CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--As he has at each of the stops on his college tour, Bill Gates took time Wednesday morning to meet with a group of minority students whose university education has been funded by his family's foundation.
After a few photos were taken, the group of several dozen Gates Millennial Scholars here at Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a chance to speak with their benefactor. Most just wanted to say thanks, while a few had questions about how they could make a difference.
One student asked what Gates expected from the scholars.
"The dream is that it is catalytic," Gates said. "You go back to your community and inspire people younger than you."
Unlike many of the projects that the foundation funds, Gates notes that it is hard to measure the scholarships' direct impact.
"We can't do math to say that it was worth it," he said, "But we feel really good about it."
Other students asked how they could make a difference in a field like software and impact the social issues that Gates is pitching on his college tour. Gates said both building businesses that create jobs and helping out are both good things, adding that one need not devote all of his or her energies to the developing world to make a difference.
The question from another Gates scholar, Abismael Diaz, was somewhat little less humanitarian.
"Any advice for us on how to get rich," he asked.
Gates pointed out that all of the scholars were well on their way to a decent livelihood, at a minimum.
"Anybody from MIT is going to have a great opportunity," Gates said. "You all have super-employable skills."
To some degree, Gates said, it is about risk. Working for a big established company guarantees more security, while joining a start-up could prove more lucrative financially. However, getting truly rich requires good fortune in addition to a good plan, he said.
"Most start-ups don't become these mega-successful things," he said. While he, Apple's Steve Jobs, and Google founder Sergey Brin are all smart guys, he said, "there's a huge element of luck."
Gates noted he had some sense that software was going to be a big deal, but added that it was his interest in the subject, rather than a desire to get rich, that led him to start Microsoft.
"It was more that, at age 13, I got addicted to (writing software)," Gates said.
Just after he finished speaking with the small group of scholarship recipients, Gates headed to the main auditorium to deliver his speech. As in past stops, he talked about the need to commit more brain power to the problems confronting society, particularly the developing world.
Gates noted that there are only about 100 scientists truly devoted to malaria research even though the disease kills a million people a year. Had society committed last decade to developing a vaccine, one would probably already exist, he said. "It's criminal that we didn't work on a malaria vaccine."
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Gates noted that the difference between being super-wealthy and ultra-mega-wealthy isn't that big, in terms of the personal lifestyle it allows.
"The marginal return for extra dollars does drop off," Gates said. "There's a few things, like air travel," he said, where being super-wealthy makes things a bit cushier. But, he said, past a few million dollars in wealth, the big issue becomes what one is going to do with the money.
"How are you going to give it back," he said, something that he noted some see as a burden. Gates said that great good could come if billionaires in the United States were to give more generously, or if those in places like India and China were to donate wealth at rates comparable to those in the United States.