Bill Gates, the founder of the iconic software company Microsoft, is one of the world’s wealthiest people.
Still, much of his life remains a mystery even though he brought computers to the masses with his DOS and Windows operating systems.
Forbes estimates Gates is worth $135.1 billion (£102.92 billion), making him the fourth richest person globally.
A fascinating fact is that Gates never graduated from university but has worked his way to riches and given away many billions.
There’s a lot more to this story about a computer genius, including why the Gates Foundation contributed more than $2 billion to labs in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bill Gates – Early Life
Gates was born in Seattle in 1955 to a lawyer, father William Gates Senior, and his wife Mary, who worked as a banking executive.
The Gates family were relatively affluent but frugal and said to be supportive, encouraging Gates to explore computing even where it was far outside of their frame of interest.
Gates attended Harvard but left before finishing his course to found Microsoft with friend Paul Allen, who died in 2018.
Gates has two sisters and three children, and although he stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2020, he still owns a proportion of the shares, contributing vast amounts to his charitable foundation, formed with his former wife, Melinda.
Although most people know about Microsoft and the foundation, what isn’t so well understood is that Gates isn’t just a software developer who struck it big – he’s also a savvy investor.
Holdings include stakes in the Canadian National Railway, car retailer AutoNation and great tracts of American farmland.
Education and Career
Gates started computing when he joined Lakeside, a private school where he taught himself programming in the BASIC computer language, making a game similar to Tic-Tac-Toe.
He spent time at a firm called the Computer Center Corporation (CCC) and used their hardware to learn source code, including machine code, Lisp and Fortran.
In 1973, he started at Harvard, studying mathematics and computer science, but said he was there in person but not in spirit and spent most of his time playing video games and poker.
Allen showed Gates an article in December 1974 about the Altair 8800, the first-ever microcomputer, and he saw an opportunity, dropping out of Harvard – which turned out to be a gamble that paid off.
Equipped with inspiration, Gates contacted the Altair manufacturer, offering them a version of the programming written in BASIC.
Of course, Gates hadn’t written anything. So when the company asked to see his work, he scrambled to create simulations of the Altair on other computers and put something together with Allen.
The partners took off for Albuquerque with no idea about whether their code would run – but it did, beautifully.
Gates and Allen used this success as a springboard to form Microsoft. They licensed the MS-DOS operating system to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) – at the time, the biggest brand in the industry and the largest computer supplier worldwide.
His strategy was to buy an existing operating system for $50,000 from a small Seattle firm, develop it into MS-DOS and license it at a tidy profit (without giving away any licensing rights).
IBM used the operating system in the IBM PC, which set new technical standards when released in 1981.
In just one year, Microsoft went from a $7.5 million turnover in 1980 to $16 million in 1981.
Essentially, the huge IBM enterprise became reliant on Microsoft, who also began writing software for other clone hardware with IBM compatibility – and Gates became a kingmaker in the PC industry by the early 1990s.
Allen, the chief technologist at Microsoft, resigned from the business in 1983 when diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. However, he stayed on the board and was worth $20 billion when he passed away in 2018, aged 65.
Gates and Allen remained friends, and in 1986, they donated $2.2 million to the school, where it all began.
The Windows Story
Microsoft didn’t have any real competitors until Apple arrived on the scene in 1984, with a sleeker interface that threatened the dominance of Microsoft.
Gates decided to create a graphical user interface operating system called Windows.
He took Microsoft public in 1986, raising $61 million through an IPO. Although the first Windows edition in 1985 wasn’t quite as successful as Gates had hoped, he had bigger fish to fry – Apple took him to court, claiming it was a rip-off of their system.
The case continued until the mid-1990s, when the courts decided there was no case to answer. But, amid the legal wrangling, Gates never stopped working.
By 1993, Windows was selling over a million copies a month, running on over 85 per cent of worldwide computers.
An expansion into software suites resulted in preloaded computers, sold complete with Windows operating systems, and by 1999 Microsoft was making $19.7 billion a year in sales – Gates, personally, was worth $90 billion.
It wasn’t all plain sailing – a US District Court in 1999 ruled that Microsoft held a monopoly over desktop operating systems. Three years later, a settlement was agreed. Microsoft had to stop engaging in tactics preventing competitors from innovation.
Insiders say that Gates has two sides.
One is the sharply talented computer geek who can hack code with extraordinary skill. The other is a shrewd businessman with an instinct to see opportunities that elude his competitors.
When everyone else was working on software sales, Gates was driving for new standards, reshaping the modern technology industry.
Gates stepped down from the Microsoft board in 2020, retaining around one per cent of the shares in the company – but it’s fair to say he has set his intentions elsewhere.
Today, he owns 54 million shares in Berkshire Hathaway, 17.1 million shares in Canadian National Railway and $1.5 billion of shares in Caterpillar Inc., among many other businesses.
Giving It All Away
Gates created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his now ex-wife, the largest privately-owned foundation worldwide, holding over $46 billion in trust.
The couple divorced in 2021 after 27 years of marriage – they still co-chair their charity together. In addition, Gates has donated over $35.8 billion of Microsoft stock to fund the foundation’s charitable works.
Investors in the foundation include other billionaires, like Warren Buffett.
The foundation focuses on global issues, looking at education standards, healthcare and equality, particularly initiatives that help people find sustainable ways out of poverty.
- Donating $1.525 million to a program for minority students who cannot afford education
- Giving $957 million to the GAVI Alliance in Geneva, which works on vaccine delivery programs
- Making a $755 million grant to the Rotary International Foundation – for eradicating polio
- Contributing $750 million to a fund that treats, diagnoses and educates about tuberculosis, AIDs and malaria.
Gates has also donated hundreds of millions to the World Health Organization, working on killing diseases in Africa and Asia, and $2 billion towards researching and producing a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bill Gates, FAQ
Does Bill Gates have a degree?
Although Gates famously dropped out of university to start Microsoft, he later returned, accepting an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2007.
How many children does Bill Gates have?
Gates has three children, although he has said that he will leave them each $10 million of his multi-billion dollar fortune. While that’s still an impressive inheritance, Gates says that leaving such staggering wealth wouldn’t be in his kid’s best interests – the balance will go to charitable causes.
Why is Bill Gates involved with COVID vaccine programs?
Post-Microsoft, much of Gates’s philanthropy has been in the medical sector, achieving remarkable milestones in disease prevention. For example, Gates predicted the pandemic at a conference in 2015, outlining several theories close to the reality that unfolded.
When the pandemic began, the foundation had already put in years of legwork and swung into action to donate funds, support health leaders, and lend expertise and cash to develop and deliver vaccines.
Is Bill Gates the richest person in the world?
No, but he’s not far off. Gates is worth $135.1 billion today – number four on the list of wealthy people. Tesla carmaker CEO Elon Musk tops the list with $219 billion.
How much of Microsoft belongs to Bill Gates?
Gates isn’t a major controller of Microsoft – he stepped down in 2020 and now has around one per cent of the stock.
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