Bill Gates and the Importance of Social Capital

My husband and I recently finished watching the new Netflix documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain.

We both found Bill Gates’ story to be fascinating and inspiring, impressed by how he and his wife have channeled their intellect, curiosity, and empathy into an idea generation machine — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to solve the world’s toughest problems.

While I, of course, felt like I immediately needed to get off the couch and do something good for the world, I also found myself reflecting on how Bill Gates reached this point in his life.

In the documentary, Gates talks about the many opportunities that allowed him to become the computing prodigy that he is and was.

I was immediately reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which I had read many years before.

Gladwell highlighted the incredible opportunities that Gates encountered in his early years that facilitated his exponential growth.

Both Outliers and Inside Bill’s Brain discuss the prestigious private school in which Gates was enrolled for his adolescent and teenage years, which allowed him to learn to code and develop programs in the school’s computer lab … in the 1960s.

My Baltimore City Public Schools classroom in 2011 did not have any technology! Gladwell writes:  

“We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”

Both the documentary and Gladwell’s case study also highlight the resources into which Gates was born.

Gates himself admits that his family was wealthy, and during his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, he had two professional, working parents.

The documentary speaks in great detail to the power his mother had in the community, serving on boards and building an impressive network.

Her connections were so impressive, in fact, that Gates shares how she forced him to meet with Warren Buffett and facilitated that connection for her son.

My first thought was, “That is SOME social capital!” 

The esteemed sociologist James Coleman discusses his theory of social capital in his 1988 “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.” 

He explains that the resources and connections that people have access to through their close relationships and communities can have profound impacts on personal and professional outcomes.

Examples of social capital might include community members sharing job opportunities with each other, elder family or community members connecting youth to an internship or mentor, or professional individuals serving as positive role models for others in their circles.

In each of these scenarios, people have access to opportunities, exposure to new ideas and people, and the ability to see what they themselves could become.

Now imagine what happens when none of these resources are present in the life of a child or young adult.

Coleman suggests that without social capital, an individual’s outcomes might look quite different: “Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible.”

Gates benefited a great deal from his sheer luck of being born into a family of means, but this certainly does not diminish his genius or impact on the world.

However, the social capital he had access to in his youth had, without a doubt, an enormous impact on his success in life.

As Gladwell muses, what about every other teenager? Don’t they deserve the same opportunities and resources?

If our most disadvantaged communities were rich with opportunity and home-grown role models and free from the oppression caused by centuries of systematic, legalized discrimination, we would only be able to imagine how many more Bill Gates the world would have.