'Mom, I'm busy'

Tech giants, mentorship, and a fateful lunch. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg will be testifying by video today before a Judiciary Committee subcommitte about Big Tech business practices — things like privacy, antitrust, and other controversial Internet issues.

It’s the first time they’ve appeared together like this, and some observers say it reminds them of the feeling before the CEOs of the Big Tobacco companies testified before Congress in the 1990s.

I’d like to take the moment, then, to talk briefly about someone who isn’t testifying: Bill Gates — and what he was doing back around the time those tobacco executives testified. Because this month marked the 29th annivesary of what I think was the single most important meal in Gates’s life.

The date was July 5, 1991. Gates was a 34-year-old billionaire and still CEO of Microsoft at the time, known to the world then as sort of an Evil Empire, much as Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are today.

His mom and dad were having lunch with Warren Buffett, who was a friend of friends, and whom they’d never met before. As Gates told the story many years later, his mother kept bugging him to drop by and make an appearance.

“It was a funny event because my mom's very sociable, always getting people together,” Gates once told a group of students during a joint appearance with Buffett. “I, at this time, didn't believe in vacations, was totally focused on my job. So when she said to me, 'You've got to come out and meet Warren,' I said, 'Mom, I'm busy!'“

He made the trip, though. As history records, the two men talked for hours that day and struck up a friendship that seems to run deep and true, and to have been rewarding for them both. 

Besides being a cool story, I bring this up because meeting Buffett gave Gates something that would have been almost impossible to find otherwise: not just a close friend, but a mentor.

Gates credits Buffett with sparking his philanthropic bent — leading ultimately to the Giving Pledge, and to the multi-billion-dollar charity efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But, imagine you’re Bill Gates back then: 35 years old, already a billionaire, credited with having revolutionized how people work around the world. You dropped out of Harvard, and oh by the way, you’ve only ever had one job in your life: CEO of Microsoft — from its early days as a tiny company abritraging software to sell to IBM, to its status as an industry juggernaut.

Who exactly are you going to listen to for life advice, if you’re in those shoes? Do you even think you need anyone else’s opinions?

But, without that relationship, I don’t think Gates would have become one of the few people in history who truly gets a real second act. In fact, I'm willing to bet that 100 years from now, people will remember Gates much more for his philanthropy than they will for anything he did as a computer pioneer or an entrepreneur and business leader.

Hats off to the late Mary Maxwell Gates then, for making the introduction, and perhaps even recognizing that her son needed someone like that in his life. 

Which brings us back to today. Because as I think of these tech CEOs testifying before Congress, I don’t know who they’d turn to for advice and mentorship.

It has to be a kind of gilded loneliness, right? Who on earth could Bezos sit down with and say, yes, this man or woman understands me, and what I’ve accomplished, and can help me grow and find my next place in the world?

Bezos is 56. Cook is 59. Pichai is 48. And so I keep thinking about Zuckerberg, maybe because he’s 36 — just a few months older than Gates was at the time of his 1991 lunch with Buffett.

Oh, and like Gates, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard; like Gates at that time, Zuckerberg has only ever had one job in his entire life.

He’s married, which Gates wasn’t. And he has Sheryl Sandberg. And he’s pledged to donate billions.

But does he have someone in his life who is like what Buffett has been to Gates?

Hmmm.

Well, apropos of nothing, wouldn't it be awfully smart if Zuckerberg's mom, Karen Kempner, would invite that nice Mr. Gates over for lunch sometime—and maybe convince her son to show up, too?

Might change his life.

7 other things worth your time

  • Seems not irrelevant: Since her divorce last year, Mackenzie Scott (formerly Bezos) has donated $1.7 billion to charity. (Axios)

  • Bored college hockey players, who aren’t going near a rink due to the pandemic, traded ice skates for roller blades and skated 900 miles from Boston to Michigan to raise money for cancer research. ("The toughest part of the journey had to be ... when I collapsed and passed out.") (CNN)

  • How the coronavirus has changed referees’ whistles: basically, they added a small black bag to whistles in the NBA and WNBA to collect spittle. (Associated Press)

  • The Trump administration has reportedly entered into talks with the state of Oregon about withdrawing federal officers from Portland, if Oregon will step up state enforcement in exchange. (Fox 12 Oregon)

  • Even mild coronavirus cases can cause lasting cardiovascular damage, according to a new study. Oh, and it seems taller people are more likely to get the virus, due to it being spread in an aerosol form. (The Week, MedicalXpress)

  • The federal government is trying to figure out what’s going on with Americans who are getting packages of seeds that they never ordered delivered to them, and that mostly appear to have come from China. Warning number 1: Don’t plant them. (WSJ, $)

  • NASA launches a new mission to Mars tomorrow, including a six-wheel rover the size of an SUV. The goal is to collect rocks that will ultimately be returned to Earth — maybe a decade from now. (The Verge)

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