Pop quiz: Is Bill Gates a) the savior of American public education or b) a cloistered billionaire who should stick to something simple like eradicating polio? Both views have proponents. There’s Malcolm Gladwell’s hero’s tale in his book Outliers about the young Gates spending “10,000 hours” in computer labs honing the skills that would spawn one of the world’s most important technology companies. And there’s the counterpart: the standardized-test obsessive, the avatar of school privatization, the sworn enemy of teachers’ unions. “We’ve gone far down the track of Bill Gates deciding how our children are going to be treated and educated,” says Leonie Haimson, a parent-activist with the group Class Size Matters. “Parental rights are going to be meaningless because the richest and most powerful man in America is going to decide what is best for us.”
Both notions are caricatures. When Fast Company sat down with Gates recently for an exclusive conversation, a more nuanced, portrait emerges. Gates is endearingly wonky–during a keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference, in March, he expressed his big goal for education in graph form–but his passion softens his technocratic impulses. Reserved at the start of our interview, he quickly warms up, bouncing one foot crossed over his knee and cracking a slight smile when he gets in a zinger.