Old Friends, Warren Buffett ’51 and Bill Gates Speak with Students at Columbia

A conversation at Columbia between two iconic public figures — billionaire investor Warren Buffett ’51 and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, with PBS and Bloomberg TV host Charlie Rose moderating — was both broad-ranging and personal.

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Warren Buffett ’51 and Bill Gates met in 1991 and have been close friends ever since, sharing, they say, an almost insatiable curiosity about anything and everything.

“We find the world such an interesting place, we like to compare notes on it, and when we compare notes on it, we have a lot of fun,” Buffett told an audience of more than 300 people, mostly students from across the University, who gathered in Lerner Hall Friday afternoon to hear Buffett and Gates talk about their friendship, their commitment to philanthropy, and their take on the current political climate. The talk was moderated by PBS and Bloomberg TV host Charlie Rose.

A question from the audience about life-changing books led Buffett, who still spends between five and six hours a day reading, to talk about his finance professor Benjamin Graham who, along with David Dodd ’21, developed the idea of value investing. He recalled going to the Columbia library — “I lived there, practically” — reading a short piece about Graham, and wanting to know more. “That changed my whole life,” says Buffett, who went on to model his own investing strategies on Graham and Dodd’s principles. “We own Geico now because of a librarian directing me to some other book, and then following through on that.” 

An audience question about the turbulent political climate led both Buffett and Gates to declare themselves optimists. “American innovation is strong, and support for research is by and large bipartisan,” said Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation concentrates much of its work on eradicating disease in developing countries. When pressed about concerns, though, Gates added that he feared the new administration could cut foreign aid. “If people draw inward too much, we will hurt progress, and there will be millions of lives lost because of it.”

Buffett pointed to Gates’s efforts to eradicate polio as one of many signs that progress continues. There were only about 50 polio cases worldwide last year, prompting the 86-year-old Buffett to say, “There were more than 50 [polio] cases in the ward where I went when I was a teenager to see my sister’s friend.” He also added, “I bought my first stock in April 1942 — the Dow was 100…. [Now] it’s 20,000. Something good must have happened in between, and it’s going to keep happening.” 

But with this progress comes change, which often results in a shifting job landscape. One audience member asked how to address the issue of jobs being eliminated due to automation. “Everything should be devoted initially to getting greater productivity,” said Buffett. “But people who fall by the wayside through no fault of their own… if the goose lays more golden eggs…should still get a chance to participate in that prosperity, and that’s where government comes in.” 

WATCH: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at Columbia University on Jan. 27, 2017.

A Columbia Business School student asked both Gates and Buffett what types of businesses they would start if they were to start new businesses now. Saying he would pursue exactly the same career path, Buffett said, “I advise students… look for the job that you would take if you didn’t need a job.”

Gates said that he might still choose computer science since he is especially drawn to artificial intelligence. He also said that working on how to provide energy that is cheap, reliable, and clean, or working in the biological sciences would be “phenomenal.”

“It’s the most thrilling time. We are going to figure out obesity, cancer, even things that are very hard, like depression.”

Both Gates and Buffett are also deeply involved in philanthropic efforts. Among other things, Buffett has already donated considerably to the Gates Foundation, and the two together created the Giving Pledge, asking the world’s wealthiest people to dedicate most of their wealth to philanthropy. Buffett says that despite criticism that he should focus efforts in the US, he remains committed to philanthropy in developing countries. “If you have a limited number of dollars you can do more for people outside the United States,” he said. “My own personal thought is that every life is of equal value.”

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