What would you be doing an hour before a conversation with the second richest person in the world?
Jennifer Tang and Jarrel Seah sip hot chocolates at a Seattle-area Starbucks. They’re 22, a little jet-lagged from an overseas flight, and about as ready for this as they’re going to be.
It’s the Australian medical students’ second time in a Starbucks — ever — and their first in the United States since Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi and Reddit general manager Erik Martin announced to a crowd of thousands in June that Eyenaemia, their app that lets anyone screen themselves for anemia by taking a picture of their eye, won Microsoft’s Imagine Cup global student technology competition.
Their prize: $50,000, a week of startup incubation at Microsoft, and, for the first time in the contest’s 12 year history, this.
“I still can’t quite believe in 30 minutes we’ll be going in,” Jennifer says in her Aussie accent. Had she ordered coffee, she explains, her hands would be shaking.
Soon it’s time to get up, smooth their black suit jackets and visit the private offices of Bill Gates.
Gates has “interesting quirks,” Jennifer and Jarrel had been told. Expect anything.
So the night before the meeting, after feasting on juicy pork dumplings at Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung, they sat in the Bellevue Hyatt and imagined how the world’s most prominent philanthropist could stump them.
How much did he just give to fight ebola? $50 million.
What are the three most prominent types of toilets? Let’s look that up.
What they really want to talk about is their app, and that won’t be a problem. Their presentation, demo and road map gave Eyenaemia the edge over 34 teams from 34 countries at the Imagine Cup finals.
I helped judge the contest last year and trust me — that’s tough.
On the way to Gates’ office, Jennifer and Jarrel tell me about the cars in Singapore, how far Australian cities are from each other and what it’s like to be medical residents at a small rural hospital north of Melbourne. It was there, treating Australia’s aboriginal population, that they decided to invent a non-invasive way to detect a dangerous condition that affects 2 billion people.
Everything’s been a blur since the Imagine Cup win. TV interviews, business meetings, new leads on how to bring Eyenaemia to the world.
They’d have 20 minutes with Bill Gates, and they weren’t going to waste them.
“He’s the one person who could help us the most,” Jarrel said.
When Jarrel told his mother who he’d be meeting today, she gave him one piece of advice: “If Bill tells you to get out of medical school,” she said, “say no.”
“OK, positions, everybody. We’re getting close.”
If I had to guess, I’d say this was the office library. Books tastefully arranged on shelves. White orchids on a polished wood table. A pristine fireplace.
Jennifer and Jarrel are out of makeup and standing just where the director said they should the moment Bill Gates would walk into the room from the far corner, shake their hands, and begin the conversation.
This meeting is being recorded for Bill Gates’ blog, gatesnotes.com, and there’ll be no time for do-overs.
More movement. Talking. Scrambling.
If either of them could forget the kind of person they were about to meet, this busy film crew, sharply dressed personal staff and bright, seeming endless office would remind them.
“Here we go, guys.”
Jennifer swallowed and straightened her skirt.
Then he walked in.
“Hi. Welcome. Great to meet you. Congratulations.”
The next step
Gates got right down to business. He knew the app and challenged Jarrel and Jennifer on its technology and its path to accessibility.
He leaned on the table, one hand on its surface, interjected with questions or thoughtful affirmations — “Sure, sure”—- and managed to make a surreal, entourage encounter feel like a meeting between a professor and his two best advisees.
Whenever he promised to reach out to someone on their behalf — “I think it’s impressive, and I’ll get some people talking to you about the next step” — my heart leapt for them.
They, meanwhile, were the picture of professional restraint.
No big deal. It’s just Bill Gates. Saying he’ll help.
Then time was up, the cameras stopped rolling, and as quickly as he’d appeared, Bill Gates was gone.
Back outside, Jennifer and Jarrel were beaming.
“I tried so hard not to smile too much,” Jennifer said.
Next, they got ready to head to Microsoft to begin their weeklong incubation and prep for the YouthSpark boot camp. Eyenaemia is being tested in a couple hospitals in Melbourne. They want to take it to more rural populations there.
And then, with a little help from their latest contact, everywhere else.
Note: Microsoft invited me to listen in on Jennifer and Jarrel’s Sept. 12 meeting with Bill Gates based on my experience as a judge for the 2013 Imagine Cup finals in St. Petersburg, Russia. Microsoft paid for my travel to that competition.