Last week I got an email from someone at Microsoft asking if my dad was the president of Nigeria. I almost deleted the email without responding until I looked at the person's email signature and it said "Executive Assistant to Bill Gates". So I responded and it turned out that Bill Gates was going to be in Nigeria over the weekend to meet with my dad and he wanted to chat before his trip.
We met on Friday and according to my mom he met with my dad over the weekend. After our talk I asked if it was OK if I blogged our meeting and he was fine with it. What follows are my impressions from our meeting and the topics we chatted about.
The last time I talked to Bill Gates in person was five years ago at the annual event for summer interns at Microsoft where we get to meet him at his house. When I was an intern they had to split the event into two seperate trips due to the number of interns. After introductions, I mentioned that we'd met before at the intern event in 2001 and asked if the event continued to this day. It still goes on today and has now grown to four separate rounds of visits. BillG said he appreciates hearing from college students about companies and trends they find interesting before their opinions get influenced by their employer when they get out of school.
BillG asked a couple of questions about me and my family such as how long I'd been at Microsoft, where I want to school, if my mom was Stella Obasanjo (she isn't), what my mom did, if I had any siblings back home and so on. I appreciated talking about myself and was put at ease before being asked about Nigeria or my dad.
BillG had read my dad's Wikipedia entry and thus was a little familiar with my dad's background story. This is my dad's second time around as president. The first time was between 1976 and 1979 when he became the military president because the sitting military president was killed in a failed coup. He made history by being the first African head of state to voluntarily relinquish power by having elections and stepping down once a winner was announced.
He became president this time around after spending three years as a political prisoner. After the military president that jailed him died of natural causes, he was released. A number of others who were jailed at the same time as him were not as lucky and died in prison such as Moshood Abiola and Shehu Musa Yar'Adua before the military president that jailed them passed away. I talked about meeting my dad in Atlanta back in 1998 when he was released and hearing for the first time that he planned to run for president. I thought it was an insane idea given that Nigeria had never had a civilian president finish out their term without there being a miltary takeover of government. I can still remember my dad sitting there and saying "If I don't do it who will?". He won the election and also won a second term. My dad still gives me a hard time today because I never called to congratulate him. I did attend both inauguration ceremonies so that should count for something, I guess.
BillG wondered what my dad would do after he left the presidency. He mentioned that he'd had some angst about leaving Microsoft in two years and also gave an example of a good friend of his, Bill Clinton, who also had similar angst when he left the U.S. presidency. I pointed out that my dad had been a retired head of state for almost two decades before this time around and had found things to do. Besides becoming a large scale farmer, he still did the international statesman thing and once was in the running for the position of UN secretary general which he lost to Boutros Boutros-Ghali back in the early 1990s.
He'd read that my dad was a born again Christian and wondered if that extended to the entire family. It doesn't, I'm not terribly religious and my mom is a devout catholic which it turned out BillG's wife is as well. This segued into a conversation about religion and Nigeria. The country is about half Christian and half Muslim but over the past few years, the division has become more stark. Since I've been in the U.S., a number of states in the northern part of the country have embraced Sharia law which has led to some negative international responses. The religion issue is now divisive enough that questions about religion and ethnicity were removed from this year's census. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. Speaking of ethnicity, BillG asked about the national language and whether there was a major ethnic group in Nigeria. The national language is English since we were colonised by the British and although there were three large ethnic groups (Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo) there are hundreds of indigenous tribes with their own cultures and languages.
The reason BillG was visiting Nigeria was to talk about some of the work that the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has been doing in Africa. One of the issues he wanted to discuss were the efforts they had been taking to eradicate polio in Nigeria via vaccination. There had recently been some rumors about negative effects of polio vaccines in the northern part of Nigeria which had actually lead to at least one state banning them. The problem with polio, BillG said, is that unlike diseases such as smallpox it may be hard to detect so an outbreak could occur with the authorities being none the wiser until it is too late. He said the tipping point is about 15% of the population being infected while containment is when < 5% are infected. He also mentioned that their foundation was working on vaccines for malaria and sleeping sickness. I mentioned having malaria a few times while growing up and thinking how weird it was when I heard people in the U.S. talking about malaria as if it was ebola. However there was a difference between how I grew up in the city and the average Nigerian who lives in the villages and rural areas. The main problem with malaria that BillG wants combated is preventing it in pregnant women. Not only is the chance of infant mortality increased but also if the child makes it, the baby is usually born having a low birth weight which contributes to a lifetime of problems. He feels they are close to breakthroughs in creating vaccines for these diseases especially since not a lot of research has been done in this area due to big pharma not investing a lot in research for diseases affecting the poor in Africa. BillG acknowledged that he was being an optimist when he says this and it may take a little longer in much the same way that his optimism about the future of Tablet PCs and voice recognition software has taken longer than he expected to become mainstream.
My comment about the differences growing up in the city versus the life in the villages reminded BillG of a similar contrast in another African country, South Africa. The life in places like Sun City [where most Americans go when they say they are going to South Africa] is radically different than the life in various South African townships. BillG took his children to some townships when they were in South Africa so they could see how the other half lived, his children were resistant to the idea but he thought that it would be a good idea to see what life is like in these places. We also talked about how widespread AIDs is in South Africa (affecting 30% of the population by some estimates) while it seems relatively contained in countries like Nigeria. I mentioned seeing the billboards for the ABC campaign (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms) while in Nigeria and he agreed that the campaigns seemed to have been working. Using condoms has seemed to be very effective but unfortunately there are some religious and social objections to the idea. Their foundation is working on creams and gels that can be applied just like spermicidal creams and gels which can be used to prevent AIDs and will be more acceptable to social norms [his exact words were "eliminate the negotiation during encounters"]. BillG also said that there seemed to be a strong correlation between improving healthcare and the number of children people had. This means that there is the double benefit of having healthy children and being able to afford to have them since you don't have that many. In addition to healthcare, BillG was also going to talk to my dad about their efforts around improving agricultural practices to improve crop yield and some of their suggestions for improving education.
We did talk about Microsoft a little. When I mentioned I work for the Windows Live platform group he mentioned that this would be an interesting area to be in over the next few years and commented on a number of Windows Live services such as Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Mail. He also talked about some of the leadership changes we've had across Windows and Windows Live. I asked if he'd continue with his biannual Think Weeks where employees from all over the company get to write him papers about ideas they have. He said he'd continue until he stepped down in 2008 and after that it would be up to Ray Ozzie [who will be replacing him as Chief Software Architect] to decide if he'd continue with the tradition or not. I did mention that I'd submitted a Thinkweek paper which he'd writen a response to, he hoped that he wasn't too harsh in his criticism and I replied that his feedback was quite favorable and has led to some good things happening in Windows Live.
The meeting ran over by 15 minutes and I felt bad for taking up so much of his time. As I was leaving the building I overheard the following exchange between the receptionist of the building and a visitor
Visitor: Where is Bill Gates's office?
Receptionist: I'm not at liberty to divulge that information.
Visitor: I need to see him, I just downloaded Windows Vista and I have a number of complaints.
I wonder how often that happens. :)