Bill Gates: From Harvard Dropout to World's Fourth Richest Man
Unless you've been living under a rock since the 1970s, you should know quite a bit about Bill Gates. But for those who don't, he is the co-founder and head-honcho of the world-dominating Microsoft family.
Although Gates never graduated from university, his lack of higher education in no way held him back from building one of the most successful companies of all time.
If you are interested in learning about the young Bill Gates or are looking for a short Bill Gates biography, then sit tight and explore the life and times of one of the most famous and successful "geeks" of all time.
Early life and education
William Henry Gates the 3rd, or Bill Gates for short, was born on the 28th of October 1955 in Seattle. Bill's father, William Henry Gates Senior was a prominent attorney, and his mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, who among other board positions, served on the board of Directors for the United Way International. He was the middle child of two sisters, Kristi and Libby, and is the fourth William Gates in his family.
Gates' parents encouraged him to become a lawyer, from an early age, and also encouraged his competitive spirit. His family also regularly attended a church of the Protestant Reformed denomination.
Gates was a voracious reader who spent hours pouring over reference books, including encyclopedias. In his early teenagehood, Bill attended public elementary school, and in 1967 moved to the private Lakeside School. It was here that Gates discovered his love for software, and began to program the school computers with his friend Paul Allen (who sadly passed away at the age of 65). At one point, he was excused from math classes to pursue his interest in programming.
In 1973, when Bill was 18, he enrolled at Harvard University, where his dorm room was just down the hall from Steve Ballmer (who would later become CEO of Microsoft). While at Harvard, Gates developed a version of the BASIC programming language for the first microcomputer, the MIT Altair 8800.
The Microsoft family
Seeing the potential for the microcomputer, and concerned that he might miss his opportunity, Gates took a leave of absence from Harvard in his Junior year (he never went back) and decided to devote his efforts to developing a new company, Micro-Soft (the name was changed to Microsoft in 1976), which he had started with his childhood friend Paul Allen in 1975.
The pair were, as put in the Gates's official biography webpage, guided by their vision of, "a computer on every desktop and in every home". To this end, they began developing software for personal computers. Gates' foresight and his vision for personal computing have been central to the success of Microsoft and the software industry.
In 1979, Microsoft moved its office from Albuquerque to Washington State and one year later the company negotiated an agreement with International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) which would see Microsoft's operating system licensed for use in the next generation of personal computers.
This event would turn the computer business on its head and would ultimately shift the balance of hardware manufacturers and software programmers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Microsoft takes over the world
In 1985, Microsoft 1.0 OS was launched - this would mark the start of global dominance for the software company. Today, hundreds of companies manufacture millions of personal computers each year. By some estimates, more than 75 percent of those machines use Microsoft’s Windows operating system.
In 1994, Bill Gates married Melinda French Gates. The couple would go on to have three children and found a philanthropic organization together, "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation" in 2000. In 2021, after 27 years of marriage, it was announced that the couple had agreed to divorce, although they will continue to run the Foundation together.
The seminal Windows '95 was launched in, well 1995, and in 2000, Steve Ballmer joined the company as CEO while Gates assumed the role of Chief Software Architect.
In 2001, Microsoft released the very first Xbox. This console is one of the most successful consoles of all time.
Gates stepped down as CEO in 2000, although he remained Chairman of the Board and became "chief software architect". He left his day-to-day role at Microsoft in 2008, although he remained on the Board of Directors, and in 2014 began serving as a “technology advisor” to CEO Satya Nadella, until he finally stepped down in 2020, in order to devote more time to philanthropy.
While Bill Gates was at the helm Microsoft, had a grand vision for the future of the company, and as it turned out, the world at large. Gates and Allen were both absolutely committed to continually advance and improve software technology to:
- Make it easier to use;
- Be more cost-effective;
- To improve user experience and;
- By virtue of the above, allow for the general public to enjoy using computers.
"Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more." - Microsoft Mission Statement
In fact, Microsoft are still committed to this as a long-term view, as reflected in its industry-leading investment in research and development.
Did Bill Gates ever graduate?
Although Gates did drop out of Harvard in 1975, his lack of college education certainly did not hold him back. But this would remain unfinished business for Bill Gates for the rest of his life. That was, until 2007. In June of that year, Gates returned to Havard to pick up an honorary Law degree from his former Alma Mater.
"We recognize the most illustrious member of the Harvard College class of 1977 never to have graduated from Harvard,” said Harvard University Provost Steven Hyman. “It seems high time that his alma mater hand over the diploma.”
This would, finally, put to bed decades of professional irritation for Bill. “I’ve been waiting for more than 30 years to say this, Dad, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree,” Gates, 51, told the crowd, which included his father.
Bill Gates' other work
Apart from setting up and heading one of the biggest and most successful companies of all time, Gates has found time to work on many other things. For example, he has penned a few popular books. In 1995, he published The Road Ahead, which provided his view of the changing landscape of information technology. The book was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for seven weeks.
In 1999, he published Business @ the Speed of Thought, which explored the enormous benefits that computer technology had brought to businesses. This was published in more than 25 languages and was made available in over 60 countries.
Gates pledged all profits from these two books to non-profit organizations that support the use of technology in education and skills development.
Gates also founded another company, Corbis. The company is currently developing a vast digital archive of art and photography from public and private collections around the world. It was sold to Visual China Group in 2016.
Owing to the great friendship between Bill Gates and the "Sage of Omaha," Warren Buffet, it should come as no surprise that he also sat on the Board of Directors for Berkshire Hathaway Incorporated. He stepped down from that role as well in 2020.
In 2006, Gates helped launch TerraPower, with the aim of providing affordable, secure, and sustainable forms of nuclear energy to the world.
He has also given many poignant and fascinating talks around the world, including via TED talks.
Since 2010, Gates has also been hosting his own blog, called Gates Notes. Here, he shares his general thoughts on books and the work of his philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also wrote a touching piece about his close friend and Microsoft Co-Founder, the late Peter Allen - make sure you have a hanky at the ready.
In 2014, Gates helped make a viral video with Jimmy Fallon, proving that even one of the richest men in the world is able to enjoy a little self-depreciation.
In 2015, Gates led the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The goal of this initiative is to fund clean energy projects, avert climate change, and work toward raising the standard of living of everyone on the planet.
In 2017, it came to light that one of Gates' firms had invested around $80 million into the development of a "smart city" near Pheonix, Arizona. Called Belmont, that city will, "create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies, and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs".
In early 2020, and after years of warning about how ill-prepared we are for the next potential global viral pandemic, CoV-SARS-19 rampaged around the globe. In March of that year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed with the Wellcome Trust and Mastercard to pledge $125 million toward efforts to curb the outbreak.
In April 2020, Gates announced that they'd be spending billions of dollars for the development and deployment of a working vaccine, and added: “Even though we’ll end up picking at most two of them, we’re going to fund factories for all seven, just so that we don’t waste time in serially saying which vaccine works and then building the factory.”
In February of 2021, Gates also made the news with his predictions for the next major threats to the human race. Some of these, by his estimation, could be more impactful than COVID-19.
In March of 2021, he also shared his vision of dimming light from the Sun in an attempt to help stave off the threat of climate change. Despite his fears, however, he intends to stay put if ever given the chance to jump ship to another planet.
"Giving back" is a closely held value for Bill Gates. He is famed the world over for the continuous and very generous donation of his wealth and his time to those in need. He has pledged to give away the majority of his wealth and has encouraged a number of other billionaires to follow suit.
Bill and his wife Melinda founded the now famous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. This foundation's aim is to help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world. Most of this organization's work involves the support of philanthropic initiatives to improve global health and learning.
One of the first initiatives of the Foundation was the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which pledged $1 billion towards helping 20,000 young people to afford university tuition.
In 2002 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also installed 47,000 computers in 11,000 libraries across all 50 states in the US. In 2006, Bill's close friend Warren Buffet also pledged to donate the majority of his wealth to the organization.
In 2010, the Foundation donated $10 billion to aid in the research, development, and delivery of vaccines to the poorest areas of the globe. The same year, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet founded the Giving Pledge that encourages the world's wealthiest people to dedicate the majority of their money to philanthropy.
The foundation has also launched a $5.5 billion initiative to eradicate polio by contributing technical and financial resources to accelerating targeted vaccination campaigns, community mobilization, and routine immunizations, along with improving polio surveillance and outbreak response; developing safer, more effective vaccines; and galvanize financial and political support for polio eradication efforts.
Partly thanks to this generous contribution, the World Health Organization has been able to eradicate polio in three countries that had never been able to defeat it before.
In 2015, Bill Gates announced the formation of the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network (CHAMPS). This is a network of disease surveillance sites in developing countries set up to help prevent premature childhood deaths.
This was followed two years later by a commitment of $300 million to help farmers in Africa and Asia cope with climate change.
The same year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the first of what would become its annual "Goalkeepers" report. This is an examination of the progress being made in several important areas related to public health like child mortality, malnutrition, and HIV.
Bill Gates also teamed up that year with tennis professional Roger Federer, in the fourth annual Match for Africa. This charity tennis match helped raise millions for the Roger Federer Foundation and pitted Federer and Gates against John Isner and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam (Federer/Gates won 6–4).
Gates famously lifted a beaker of actual poop onstage at the 2018 Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing. This was to raise people's attention to the serious problem of poor sanitation, which kills more than 500,000 people every year.
In another initiative, Gates joined forces in 2018 with a group of other philanthropists to create the Diagnostics Accelerator. This program is designed to help find a way to provide an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
This built on his 2017 private donation of $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund. The fight against diseases like Alzheimer's is something of a personal mission for Gates, as he has seen the devastating effects of the disease on his own family members.
"Any type of treatment would be a huge advance from where we are today," he told CNN, adding, "the long-term goal has got to be a cure."
Gates also teamed up with Google's co-founder Larry Page in 2018, to provide a multi-million dollar fund for a universal flu vaccine. This provides grants of up to $2 million for individual efforts that are "bold and innovative".
In 2019, Gates and Buffet again teamed up, this time to serve customers at a Dairy Queen, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Gates has long been full of admiration for the DQ Blizzard, which is served upside down to prove that each treat is so thick it will defy gravity. Apparently, Gates' Blizzard survived the gravity test, while Buffett's ended up in a pile on the counter.
The same year, Netflix released a documentary called "Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates." It was a three-part series that told the story of young Bill Gates' life, all the way through his time at Microsoft to the present day.
All very laudable, but in light of the recent news of Bill and Melinda Gates' intention to divorce, the future of the Gates Foundation may well be in question. However, public announcements from Bill Gates at the time of writing show their intention to limit the fallout.
Awards and other honors
Bill Gates' life's work has been recognized through his receipt of various awards and other honors.
For example, Time Magazine has named Gates as one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Time also named Gates and his wife Melinda, along with Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, as the 2005 Persons of the Year.
As we have previously mentioned, Gates also holds honorary degrees from various universities around the world.
In 2005, Gates was knighted as an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. The following year, Bill and Melinda Gates were awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican Government. This was in honor of their philanthropic work around the world. Also in 2016, Bill and Melinda Gates were also presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama.
To name, but a few.
Bill Gates is one of the most prolific and visionary people of our time. Following his meteoric success with Microsoft, Gates has spent the latter part of his life "giving back" to the world and helping improve the lives of millions of people.
Without people like Bill Gates, the world today would be a very different, and a very much diminished place.
Sir Bill Gates, we salute you!
Professor Gretchen Benedix is an astrogeologist and cosmic mineralogist who studies meteorites and figures the forming stages of the solar system.