Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Discuss "Creative Capitalism"

Warren Buffet: I would rather have Bill, if he will, give me the main points.

Bill Gates: Well it’s not completely well defined. It’s a phrase that I used in a speech at Harvard a year ago, because I totally believe in markets as such powerful forces for drawing out innovation and creating things that are sustainable. And yet, you do get trapped in this situation where the markets serve where the dollars are, so you don’t get markets meeting the needs of the poorest. And so how do you bootstrap or support the needs of the poorest so markets are reaching out to them. I mean, when I view the last hundred years as an experiment in how good markets are, the answer is very, very clear and very strong. It’s one of those things that’s so clear people won’t even discuss it with you anymore. Like in this [Edward] Teller biography: he says, Look, if he didn’t believe in innovation, he would have been a communist. If the economy is a zero-sum situation, then you ought to try some crazy sharing thing. It’s only the innovation and pie-growing activity that made Teller feel comfortable with the capitalistic approach. And I think that that’s been validated.

You often hear people saying that companies should do something besides profit maximization. And it’s amazing how strong a message is hidden in words like “diversity” or the broad term “corporate social responsibility.” Warren and I were just at the Microsoft CEO Summit for the last couple days and it was amazing how many of the talks were about how a company needs to have core values of who they are and what they do as the thing that makes the employees feel they have a purpose and guides their action. And how that needs to be really at the center, even more so than the short-term profit metrics. Jack Welch was very good on that and Lee Scott [CEO of Wal-Mart] was very good on that, I think in a very sincere way. I think it’s more true all the time.

Bill George [of Harvard Business School] ran the leadership panel, and he was saying how the younger generation really wants to go to work with people who have a purpose. So what I’m saying is when people write down that purpose, when they write down their values, that an element of that should be: what can we do based on our skill set, our innovators, whatever unique capacities we have as a company--what can we be doing for the poorest 2 billion? And that can either be taking more risk in terms of trying to develop markets there, which is C.K. Prahalad-type stuff, or just doing things like the Merck donation that are not profit seeking and yet not giving up huge percentage of profit.

So somebody can read the words “creative capitalism” and say, “Okay, Bill Gates said that you should serve the poorest 2 billion and ignore profit.” That is not what I intend to say at all, but then I am being a bit ambiguous about how far you go in being willing to give up something. Am I saying one percent? Two percent? Three percent? Nobody who sets these dual roles is very good about being clear. I mean, what do they say you’re supposed to give up for corporate social responsibility. Well, they’re not willing to be numeric because they feel like the two goals, profit and social responsibility, aren’t totally at odds over time—or diversity, or whatever the value is.

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