Bill Gates spent years of his life building Microsoft, an incredibly successful and profitable computer software company. Many successful business executives work well past the usual retirement age of 65 – guiding and continuing to build their businesses (i.e. Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone).
But, in a move that surprised everyone who had witnessed Gates’ passion first hand, he walked away from Microsoft at the height of his success. And, he’s building a second career or a second life unmatched in modern American. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is focused on a wide range of charitable missions including improving health and poverty worldwide and working to improve the American public education system.
In his quest for understanding the global health and economic issues the foundation is addressing, Gates is a passionate and voracious reader. And he routinely posts book reviews on the Gates Foundation website.
The latest book Gates reviewed was Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a three-year chronicle of a Mumbai slum – a slum that exists in the shadows of brand-new skyscrapers that display India’s growing wealth.
In addition to Gates review of the book, he interviewed Katherine Boo about her book.
Bill Gates: How did you pick the particular slum and the people that you profiled in the book?
Katherine Boo: Although I’d been spending time in slums all over Mumbai, I kept gravitating to Annawadi because of the hope there. In 2008, preventable disease was rampant and only six of 3000 residents had permanent work, but the place was still frantic with the optimism and entrepreneurial energy you noted in your review. By scavenging and selling recyclable garbage, hawking marigold garlands in traffic, picking up day jobs at construction sites, and identifying other market niches in the prospering airport area, nearly every family in the slum had crossed the Indian government’s poverty line, if not the World Bank benchmark. One young woman, Manju Waghekar, was poised to become the slum’s first female college graduate. In other words, the Annawadians were no longer just subsisting. They were part of India’s growth story, one of the great, unfolding success narratives in the history of global development. The slumdwellers felt that progress keenly, and whenever an Annawadi kid labeled another kid a “poor boy,” you best believe it was an insult.
Still, the economic lives of lower-income people in any country tend to be extremely volatile, and the correlation between effort and reward isn’t always robust. Hence, achieving upward mobility demands an enormous amount of imagination, self-correction, and improvisation. I wanted to document that blistering effort at a granular level by following families in one slum over the course of several years.
That’s not to say that Annawadi is a perfect microcosm or “representative” slum. Those terms have always struck me as flimsy journalistic conventions. But the slum did strike me as a decent place to study the mechanics of upward mobility in urban India. The settlement was an all-India mash-up of caste, ethnicity, faith, and language, and (like most slums, despite stereotypes) contained considerable economic diversity. From the beginning, I focused my attention on both relatively privileged and desperately poor residents, though as my book tries to convey, such categories are anything but fixed in an age of fluctuating markets and poorly functioning safety nets.
In addition, if you’re interested in Gates’ current work and the worldwide problems that he’s intent on impacting, Gates’ annual letter about the Foundation’s work is fascinating reading.