Raising Bill Gates

What are the secrets to rearing a future business icon? An exclusive excerpt from "Showing Up for Life."

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By William H. Gates

The Gateses are avid readers.

(Fortune Magazine) -- In the early days of Microsoft's success, when my son's name was starting to become known to the world at large, everybody from reporters at Fortune to the checkout person at the local grocery store would ask me, "How do you raise a kid like that? What's the secret?" At those moments I was generally thinking to myself, "Oh, it's a secret all right ... because I don't get it either!"

My son, Bill Gates III, has always been known in our family as Trey. While still in school, Trey, Paul Allen, and another friend developed their first entrepreneurial venture: a company that created and marketed a piece of equipment they had developed called the Traf-O-Data. It was designed to collect and make sense of the information generated by those little car-counting devices you've probably seen hundreds of times - a thin hose stretched across a road and connected to a black box. The Traf-O-Data took the raw data from all those little black boxes and created a graph that gave you an hour-by-hour picture of each day's traffic flow.

After many successful kitchen-table practice sessions, my son persuaded some employees of the city of Seattle to come to the house for a demonstration. Well, things that day at the Gates home didn't go according to plan. The Traf-O-Data did not perform.

How did Trey react when the first live demonstration of his system failed? He went running into the kitchen, shouting on the way, "Mom! Mom! Come and tell them that it worked!"

It's probably no surprise that he made no sale that day. The Traf-O-Data did finally achieve some success, although it didn't foreshadow anything like a Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500). Perhaps the lesson here is that every success involves a few false starts.

Trey had dropped out of college in 1975 as a Harvard sophomore. The impetus came from a phone call he made from his dormitory room to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world's first personal computer. Paul Allen, who was living nearby in Boston at the time working for Honeywell, had seen an article on the new computer in Popular Electronics and rushed over to show it to Trey. They had been expecting that personal computing would arrive and that when it did, software would be a critical ingredient.

So when Trey called the company making the computer, he offered to sell it software. The company immediately expressed interest, opening the door to Trey and Paul's marvelous adventure with Microsoft.

Of course, Trey's mother and I were sick when he told us he planned to leave college to take advantage of a window of opportunity he believed would be long gone by the time he graduated from Harvard. However, he promised us that he would go back to Harvard later to get his degree.

"Later" finally arrived on June 7, 2007, the day Harvard awarded Trey an honorary doctor of laws degree. I traveled to Cambridge with him and Melinda to watch him collect his honors and deliver Harvard's commencement address.

After the appropriate acknowledgments, Trey told the audience, "I've been waiting more than 30 years to say this." Then he looked out into the audience, directly at me, and said, "Dad, I always told you I'd come back and get my degree."

Perhaps there's a lesson in this for the parents of other curious children who, from the start, require the freedom to meet life on their own terms: It is that there is no statute of limitations on the dreams you have for your children. And there is no way to predict how much delight you might feel when those dreams are realized in a far different way than you could have imagined.

Adapted from Showing Up For Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime Copyright © 2009 by William H. Gates and Mary Ann Macklin. Published by Broadway Business, a division of Random House, Inc. To top of page

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