A Voice for Women by Steffi Kammerer | 8th March, 2019 | Personalities
Melinda Gates is the world’s most powerful advocate for women and girls. She is also a devout Catholic who has raised the ire of the Vatican, a mother of three and a hands-on helper. The power woman of philanthropy spends mind-boggling sums helping people in need – but only after analyzing the data and asking lots and lots of questions. Often in the farthest corners of the world.
She made the decision of a lifetime at the age of 23. Melinda French had just received a job offer from the information technology giant IBM in Dallas and could have stayed in Texas where she grew up. Instead, the young computer scientist took a risk and joined Microsoft, an ambitious young company on the West Coast. That was in 1987. A few months later she met the company founder and CEO Bill Gates, then 32, at a sales event in New York. A week later, they ran into each other again in the company parking lot and he asked her to go out with him – on a night two weeks away. Melinda said no, that wasn’t spontaneous enough for her, and told him to call her a little closer to the date. The phone rang that same evening. Was that more to her liking, he wondered? It was, and they started dating.
Their wedding, a very private affair, took place seven years later on Hawaii. At that point, the former Microsoft employee was already a millionaire herself. “I became one very young, even before I turned 26,” she once said. “I had everything I needed to lead a great life, regardless whom I married. It made me feel strong at the time.” One year later, Bill was the world’s richest man and Melinda was pregnant. She quit her job as product manager at Microsoft to dedicate her time to her children. Jennifer was born in 1996, her son Rory in 1999 and her daughter Phoebe in 2002.
But Melinda Gates wanted to do more than bring up privileged children. In the valedictorian speech she gave when graduating from her all-girls Catholic high school, she said: “If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.” Growing up, she was expected to help out at home. Melinda’s parents – her father was an engineer, her mother a homemaker – rented out apartments on the side to earn extra money so they could send their children to college. Melinda cleaned floors and took care of the bookkeeping.
In the fall of 1993, shortly after they got engaged, she and Bill went to Africa to spend a few weeks traveling, go on a safari and see some exotic animals. Instead, they met people who were living in greater poverty than they had ever seen before. The two of them took a long walk on the beach in Zanzibar, Melinda once disclosed, and talked about what they had seen. What exactly were they planning to do with all their money? Both had grown up in families that placed great value on helping other people. Back home in Seattle, they studied data and statistics: Why does diarrhea cause death in so many young children in developing countries? How is it possible to relieve suffering in a real way?
In 1998, they started a foundation to provide vaccinations to children. In 2000, this became the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as it exists today. By investing over 46 billions dollars to date in more than 130 countries, the couple created the world’s largest private foundation. Right from the beginning, the Gates Foundation focused on finding solutions to the world’s biggest challenges: poverty, hunger, natural disasters, AIDS, polio, tuberculosis, measles, malaria. Having familiarized themselves with all the latest scientific finding, they invested billions in the development of vaccines. The foundation also acts fast when disaster strikes: It provided a million dollars to help the victims of the earthquake in Haiti and spent 50 million to combat Ebola in Africa.
“You are indebted to life unless you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.”
The couple is primarily interested in combating the causes of the world’s problems – supporting public schools in the U.S. as well as innovative agriculture research. In April 2012, Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, gave a highly regarded talk in Berlin about the lack of contraception in developing countries, announcing a few months later that the Gates Foundation would be investing $ 560 million in family planning initiatives over the next eight years. “We’re committed to educating women about their options… It’s a difficult task but it is absolutely urgent,” – words that drew sharp criticism from the Vatican.
In 2008, Bill Gates withdrew from his daily duties at Microsoft to devote himself to the foundation, which he and Melinda co-chair together after years of her handling it mostly on her own. The transition, she has intimated, was not without its difficulties. Adjustments were made and everything worked out in the end. Both Bill and Melinda stress how much they appreciate what the other brings to the job and that they make all decisions together. Today, the foundation has more than 1,500 employees and offices in Washington, London, Beijing, New Delhi and various parts of Africa. Its headquarters are still in Seattle.
The family lives just outside the city in a large house overlooking Lake Washington. The children have all attended (the youngest girl still does) the same private school in Seattle that Bill attended as a boy. All three appear to be well-adjusted, confident and happy kids. Their parents, whose wealth is currently valued at over € 92 billion, have succeeded in providing them with a normal childhood, raising them untouched by scandals and far from the influence of drugs. They have learned to set the table and wash dishes just like any other children. Unlike many, however, they weren’t allowed to own a smartphone until they turned 14. Plus: The Gates children grew up knowing that they would only inherit a small share of their parents’ vast wealth because 95 percent of it would be given away.
In 2006, Warren Buffet announced hat he was going to donate 80 percent of his multi-billion-dollar fortune to the Gates Foundation. He and Bill have been friends for decades, but his decision had just as much to do with his trust in Melinda as it did with Bill. A few years ago, he told Fortune magazine that Bill was “smart as hell, obviously,” but that “in terms of seeing the whole picture,” Melinda was smarter. Buffet’s initial donation turned into The Giving Pledge, an initiate started by him, together with Bill and Melinda Gates, in which wealthy individuals or families promise to give away at least half of their wealth to charity.
Melinda is a woman of action. Whether talking to people in Bangladesh or Africa, she always wants to know what the problems are that people face on a day-to-day basis. She and her eldest daughter once stayed with a family in Tanzania, where they spent the night in a goat shed. Over time and as a result of her travels, Melinda has learned one thing for certain: that to affect structural change in a society, you have to invest in women and girls, in education and empowerment. Women and girls are often over-proportionally represented among the poorest of the poor and among the illiterate members of society. Achieving gender equality is the issue Melinda Gates has become most devoted to, and it’s the subject of her first book, which will be published in April: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.
In the annual ranking of powerful women published by the U.S. business magazine Forbes, Melinda Gates currently holds sixth place. In previous years, she has even been ranked third, ahead of some female heads of state. In 2015, in response to a question about her new role on the world stage, she said: “I couldn’t find [an advocate] who embodied to me the voice of women around the world. And so I thought, ‘If I’m the one, then I just need to do it. I have to have courage and not worry.’”