Bill Gives Big

3 minute read
Elaine Rivera

The high-tech industry that’s making people rich and fueling America’s great economic surge is often criticized for the low numbers of minorities in its booming work force. All told, African Americans constitute only 7.2% of the nation’s computer scientists; Hispanics, only 3.6%. Part of the reason, as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates can tell you, is that there are too few minorities with the education to fill those jobs. Gates and his wife Melinda addressed that problem last week, when they announced that their foundation will make the largest academic donation ever: $1 billion, which will be distributed over the next 20 years to pay the full tab each year for about 1,000 black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian students seeking degrees in engineering, mathematics, science and education.

“It’s clearly the largest gift of its type,” says William Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund, which along with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian College Fund will help distribute the largesse.

To qualify for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, applicants must maintain a 3.3 grade-point average, write a 500-word essay explaining their career goals and demonstrate economic need. Once selected, students will receive annual funding through graduate school as long as they maintain a cumulative 3.0 grade-point average.

Gates and his wife decided to launch the program after Gray took them on a tour of schools and libraries in Alabama. “They saw the needs facing minority students,” says Patty Stonesifer, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “The No. 1 issue time and time again was cost.”

Black and Hispanic leaders acknowledge that the Gates billion is a big step that will address racial inequities in the math and sciences, but they say more has to be done to prepare students before they even apply. Too few minority high-school kids take science prerequisites, such as calculus and trigonometry, that colleges look for in applicants. Stonesifer does not disagree. “This certainly is not going to close the gap and solve all the problems,” she admits, “but it will have a direct impact on 20,000 students.”

Three years ago, Gates, the richest man in the world with a net worth of $90 billion, was chided by Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner and others for not giving away enough of his money. Since then, the Gates Foundation has pledged $4 billion to various causes.

It has not gone unnoticed that Gates’ spate of generosity coincides with the government’s antitrust trial against Microsoft, which has not gone well for his company. But by encouraging a more diverse flow of talent into the high-tech workforce, Gates will be helping all tech companies, including Microsoft.

–By Elaine Rivera

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