Francisco Noguera

Live @ TEDxChange: Melinda Gates on Learning from Others and Her Vision of Happiness

I was in Washington this weekend, walking streets and visiting friends I hadn’t seen since I departed for New York a couple of months back. I was happy to revisit some of the places and rituals I cherished, including my favorite park, my coffee shop of choice and the church I’d go to whenever I happened to be in town on a Sunday. Aside from being a beautiful and peaceful place, my church in DC had the privilege of offering the thoughtful, insightful and practical omilies I have memory of.

Yesterday was no exception. With impeccable oratory, father Greenfield decoded the day’s readings, broke them into pieces and left the audience with the following conclusion to reflect on during the week. I’ll paraphrase: “Look around you, and have a keen eye for the tactics of others, especially those whose goal or mission you don’t share. Ask yourself how you can learn from them, especially how their tools and their tactics you can repurpose in service of a greater, more noble purpose of serving others.“

His words stuck with me. I thought about them and took some notes as I rode the bus back to New York last night. It was late and I knew I had to wake up early the next morning to attend TEDxChange, so I was prepare some questions in the event I had a chance to ask them. Nothing allowed me to even suspect that the talk of Melinda French Gates would reinforce the exact same message brought about at church just a few hours before.

I listened to Mrs. Gates briefly before she took the stage at TEDxChange, as she shared a few thoughts with bloggers and journalists covering the event. Her tone was strong and optimistic; she made it clear that her talk would focus on what is working, and how progress is taking place, not the other way around. Her talk, which followed Hans Rosling’s data-rich prelude, started in the exact same tone: strong and positive. It set the tone by releasing additional data: 1.3 billion people have lifted themselves out of poverty in the last 20 years; we can make it; there’s hope.

After this introduction her talk then turned to less quantitative observations of the traits that we all share as human beings, which she has drawn from numerous visits and conversations with communities whose incomes range from very low, to very, very high. “Rich or poor, we all share the basic aspiration of seeing our children grow up healthy, live a life of meaning and achieve their potential through a good education”. Her words reminded me of the great speech by John F. Kennedy, in which he made similar remarks while advocating for a peaceful resolution to a grave potential conflict. “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

She spoke about poverty, inequality and yet another thing she sees everywhere she goes, on top of the aspirations mentioned above: Coca Cola. No matter how remote the village or what language is spoken there, a bottle of Coke is sure to be found. Taking this anecdote as starting point, she built the central argument of her TEDxChange talk: governments and development organizations must learn from the best innovators in all sectors, for example the innovations that allow enterprises to make their products and services ubiquitous. They must see what works and adapt their good practices to pursuing the goals of development and poverty alleviation.

I’m sure you have a hint of the direction the rest of the talk took. She analyzed the case of Coca-Cola in detail, and extracted three best practices that have allowed the company to build a global, massive footprint: Real-time data, close work with local entrepreneurs, and smart localized marketing to tap into aspiration of local communities. Her insights into each of these and the parallels she drew with the development sector are quite interesting. (Note: I had written three full paragraphs going into each element. However, the talk is already available online so I thought you’d rather watch it than read a summary. Long gone are the days when blogs were your sneek peak at the conference before the talks were made available!)

Her talk concluded with a beautiful, touching closing in which she shared her personal vision of happiness. “This is my vision of happiness”, she said making reference to Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness” tagline. Showing the picture of a mother peacefully holding her baby in the arms, Mrs. Gates said “if we listen to and learn from innovators in every field, I’m positive we can make happiness as widespread as Coca-Cola itself.

I believe we can, and left the room inspired and eager to be a part of the solution. As I listened to her speech I couldn’t help thinking that the kind of leadership she embodies has the potential to radically change our world. Philanthropy has done it before; I’ve been reading lately about the pivotal role of Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in turing agriculture on its head through the “green revolution” years ago.

Will Gates make similar breakthroughs in global health and other areas of development? Will their investments become triggers of massive replication of social innovations around the world? We’ll see. What I know for sure is that the Millenium Development Goals made more sense and seemed more achievale after this morning. I also know think it’s heartening to see the world’s largest private foundation wishing to learn from what others do best so delibertely, like was suggested by the priest in my church this past Sunday. Having this open attitude is a positive sign in and of itself, but is particularly promising in times like these, when learning from the best is easier than ever before.

To shed more light on this last idea, make sure to catch the recent, very inspiring talk of Mrs. Gates’s host this morning, Chris Anderson.