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It all started when two billionaires went to jail.

Bill and Melinda Gates visited a Georgia state prison a few years back to try and understand why so many people from poor areas end up in jail. Most of the inmates they met had a similar story for how they got there: a tough encounter followed by a bad decision.

“Every day, there are young men across the country finding themselves in similar situations — high-stakes interactions that could turn violent or deadly,” Melinda Gates writes in the couple’s annual letter for the Gates Foundation, published Tuesday morning. That got them curious about interventions that would help improve self-control.

A.J. Watson, national director of Becoming a Man. (BAM photo)

The search brought Bill and Melinda Gates to Becoming A Man, or BAM, a counseling and mentoring program for young men run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance in Chicago and Boston. Bill Gates sat in on a session with a group of young black men from Chicago last year and listened to them talk about anger. Some had small gripes, others large, like watching a family member go to jail.

“These groups, by sitting and talking with these boys about the paths that are available to them, help them have a sense of support, somebody who’s celebrating when they’re doing well, somebody who can help out when they’re not. It looks like something that should really be scaled up,” Bill Gates told GeekWire in an interview.

On the surface, a billionaire might not have much in common with a group of young men from low-income, single-parent homes. But Gates, 63, said he related to the feelings of anger.

When it was my turn, my answer was not like everyone else’s. I talked about getting mad at a meeting where I learned that the number of polio cases was going up. I am lucky to be able to worry about problems like that. The things that troubled the young men in the circle that day were a lot closer to home. Polio was hardly on their list of top concerns, and I understand why.

But even though the circumstances were very different, learning to deal with your anger was something we all related to. It’s an important life skill, part of becoming a mature adult. Growing up, if I thought my parents were being unfair, I could be pretty harsh with them. When I was at Microsoft, I was tough on people I worked with. Some of it helped us be successful, but I’m sure some of it was over the top.

So it was inspiring to see these young men in such tough circumstances working on this skill much earlier than I did. They were deeply engaged in the conversation, asking each other thoughtful follow-up questions. They were facing big challenges with incredible resilience.

Traditionally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. efforts have targeted education. But they weren’t seeing educational metrics move the way they had hoped, which led them to look more closely at poverty.

“There’s a pretty strong body of evidence that focusing on emotional skills actually improves academic outcomes,” said A.J. Watson, national director of BAM. Students who participate in BAM graduate on time at a rate that is 19 percent higher than peers who aren’t in a program.

The program aims to expand to 5 cities and work with 10,000 young men by 2021. A sister organization called Working on Womanhood, or WOW, runs counseling groups for young women using a similar approach.

Watson, who attended the session with Gates, said that the young men were able to “speak their truth” and remain vulnerable in Gates’ presence.

“I was super impressed with how engaged the boys were. It definitely made me feel like this type of intervention is very, very important,” Gates said.

Watch the video at top to hear Bill Gates discuss the experience in a recent interview with GeekWire, and listen to our full conversation in the podcast below. 

Photo Credit: Gates Foundation.

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