TEXCOCO, Mexico -- Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is famed for his philanthropy. Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican tycoon, is not. This week, they stood together at a research center here, drawing attention to their different approaches to giving their wealth away.
Gates believes in philanthropy as gospel and urges the rich to donate much of their fortunes. Slim has been called a philanthro-skeptic. He is wary of charity.
Despite those views, they have much in common, including mind-boggling wealth. Slim has a net worth that Bloomberg Markets magazine estimated late last year at $77.5 billion, making him the world’s wealthiest man. Gates’ riches trail only slightly at $64.4 billion.
They also share a history of relentless – even predatory – business practices that helped them amass their fortunes.
But Gates has seen his image morph since the late 1990s by committing assets of $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which targets problems of disease and hunger that afflict the world’s poorest. As frequently as not, he’s on a jet to Africa or Asia bringing attention to humanitarian issues.
A little more than a decade ago, recalled Michael Layton, director of the philanthropy and civil society project at the Autonomous Institute of Technology of Mexico, “There were still mean-spirited jokes about Gates, and Microsoft was being challenged in the courts over its monopolistic practices.”
“Now, you see a magazine cover with the question, ‘Can Bill Gates save the world?’”
Slim, 73, lives in a nation with little tradition of philanthropic giving. Slowly, he’s overcoming a reluctance to donate money, but he still voices doubts about whether giving simply breeds dependency.
“We have seen donations for 100 years,” the telecommunications tycoon told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in September. “We have seen thousands of people working in nonprofits, and the problems and poverty are bigger. They have not solved anything.”
When he does give, Slim funds environmental, health and educational programs, but he avoids projects to strengthen democracy or civic participation.
“For many years, he said, ‘I think the most important thing I can do with my money is create jobs,’” said Joel L. Fleishman, a Duke University law professor and author of “The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World.”
Slim, who owns Mexico’s primary fixed line and cellphone networks, is far from uncharitable. He’s financed his Carlos Slim Foundation and the separate Telmex Foundation to the tune of some $5 billion. He recently built a museum in Mexico City to house his $100 million collection of art by Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dali and others. Entry is free.
Among his other endeavors are programs to post bail for first-time offenders, provide access to broadband for hundreds of thousands of students, and pay for research into genetic factors that may lead to cancer and diabetes.
On two occasions since 2010, Slim has partnered in projects with Gates.
What brought the mega-titans together in Texcoco, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, was their support for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a research station that half a century ago was at the heart of the global “green revolution” that saved an estimated 1 billion lives from starvation.