Jobs, Gates and How Philanthropy Shapes Their Legacies
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in the same year and each became synonymous with the digital revolution. Who, ultimately, will history deem the more important figure? Will Gates’ embrace of philanthropy push him over the top?
Bill and Melinda Gates recently made a series of bold predictions in a clip widely available on Youtube and in the 2015 annual letter for their eponymous foundation. The couple, who run the world’s largest charitable foundation, stated that in the next 15 years the lives of poor people living in developing nations will improve more than at any time in history. Diseases, the couple promised, will be eradicated, and technology will level the educational playing field. Mobile apps will allow the poor access to credit and banking systems that have, until now, remained out of reach. All of this will happen with help from the Gates Foundation, the couple said enthusiastically. The prediction was audacious, inspiring, theatrical – almost messianic in tone. In fact, Gates seemed to echo his longtime rival and sometime collaborator, Steve Jobs, who when unveiling products like the original Macintosh or the first iPhone, would promise that the devices would truly change the world and better humanity.
No two men have embodied the digital era more than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The two were born in the same year, 1955, shared the public spotlight for decades, maintained a fierce rivalry and occasional friendship, and were as different as two high tech leaders could be. They offered contrasting leadership styles, clashing visions of the digital revolution, and will leave behind very different legacies. They held diametrically opposed views regarding the functionality of computers and the information age. Gates believed in an open approach in which software could be licensed and used interchangeably with various hardware devices. Jobs championed the idea that the hardware, software, and operating systems should be seamlessly linked for a superior user experience.
And they disagreed sharply about the relevance and importance of philanthropy.
Who will history ultimately regard as the more important figure? It is not really a fair question to ask since Jobs died in 2011 at the age of 56 and Gates may continue to exert an impact on the global stage for several decades. But it is a question that’s been asked for more than 30 years and the answer appears to shift. In the early 1980s, at the height of Apple’s rise, few would have questioned that Jobs, the visionary of the personal computer industry, would have a more significant career than the relatively unknown Microsoft co-founder. A decade later, Jobs was long gone from Apple and Gate’s Microsoft ruled the personal computing world, proving that the true power rested with software and operating systems, not hardware. Check back again in the mid-2000s and it seemed clear that Jobs’ second coming at Apple had transformed it into the coolest, most valuable company on the planet. In the process, Jobs forever changed the music, cell phone, and retail store industry. (And through his work with Pixar, he also left a lasting mark on the film industry.) But Gates isn’t done making his case for posterity. He and his wife, Melinda, have built their foundation into the world’s most influential philanthropic entity. And with the launch of the Giving Pledge, a public effort to convince the wealthiest individuals to give away much of their wealth to charity, Gates has sought to alter the conversation on philanthropy and mobilize vast amounts of wealth for the public good. So far, despite the immense media coverage and participation of Warren Buffet and other billionaires – Jobs was notably absent -the Giving Pledge has fallen short of its promise.
In the end, it may end up being their divergent attitudes toward philanthropy that separates the two men in the eyes of history.
For the year of his death, Jobs placed 39th on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. But as his biographer, former Time executive editor Walter Isaacson, repeatedly wrote, Jobs was at times downright disdainful of philanthropy. He gave little and rarely appeared at charitable events. When he returned as Apple CEO in the late 1990s, he reportedly shut down all corporate philanthropy projects. Jobs is quoted in Issacson’s best-selling “Steve Jobs” as saying that the only reason Gates is spending so much time focusing on philanthropy is that he’s lost the creative fire for creating products. He publicly refused to sign the billionaire pledge. Jobs viewed Apple and its products as his contribution to the world. It was through Apple that he sought to propel humanity forward. But Jobs’ widow, Loraine Powell Jobs, is a major philanthropist in her own right. She was a co-founder and board president of College Track, an organization that prepares disadvantaged high school students for college. In his book, Isaacson reports that Jobs never visited any of College Tracks’ programs. Gates once quipped to Isaacson that Jobs was still putting out great products while “All I’m trying to do is save the world from malaria. Perhaps, I should still be in that game.”
It did come out after his death that Jobs – who died from Pancreatic Cancer – had given as much as $50 million to several hospitals. That’s pocket change for a multi-billionaire, but the information does change the picture somewhat. And it is possible that, had he not died at such a relatively young age, his attitude toward philanthropy may have evolved.
When it comes to giving, perhaps the most important thing we can learn from contrasting Jobs and Gates is this: It is difficult to predict whether an individual will embrace philanthropy based on biographical details of their early lives. Based on his life story, Jobs would have made an ideal philanthropist. Jobs, born to a Syrian father and an American mother, was put up for adoption at birth and was raised in a lower middle class household in California. He was a child of the counterculture, bragged about dropping acid, idolized Bob Dylan, traveled to India to study Buddhism – seeing the poverty of the third world firsthand – and adopted a strict vegetarian diet and meditation regimen. He loved art and music and movies and had boundless interests. He conceived of Apple as a revolutionary, leading light in a personal computer revolution that would liberate individuals.
Gates, on the other hand, appeared to have had a much more myopic worldview earlier in his life. The child of a well-to-do-lawyer and a businesswoman who served on the University of Washington’s Board of Regents, Gates dropped out of Harvard University to focus solely on building a business. Gates, we know, was influenced by his wife Melinda, but Jobs also had a philanthropically minded spouse. Why did philanthropy capture Gates’ imagination and not Jobs’? Isaacson, who spent countless hours with Jobs and a not insignificant amount of time with Gates, offers few answers to this question. Both Bill and Melinda have credited their parents with planting philanthropic seeds. Paul and Clara Jobs encouraged their son to pursue his passion, to “think different” but there’s no evidence they ever spoke with him about the importance of generosity. Perhaps biography may not be a key determining factor, but parental influence is?
We highly recommend the Isaacson book. It is, at once, a fascinating story of an incredibly complex character, a study in leadership, and an informative history of the digital age. Isaacson makes a strong case that Jobs may have been the preeminent innovator of our time, someone whose vision and ruthless entrepreneurship changed our culture forever. But what if Gates is right about the near future? What if philanthropic dollars, smartly invested and coupled with advances in technology, really do change the lives of people in developing nations in the near future? Then it would be hard to argue that Gates – with his inspired philanthropic vision – is not the more consequential figure and perhaps one of the most significant figures of any age.
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