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Trip to Africa got ball rolling on philanthropic efforts, Bill and Melinda Gates tell TED audience

Melinda Gates speaks to the media while her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (L) and his father William H. Gates Sr. listen during an advanced tour of the newly constructed $15 million visitor center at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation $500 million campus in Seattle, Washington February 1, 2012.


Bill and Melinda Gates have taken a lot of walks along beaches, but two of those sandy strolls were particularly life-changing – and it wasn't just their own lives being transformed.

In 1993, a few months before they got married, the couple visited Africa for the first time. They went to see the animals and the savannah. They also saw extreme poverty.

"We started asking ourselves questions: does it have to be like this," recounted Mrs. Gates at the TED Conference in Vancouver during an onstage interview conducted by TED Curator Chris Anderson on Tuesday night. The conversation with the billionaire couple focused primarily on their philanthropic efforts.

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At the end of that African trip, the couple visited Zanzibar and took a walk on the beach. The conversation turned to something they'd already discussed: that the wealth from Microsoft, which Mr. Gates had co-founded, would be given back to society. But this time they got into specifics.

"It was really on that beach walk that we started to talk about well what might we do and how might we go about it," said Mrs. Gates, sitting next to her husband on an on-stage couch.

Years later, there was another beach vacation, and another decision which led to the surprise announcement in 2006 that Mr. Gates would leave day-to-day operations at Microsoft to work with the foundation full time.

"We were walking on the beach and he was starting to think of this idea," said Mrs. Gates. "And to me the excitement of Bill putting his brain and his heart against these huge global problems, these inequities – to me that was exciting."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established in the late 1990s, focuses on two causes: fighting extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, and fixing the "failures" of the U.S. education system. Mr. and Mrs. Gates serve as co-chairs.

The foundation received an enormous – and surprising – boost from another American billionaire philanthropist, when their close friend Warren Buffett told them he would give 80 per cent of his fortune to the Gates Foundation.

"He was going to have his wife Susie give it all away. Tragically she passed away before he did. And he's big on delegation," said Mr. Gates to laughs from the audience.

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"If he's got somebody who's doing something well and is willing to do something at no charge, maybe that's okay. We were stunned; we had never expected it," Mr. Gates continued. "It's allowed us to increase our ambition and what the foundation can do quite dramatically; I mean half the resources we have come from Warren's mind-blowing generosity."

Through the Giving Pledge campaign, the Gateses and Mr. Buffett – a trustee with the Gates Foundation – are working to convince other wealthy philanthropists to donate more than half of their assets. Mr. Gates said Tuesday night that about 120 people have taken the pledge.

Mr. and Mrs. Gates have themselves pledged to give more than 95 per cent of their wealth to their foundation.

"It's the most fulfilling thing we've ever done," said Mr. Gates, the world's richest person according to Forbes. "You can't take it with you and if it's not good for your kids, then let's get together and brainstorm about what can be done."

Mr. Anderson asked the couple about the impact of the decision on their three children, and whether they can expect to be billionaires.

"No they won't have anything like that," said Mr. Gates. "They need to have a sense that their own work is meaningful and important."

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