Bill Gates, co-Chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivers a speech during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, No. 9, 2018.

Bill Gates, co-Chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivers a speech during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, No. 9, 2018. (Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS)

Last year, Bill Gates sat down with a group of teenage boys in Chicago and learned a little about processing anger.

He was at Al Raby High School in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, where he participated in a session in the Becoming a Man program. Launched in Chicago in 2001, the program helps young men explore their emotions and work on their decision-making skills. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has worked on teacher training and improving curriculum, but that kind of work - the kind that helps kids with their self-image and how to handle their stresses - is new to the foundation.

Bill and Melinda Gates released their annual newsletter Tuesday, discussing discoveries that have surprised them. Whether it's understanding the power of DNA testing kits, the sexist nature of data, or how much young men can teach a billionaire about his feelings, surprises have the ability to spur action, Melinda Gates told the Tribune.

"The world is getting better," she said. "Innovations are changing the world and can continue to change the world if deployed properly and with good input from local communities."

The couple discussed the annual letter in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Bill, what were you expecting when you walked into that Becoming a Man meeting?

Bill: I was there and wasn't sure what to expect and it kind of blew me away. It just happened everybody in the group was a black male who came from a single-parent household, and the counselor had that same background and was really amazing. It's an intense thing, to build up the idea of 'Do these kids see themselves as doing well in school? What narrative do they run into?'

Question: What impact did you notice?

Bill: For a lot of these kids, the chance they'll end up in jail is higher than the chance they'll end up graduating from college. So starting in about eighth or ninth grade, to get them to think about themselves and think of the benefits of the positive path, any intervention that can do that is pretty important not only for them but for society.

Melinda: When Bill came home and described this program to me, his voice was cracking up. He saw the difference it made in these kids' lives.

Question: Did the students know who you were?

Bill: A few did. A few were excited. There was one who had a conflict, so he came in at the end and said, 'Hey, I have got to get a selfie with you.' But when we went into the session and I was just an equal participant from sharing my experience, there was none of that. But at the end, when they got to take photos, it turned out one of them had an Xbox and they were friendly and energetic. I think some of the others were like, 'What? Who?'

Melinda: Often when we go into these schools, there might be a buzz or some excitement at the beginning or the end, but you'd be amazed how much the kids are the ones who will really tell you what's going on in the building. (They) drop the pretenses and get right into the real discussion.

Question: You talk in your letter about how mobile phones can be the most powerful in the hands of the world's poorest women. Do they hold that kind of power with women in U.S. cities, too?

Melinda: We look at that issue much more across the developing world. Globally, 40 percent of women don't even reach the internet, and we know the difference internet makes in all of our lives just in terms of information. The piece the foundation really focuses on is the digital bank account. Basically, she doesn't have the means to get up and go to a bank. And even if she does, somebody will steal her money along the way and she's not welcomed when she gets there. When she has her own phone and she has a digital bank account, and she can save a dollar a day, two dollars a day, it changes everything.

Question: The letter also discussed how data can be sexist, mostly because women are often left out. How wide-reaching are the implications of that oversight?

Melinda: Bill and I have to go back to when we got started in philanthropy work. We were shocked how little data there was. We kept thinking, well if we're going to invest another thousand dollars in something or ask another government to invest money, we couldn't do that unless we had data to know that our investments were actually making a difference. We've been quite involved in helping build data systems. When we got involved deeply in the contraceptive work in 2012, it was just shocking to see that there was absolutely no data that existed to really track contraceptives for women, country by country, to see whether they had access. We started to realize that there are just enormous gaps in data where we collect data about a man but we don't collect it about a woman.

Question: What can companies and organizations here in the U.S. learn from that?

Melinda: People sometimes don't question the data. We weren't saying a decade ago 'Have these medicines been tried for both men and women equally?' Yet we know now a female has a different metabolic system than a man, so we need to be asking the questions.

Question: The foundation helped fund a study that looked at samples submitted mainly by 23andMe users that found a potential link between a nutrient deficiency in mothers and premature birth. But how can people reconcile their concerns over DNA testing kits - like privacy issues or finding out a predisposition they might not want to know about - to unlock their potential?

Bill: With all these tests, some people choose to see the data and some people don't. The example we're giving is not about individual kits, but rather about seeing a strong correlation that your risk of premature delivery is greatly influenced by a set of genes that have to do with processing selenium. Understanding these correlations, there are huge benefits there. Seeing things like where drugs have side effects or which populations they work for and don't work for, you ought to be able to get that benefit without giving up privacy or (hearing) things people don't want to hear.

amarotti@chicagotribune.com

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