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Catalyst | Jeff Raikes, CEO, Gates Foundation and Co-founder, Raikes Foundation

Catalyst | Jeff Raikes, CEO, Gates Foundation and Co-founder, Raikes Foundation

Posting in Education | From Issue 10 February 10, 2014

After working closely with Bill Gates for more than 30 years, the longtime Microsoft insider redirects his energy into youth advocacy, international agriculture and his first love, the family farm.

Question: What high-profile, yet low-key CEO worked briefly for the late Steve Jobs and then defected to Bill Gates after taking a detour from his intended career in U.S. agricultural policy? 

Answer: The same long-time Microsoft insider, Jeff Raikes, who was the catalyst for the creation of the lucrative Office software franchise and whose name briefly was high on the wish list to fill the CEO post, until he squashed that speculation quickly last fall.

Speaking from one of his Seattle offices last month, Raikes vividly recalls his Nov. 1, 1981 conversation with Jobs the day he resigned his post after 15 months as engineering manager for Apple’s VisiCalc spreadsheet. He landed that position at Apple after a “practice interview” during his last year at Stanford University. Bitten by the software bug, Raikes was jazzed about the opportunity Gates offered to focus on developing applications that he actually would be interested in using himself.

“The thing I remember most from that phone call was how Steve so eloquently described to me how Microsoft was going to go out of business,” Raikes, now 55, remembers. “At this point, I’m 23 years old, and I’m like, 'Yeah, maybe, maybe not. And, so what? If Microsoft goes out of business, I can always go back to the farm.’”

While it has been five years since Raikes left his penultimate Microsoft post as president of the Microsoft business division, Bill Gates is still his boss – as he has been for more than 32 years – at least until May 1. That’s when Raikes will leave his post as CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to focus more attention on his own grant interests through the Raikes Foundation, an organization Raikes started 10 years ago with his wife, Tricia, that is dedicated to youth advocacy and empowerment through education.

“We’ve distributed roughly $43 million in grants, including $22 million in Washington state,” Raikes estimates. “We’ve added more in the way of horsepower. Tricia and I are planning that we will probably double or triple the foundation during the next five to seven years.” That vision will see the couple, who met at Microsoft just like the Gates’, travel together more frequently to see their work in action across the United States.

But that won’t be the only philanthropic interest vying for time on Jeff Raikes’ schedule. The Nebraska native intends to devote a significant amount of his energy to international agricultural issues, in particular the burgeoning global water crisis, through his ongoing work on the boards of the University of Nebraska’s Water for Food Institute and The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

“I am a person who believes that one of the most significant global issues that we face over the next 50 years is water for food,” Raikes says with conviction. “Almost 70 to 75 percent of human consumption of water is through agriculture, and we’re trying to feed a lot more people. We'll need to grow in this 50 years – in this half of the century – probably 100 percent more food on probably the same amount of land and likely with less water, with different water distribution because of climate change.”

Raikes’ credibility as a spokesman on agricultural issue is innate as well as ongoing. Raised in Ashland, Neb., a farming community that is now home to about 2,400 people, his work ethic was shaped by long hours of work in his family’s soy and corn fields and cattle pastures, a pattern that continued through his university years. (Thus his fateful practice interview: Raikes eschewed internships during college, returning to Nebraska every summer.) Some of his most memorable trips with the Gates Foundation have been to farming communities in Africa, where his perspective has galvanized action.

“I’m very passionate about agriculture and agricultural productivity and how that can be transformative,” he explains. “It was transformative for me and my family. My dad took over our family farm in 1932, right in the midst of the Depression. He turned it into a great farm and a great farming business, and that allowed my mom and dad’s five kids to have great access to education, and that is the same thing that I see in the developing world. When farmers have more productivity and a little income, then they figure out how to invest in the education of their children.”

Raikes regularly draws on his roots for a sanity check, and he openly relishes the corniness of that image. While he was at Microsoft, his coloring, spectacles and ready grin were the foundation for myriad Bill Gates doppelganger theories and jokes. At a local press club roast in Omaha two years ago, the guest of honor proudly admitted to teaching all three of his children the Cornhusker State song before the age of 5. He’s also a passionate baseball fan: in 1992, Raikes became a minority investor in the Seattle Mariners, mainly to keep the baseball franchise in town.

Right after he started with the Gates Foundation in May 2008, the new CEO was abruptly pulled back into closer management of the family’s 5,000-acre operation when his older brother, Ron, was killed in a tragic farming accident. While he was at Stanford, Raikes’ interest in studying technology was directly related to his desire to learn skills that could help run the family farm more efficiently. Still, he had a tough act to follow as “chairman” of the operation. His father Ralph’s influence on national agriculture policy was recognized by President Carter when he was appointed to the Farm Credit Administration. His late brother was an intellectual: a former professor of agricultural economics at Iowa State and a former Nebraska state senator who transformed local educational policy.

“As somebody who was 15 years older than me, and somebody I really looked up to, he was just a fantastic role model and mentor for me,” Raikes relates, recalling total strangers who have approached him to chat about his brother’s legacy. “Really a second father, if you will.”

Raikes’ announced retirement last fall shouldn’t really come as a surprise: he long ago set an end-date for his commitment to the Gates Foundation. “Bill and Melinda asked me to come in here for at least five years to really build this organization for the next phase,” he explains. “A big part of my responsibility was to leverage my expertise from Microsoft to build the capacity to be able to deliver on the mission.”

Although much is sometimes made of the differences between running a non-profit organization versus a for-profit company, Raikes’ approach to the CEO role – whether it’s an agricultural operation, business division or an NGO – centers on the seven management priorities he shaped during his years at Microsoft. He rattles them off, rapid-fire:

  1. The strength of the leadership team
  2. The quality of the strategy
  3. The employee environment
  4. The relationships we have with our partners or grantees
  5. The discipline of our operating model
  6. The way in which we use actionable measurement to drive continuous improvement
  7. The way in which we use our voice and reputation to shine a spotlight on the issues and what works and what doesn’t work

Certainly, he leaves his successor – former University of California, San Francisco Chancellor and oncologist Susan Desmond-Hellmann (also a director at Facebook and Procter and Gamble) – with fertile soil for continuing the foundation’s legacy of groundbreaking humanitarianism.

Commenting on Raikes’ legacy, trustee Warren Buffett notes in a statement issued by the Gates Foundation upon his retirement: “Jeff took exactly the right approach to managing the foundation. He encouraged bold thinking and risk taking, and encouraged people to learn not just from what worked, but also what didn’t. It’s what I expected from him, and he delivered.” 

Caption for the image with this profile: Bisrat Retu, Technical Expert for ATA (Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency), gives explanation to Jeff Raikes, CEO of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at a farmer’s training center in Ethiopia.

Photo Credit: @Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Jiro Ose

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure