Right after Melinda and I spoke at Stanford’s graduation, I took off for a quick trip to Beijing. As is often the case when I come to China, I packed a lot into two days. I left town excited about the partnerships we’re developing between the foundation and the Chinese government and enthused about technology I got to see under development.
One of the things I’m proudest of from my time at Microsoft is the creation and growth of Microsoft Research (MSR). Microsoft came to China very early and was one of the first multinational companies to set up a dedicated research group here. As a result, we were able to recruit amazing talent; while I’m certainly biased, I think MSR-Asia holds a nearly unique place in China and continues to attract fantastic computer scientists. I spent a couple of hours looking at work they’re doing on search linguistics, photo recognition, and data center management. All breakthrough work, and all of it potentially very important to Microsoft’s future. Not all of it will end up being included in products, but all of it was fascinating.
While I was there, I got to spend some time at a tech incubator program that MSR-Asia hosts for promising young Chinese entrepreneurs. Each six-month session brings in 15 to 20 startups and provides them space, mentors, technology tools, an introduction to potential sources of venture capital, and the chance to connect with potential partners. It’s a wildly popular program in China and has to turn away 25 applicants for each one accepted. After two years, 90 percent of the companies have been funded.
The energy was contagious and I got to see some really interesting projects dealing with everything from peer-to-peer lending to job-finding solutions for China’s enormous migrant population to 3-D rendering from normal video camera images. I was impressed with these young entrepreneurs’ desire to make a real difference for people in China.
In the afternoon I got the chance to sit down with Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who recently made a very generous commitment along with his business partner, Joe Tsai, to establish charitable trusts. Those commitments set a benchmark in Chinese philanthropy. Jack has long been an advocate for giving in China, so I was really pleased that he came to Beijing so we could get some time together. Jack brought together a good group of business and philanthropy leaders for dinner, and it was terrific to talk about philanthropy in China and around the world.
One of the government officials I met with while in town, Vice Premier Wang Yang, said something that I was struck by: “Africa today is our yesterday.” China’s ability to raise hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the course of two generations is unprecedented in human history. And the country continues to work on raising the standard of living of its own poor. But these efforts are recent enough that China has the expertise and experience to be of tremendous assistance to places like Africa. Work with their small-holder farmers can translate into big advances for small African farmers. China’s experience with delivering basic health care across its vast territory is a remarkable resource as we look to doing the same for many African countries.
A great two days. I started the week with Melinda talking about the power of optimism at Stanford, and then witnessed the same here in China. And left more optimistic myself.