadership. China had an enormous opportunity for the upside. I said this is the guy that can be the leader of this innovation. 

Indra, you’ve tried to take a company that was known for selling sugar water – in the view of some people – and make it a more nutritionally safe and better company. Was that hard, to beat the bureaucracy back at Pepsi when many people didn’t want to do the things you wanted to do? 

Nooyi: I think it was hard within the company, it was hard outside the company. I remember investors telling me not to forget that we’re Americans – we like our soda and chips. Don’t try to change us. And when I asked them if they changed their habits, he said oh yes, we’ve changed our habits, but we don’t want you to change what you’re doing. 

We had to fight battles on multiple fronts. Change does not happen quickly in our industries. Because we have to change consumer taste, we have to change the product portfolio; we have to change the business system. So it’s still happening. It’s a work in progress. 

Now when you go to somebody’s house for dinner, and they say would you like a Coke, what do you say? Has that ever happened and would you rather leave?

Nooyi: I’d say it was nice knowing you and leave. Actually, my secretary sends them a list ahead of time in case there’s a mistake. 

Bill, I’d like to ask you a question I have asked you before, but people are still interested. All of us who use personal computers are familiar with turning them on. We need three fingers to do so, control, alt, delete. It’s a little awkward sometimes. You’re the person who came up with this idea. Why? 

Gates: The IBM PC hardware keyboard only had one way that it could get a guaranteed startup. Clearly, the people involved should have included another key to make that work. A lot of machines now days do have that as a more obvious function. 

No regrets about doing it that way? It worked out OK? 

Gates: Well, I’m not sure you can go back and change small things in your life without putting the other things at risk. Sure, if I can make a small edit, I would – I’d make that a single-key operation. 

By the way, you dropped out of college. Do you think if you’d gotten your college degree your life would have been better off? 

Gates: At the time it felt like it. There was a huge sense of urgency around the fact that the microprocessor was revolutionary and software needed to be written for it. A lot of existing companies, including IBM, with infinite resources would have gone and done that. 

So if we were to have any hope, the sooner we did it, the quicker we did it, and the more hardcore we were about it, the better. I didn’t want to waste a day. In my 20’s I worked weekends, I didn’t believe in vacations. 

We had to move at high speed because eventually, IBM did compete with us. Many companies came along later, and of the companies formed in that time, we were the sole survivor. 

It would’ve been hard to hold me back once I saw that opportunity. Harvard, which I loved, was very relaxing; where you would sit in class and stay up all night talking. It didn’t have the same intensity. Once I saw the opportunity, I knew I was going to leave.

And your parents, what did they say? 

Gates: They said: “Hey, we’re paying your tuition. What does this mean?” And I said, “well, I’m on leave,” which was true, I could have gone back. Harvard’s very generous about that but eventually, the course catalog moves on and you become a little too old for it. 

They weren’t sure if it would succeed or not so my parents thought maybe I’d head back. But, I was single and maniacal in those days, and it was the perfect thing for me. 

Now you’re innovating in a number of areas and one of them is energy. You’ve started a fund to invest in energy innovation. Why? 

Gates: With energy, we have a real danger that even with fantastic innovation it can proceed at different paces within different industries. In education, it proceeds very slowly for a variety of structural reasons. There is no one incentive because a new type of power plant is going to take decades to prove and your patents will expire. The regulatory commissions don’t want to take the risk of a new power plant. We’ve seen what’s happened with nuclear, how tough that’s been. And so, because of climate change, and because Africa has less electricity today per person than they had ten years ago because the population has exceeded the electrical generation capacity increase, we have a huge problem. We need low-cost clean energy.

For those with spare capital – risky capital – joining in on this is a great thing. 

You now have that fund?

Gates: Yes, it’s about a billion dollars, and we’ve spent the last year hiring an incredible team. It’s about a 15 to 20-year time period per person, a little longer than you’d have in, say, biology or digital investment because just proving the energy plants and scale is very hard. 

Aliko, rightly or wrongly many people think innovation is based in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Japan or China, but not Africa. Is this unfair and do you think there are African entrepreneurs who in the next ten years will change the face of Africa?

Dangote: Let me tell you a short story. We have about a million people we want to reach through the Ubuntu Foundation in various local governments– local governments are what you call counties in the USA.
We go to every local government and meet with thousands of women and give them free grants to improve their lives.

In the beginning, we did this manually, through commercial banks, but later we registered all of them and now use a mobile banking system to both pay and register everyone on our database. In doing this, we’ll be able to use the database to determine if it’s really changing lives – which it is currently doing.

The same idea is delivering results in our partnership with Bill to fight Polio. Despite vaccinators going into the field to vaccinate seven million children, we saw the incidence of Polio going up. Now we give the health workers a mobile device with a chip that shows us where they’ve been – to verify it’s being done properly.

Bill, let me ask you about your efforts to beat back malaria. What’s the argument against killing all mosquitoes? Why don’t we just eliminate all mosquitoes, which I think we have a capability of doing, to eliminate malaria. What’s the argument against that?

Gates: Malaria is only carried by the Anopheline mosquito, which is only one out of every 1,000 mosquitoes. The main reason is that it can set a precedent. If you think “OK, humans can go and eliminate this species,” then what’s your criteria for anything else that might be a nuisance? You might make a mistake; it might be key to an ecosystem.

There some bats that feed on those mosquitoes and you’d have to look at the effect on those ecosystems. There’s a new genetic approach called gene drive that’s still in the labs and not totally proven, but it has a good chance of knocking down Anopheline populations by 99% over five years. 

Indra, we often hear about great technology leaders or great innovators that are men. Is that because of a sexist thing where men don’t tend to give women opportunities? Do you think it’s going to change anytime soon?

Nooyi: I’m not an expert on women in technology, but I will say something interesting. I was at an MIT event recently, and the president of MIT told me that 50% of their engineering graduates are women. But if you go to most companies, 50% of engineering staff are not women. If you read the stories about Silicon Valley, 50% of the people getting funding are not women. There’s obviously something causing that leak between MIT and the workplace. We have to do something different.

Masa, is artificial intelligence a good thing for humans or not? Are your robots going to take over humanity?

Dangote: I think that the misuse of artificial intelligence could be horrible. But there are thousands of good reasons to utilize artificial intelligence for good – for humanity. It has solved unsolvable diseases, solved unsolvable disasters and many other things. So I think it’s really good.

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