Harnessing innovation for social change

When technology leaders get together, they can create a powerful force for change. But translating good intentions into real results can be challenging. How can innovation help power philanthropy?

That was one question tackled by Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, now co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, during a public discussion this week in Tokyo. The two chatted at a forum held at The Asahi Shimbun newspaper’s headquarters. About 500 people took part, including entrepreneurs, activists and junior high school students from Fukushima Prefecture.

Hiroshi Mikitani and Bill Gates take to the stage at Asahi Shimbun's "Philanthropy x Innovation" event
Hiroshi Mikitani and Bill Gates take to the stage at Asahi Shimbun’s “Philanthropy x Innovation” event

Meeting for the first time, the two spoke about how they became interested in philanthropy. For Mikitani, the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated the Kobe region of Japan sparked a desire to be a force for positive change through the 1997 founding of Rakuten. The success of the company put Mikitani in the position to help others.

Earlier this year, Mikitani and Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff announced they would each donate about 500 million yen to Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) and the Gladstone Institutes. The CiRA is led by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered that mature cells can be transformed into stem cells, a finding that has tremendous potential for healthcare.

For Gates, it was his travels around the world, particularly in Africa, that made him aware of how some things that people may take for granted, such as medicine, electricity and clean water, are in very short supply for billions. His foundation now focuses on tackling the infectious diseases plaguing some of the world’s poorest. One example is the Pneumonia Diagnostics Project, a program to test the use of handheld electronic devices in the field to help detect pneumonia in young children at an early stage, which could save their lives.

“We cannot bring our money to heaven, but we want to use it very effectively.” Hiroshi Mikitani

The Internet is one way that people in developed nations can begin to learn and care about the struggles of those halfway around the world, Gates said, adding that virtual reality could give people a sense of what life in a refugee camp is like.

Gates compared the huge social impact that technology companies can have based on relatively small investments to philanthropic efforts such as the battle to eradicate polio. After a decades-long battle to vaccinate children, transmission of the disease has been stopped in all but two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization.

“For me and for Japanese people, it’s very difficult to understand the difference between philanthropy and charitable donation,” Mikitani said, mentioning the need to harness entrepreneurship for social good versus just giving money.

“It’s very similar to the work I did at Microsoft – I get to find scientists and get behind them,” Gates said about his current job. “The goal is more of a social goal than selling software, but I feel like the Microsoft period prepared me very well for the new career I have.”

“For me, what’s important is bringing in business and management skills and entrepreneurship for social good,” Mikitani said. He invited Gates to help work with the Japanese government to build a philanthropic platform for entrepreneurs.

“We cannot bring our money to heaven,” Mikitani added. “But we want to use it very effectively.”

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