She is one half of the world’s richest couple, but she chooses not to indulge in her wealth. Instead, she champions causes for the underprivileged and vulnerable, and teaches her children the same thing.
In the summer of 1986, a young computer science and economics graduate from Duke University named Melinda Ann French was almost going to start her career at IBM. At the same time, a tech startup she hardly knew offered her a job as product manager. She decided to take that up instead, after a recruiter told her the firm was one that promoted advancement for women.
In the first year, the boss asked her out – two weeks in advance. She was unimpressed.
“That’s really not spontaneous enough for me. Why don’t you call me closer to the date?” she told him, and gave him her phone number.
He did call her – but later that very same day – to ask her out for the evening. Six years later, they were married.
Meet Melinda Gates, wife of the world’s richest man Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, now the world’s largest PC software company. The 51-year-old mother of three is arguably the world’s most powerful female philanthropist, being the co-chairperson of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
To date, the charity has given away US$30 billion to support global causes in education, development and health. The Gates have also pledged to give away 95% of their wealth, which is an estimated whopping US$77.6 billion today.
“Let your heart break”
The Foundation traces its beginnings to 1993 during a trip the Gates made to Africa. There, the couple saw suffering they found difficult to walk away from. Women were labouring under the scorching sun without shoes, and it opened their eyes to the problems of the developing world.
“Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your optimism,” Melinda Gates advised as she recalled those moments in a speech to Stanford graduates in 2014.
In 1997, the Gates came across an article about millions of children who die from preventable diseases as a result of poverty. They decided they had seen enough – it was time to do something about it.
For Gates, helping the needy was something she held dear to her heart. Her late mother had always taught her to be charitable.
“From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” Mrs French had said months before dying of breast cancer.
Gates knew she was one of those to whom much was given. As her husband had commitments to Microsoft then, she single-handedly led the Gates Foundation during its first six years of operation. She had previously left Microsoft after nine years to take care of the children.
Trying to make a difference in a complex world could sometimes land one in conflict. Concerned that more than 120 million women in the developing countries could die from complications related to unwanted pregnancies, Gates used her wealth and influence to mass distribute contraception and fund education on the subject. This upset the Catholic community, especially given that Gates is a regular Catholic churchgoer.
She explained, “It took me a couple of years, quite honestly – longer than that, several years – of saying, ‘Do I really want to speak out about this?’ Because I knew it would be controversial. But at the end of the day, you can’t turn your back on these women you meet.”
“I use contraceptives,” she said. “I believe in contraceptives, my friends use contraceptives. And so if I believe in this for myself – and for my daughters and other women – I said to myself, ‘How could I not speak out about this?’”.
Melinda has also passed on her mother’s values to the next generation.
The young Gates have all been to Africa to work with the poor and vulnerable. Dinner conversations at home often revolve around the latest happenings at the Foundation, so much so that the children learnt about HIV/AIDS as young as three years old.
“As they get older, they so know that our family belief is about responsibility, that we are in an unbelievable situation just to live in the United States and have a great education, and we have a responsibility to give back to the world.”
Gates is also careful to raise her children as normally as she could. They were given limited pocket money and had to do their share of the housework. When they wanted to get a dog, they were fully responsible for feeding and cleaning up after it by themselves. More controversially, the Gates made the decision not to give their children any trust funds or inheritance. They were charged to make it on their own.
Today, Jennifer Katharine Gates, Rory John Gates and Phoebe Adele Gates are 20, 17 and 14, respectively. With the children now independent and sharing the family’s cause, Gates’ hard work has paid off.
And for all her big contributions to making this world a better place, Gates’s wishes for herself remain simple: “On the day I die, I want people to think that I was a great mom and a great family member and a great friend. I care about that more than I care about anything else.”