Commentary: Brother billionaires
Two mega-billionaires are better than one.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (left) and Mexican billionaire and telecom tycoon Carlos Slim: Tag teaming agricultural productivity. That could have been the headline for an historic news conference earlier this week at the launch of Mexico’s new International Center for Improvement of Corn and Wheat in the city of Texcoco, about 15 miles north of Mexico City. Interestingly, Texcoco was formerly an ancient Aztec stronghold where some of the earliest varieties of maize were first cultivated.
The two men in question are Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carlos Slim, a Mexican tycoon, chairman of telecom giant Telmex, the richest man on the planet according to Forbes—with a net worth of nearly $70 billion (versus “only” $61 billion for Gates)—and founder of his own eponymous charity, Fundacion Carlos Slim.
Slim, though hardly a household name in the United States, has a remarkable track record. Unlike Gates, who rode a world-changing wave of software innovation, Slim amassed his fortune the old-fashioned way: One multi-million dollar takeover at a time. Through shrewd and aggressive investments in communications, technology, retailing and finance, he now controls or has a major stake in more than 200 companies employing nearly a quarter-million people.
As a philanthropist, Slim may also be the only person on Earth to equal Bill Gates’ impact. Through his foundation, he has put some 165,000 young people through college, provided bricks and mortar, equipment and staffing for hundreds of rural schools and has invested a reported $10 billion in his Carso Institute for Health, which is focused on improving health care services for Mexico’s neediest people.
Remarkable resumes aside, the news value of Gates and Slim teaming up, however, is that the pair intend to fund new seed and crop breeding research to sustainably increase global production of corn and wheat. That may sound overly ambitious, but what would the reaction have been back in the 1970s had Gates announced publicly that he intended to revolutionize the way information is handled around the world?
It would be a mistake to underestimate the eventual impact of the pair’s investment in the Mexican research center—which, incidentally, was one of the primary institutions responsible for the crop yield improvements collectively called the Green Revolution. Over the years, researchers there used the center’s extensive array of native corn and wheat genes from around the world to cross-breed low-cost, improved varieties that could tolerate harsh growing conditions, such as drought.