MSNBC had an interesting article about a survey that suggests that most Americans believe that the next Bill Gates will come from outside the United States.
Nearly half of Americans said that the next great technology leader will come from China or Japan, while just one in five believe he or she will hail from the United States. Thirteen percent think India will produce the next tech great.
It's an interesting survey but to be honest I am not sure what "the next Bill Gates" means. I'm even less sure that most people know what Bill Gates has accomplished. Oh sure they know that he is the richest man in the world but do they know that if Bill Walton were still alive that he'd be worth a lot more than Bill? Sam's heirs are worth about $25 Billion more than Bill is. So clearly there are other potential paths to becoming the richest person in the world than computer software. Of course it is just as clear that "being Bill Gates" is about more than just having money. It means philanthropy. It means creating a difference in how people live their lives which clearly Microsoft has had a hand in doing. But arguably Tim Berners-Lee had a hand in it with the world wide web and AOL had a hand in it by bringing Internet connectivity to the common person. So "being Bill Gates" is complex. That complex situation was probably not what people were thinking when they answered that survey though. Most likely they were thinking "amazing software wizard whose software changed the world and made them rich." So let's start there.
I'm not an expert on Bill Gates by any means. I've met him once, read some books about him and of course I work for the same company. But mostly I have observed the computer industry for the last 35 years or so and that means I have opinions. What I think it took to create the phenomenon we know as Bill Gates took several things - a large amount of native intelligence, opportunity and the courage to take advantage of the first two items. The world does not know a shortage of intelligence. Opportunity abounds but my highly biased opinion is that opportunity is greater still in the US though that gap is decreasing. Courage is also widely spread around the world. This suggests that the chance for the "next Bill Gates" to come from outside the US is greater now than ever before.
But it doesn't rule out their coming from the US. So what does a country have to do to maximize their chances in the race for the next Bill gates? (Does any one actually make policy decisions on questions like that?) I think they have to do several things. One is to maximize the educational opportunities for everyone. Bill comes from a family with money and was attending a private school with access to a computer at a time when that was available to very few students. So access to technology would see to be important here.
It was pretty easy for Bill Gates and Paul Allen to startup Microsoft because government regulations and red tape were not onerous. They had some access to start up capital as well. I don't know where they got it but since Bill had independent means that was less of an issue than it would be for others. But still angel funding, venture capital funding or other sources would seem to be required. There is a lot of startup money in the US. Is there in India and China? More than there used to be I'm sure.
The harder it is to make a success are the more courage is required to try. So by making it easier to start (and if many cases fail) combined with a talent pool that allows a new company to tip the balance in the favor of success would seem to help reduce the need for courage. I think it is safe to say that a culture that is unforgiving of failure is less likely to produce the next Bill Gates though.
The opportunities exist everywhere to varying degrees. Education seems like the easiest (not the same as being easy mind you) thing that a country can do to tilt things in their favor though. Is the US doing enough with technology in education? I don't think so. It seems as though China and India are doing a lot for their best and brightest (or at least for those who come to the attention of the government) but is that enough to give them the edge over the US? Time will tell.
I don't know where the next Bill Gates will come from or even if it is a reasonable question. What I do know is that the world depends on as may people as possible getting the education they need to use their inelegance, their opportunities and their courage. That is the challenge of the 21st century.