Melinda Gates talks to Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur about her family, her upbringing and her hopes for the world’s women and girls.
You don’t feel her coming. There are no pilot fish swimming ahead of her, doing reconnaissance. The air pressure in the room doesn’t change, as it could when half of an $80B couple approaches.
Melinda French Gates just walks in, in a white top and slacks. Hair curled, hand outstretched, smiling. The woman who ranks third on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women and the co-founder of a foundation that is taking on global problems sends out a vibe of “no big deal.”
At heart, Gates is still that Dallas-born Catholic girl who scrubbed ovens in her parents’ rental properties. Still the math geek who thrives on numbers. And she is just like any mother who stayed home with her kids and now, with the youngest almost 13, is dealing with them growing up and away.
“This past Friday night, Bill and I suddenly found ourselves home alone,” she said, seated in a conference room just steps from her office at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Because, as you know, teenagers, their schedules change at the last minute. All of a sudden, it’s like, ‘We’re home alone, we have a 10 o’clock pick-up from a dance, but wow, what are we going to do tonight?’ ”
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So what did they do?
“We watched a movie. Tossed in a DVD. It was great.”
It was precious downtime at what seems to be a pivotal time in Gates’ life.
She just turned 50. The foundation marked its 15th anniversary this month. Employees came in from all over the world for a Global Partners Forum to celebrate their successes and set goals for the next 15 years, including eradicating four diseases, getting Africa to feed itself with its own farming, expanding online education and using cellphones to bring mobile banking to remote areas.
With her kids older and her work life expanded, Gates is poised to become a bigger part of that future, and setting new goals in a life that has already accomplished so much.
The foundation has partnered with governments, as well as the World Health Organization, Rotary International, UNICEF, PATH and the Centers for Disease Control to create and deliver a host of vaccines. Polio has been 99 percent eradicated. (India was certified polio-free last year.)
In the States, the foundation has built libraries, established scholarships, funded schools and fought homelessness. They’re even trying to build a better toilet.
(Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds The Seattle Times’ Education Lab reporting project.)
The beginnings …
It all started on a beach in San Diego.
Bill hadn’t yet proposed to Melinda when the couple went for a walk and talked about what to do with the vast wealth they had accumulated building the tech behemoth that is Microsoft. (Forbes recently listed Bill Gates as the richest man in the world.)
They had an obligation, they agreed, to impact lives.
“I think it comes from both the roots of our family,” Melinda Gates said. Bill Gates Sr. and his late wife, Mary, were deeply involved in Seattle’s civic and philanthropic circles.
Growing up in Dallas, Melinda Gates attended Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic school whose motto was “serviam,” or “to serve.”
“I was taught by these nuns that one person could make a change in the world, and that we have something to give back,” she said. “When I think of philanthropy, I think of it as, you can give back your time, your energy or your money, or all three in some combination. We have the privilege of being able to do it at the scale that we do it. But we are always still thinking that you have to connect the scale back to, ‘Are we really making a difference for that one person, that one family?’ That’s where change happens.”
Gates is still in touch with several of her teachers from Ursuline, including Susan Bauer, who first recognized her math skills, put her in front of a computer and urged her to learn how to program. (Gates gave the school $10 million.)
That connection to her past may be why Gates seems so grounded, why the signage on the front of the foundation embarrasses her a little.
It may also be why, when asked if she ever pauses to take in what her life has become — the wealth, the travel, the boldface names — she struggles a bit.
For her, the past is still very present.
“I think I have this drive in me that I want to make the world better,” she said. “And so I don’t really look back very much. I pull my head up sometimes and kind of go, ‘Wow.’ But that’s pretty rare.”
She will have more time for that, now that her three children are older and more independent. Jennifer Katharine is now 18, Rory John is 15, and Phoebe Adele is 12. Exactly three years apart. Planned.
That, too, is a privilege Gates is trying to make available to women everywhere. Family planning is one of her key areas of focus at the foundation.
Gates has taken some heat for it, especially from the Catholic Church. But she argues that 100,000 women and children die from premature births, and that lack of planning sinks families into poverty.
“I want to be known as an advocate for women and girls,” she said. “I see a future where the world is more equal for women and girls than it is today.”
She thinks of several women she has met in her travels, and who stay with her as she develops programs and figures out funding.
“I keep a collection of these women in my head, from Africa and India,” she said. “They are my north stars, my constellations.”
Last month in India, Gates was sitting with a group of eight girls — all under the age of 19, and all married. (“I was shocked.”) Two of them waited until their mothers-in-law were out of the room to tell Gates they had been fitted with IUDs and that their husbands didn’t know.
Her own children getting older has presented a series of shifts in Gates’ life.
It is easier to have a full workday in her Seattle office, now that the kids have their own activities after school. Gates described them in guarded terms — “hobbies” and “athletic pursuits” — a skill developed over years of protecting them, whether it be hiring security or making multiple vacation and dinner plans.
But she’d rather focus on what’s normal, like how she has the time to read for pleasure again. Gates has a Kindle (I asked), but still loves hardbacks and paperbacks so she can make notes in the margin or see the books on her shelves.
“I go back to some of them and remember, ‘I was reading that in that country or when I was going through something in my life,’ ” she said.
She just finished “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande, and is in the middle of Mark Nepo’s “The Endless Practice.”
Her wealth makes any whim possible, but Gates’ indulgences are surprisingly simple — and hint that having an extraordinary life like hers makes the ordinary, well, special.
“My favorite thing to do is to go out to lunch with a friend, or take a walk with a friend,” she said. “So I have a very close-knit set of friends that I have had for quite some time. And just to have a day where I can go, ‘Oh, my gosh! I am free! We can go to lunch!’ That is really fun for me.”
She loves to exercise and she kayaks on Lake Washington.
Gates’ hope for her children is that they maintain their privacy, learn who they are meant to be in the world, “and pursue that with passion and gusto, and know we will support them in that.
“We certainly hope that at some point in their lives they are giving back, and they know that,” she said. “But that will come later. They first need to figure out who they are and what they want to do.”
If her children remember one piece of her advice, one thing that she has told them, what would it be?
Gates paused, turned to look out the window and thought for a moment.
“Well, I guess, you know, be kind to other people,” she finally said. “Always find that place inside of other people where you can connect. I think that’s something that we talk about a lot in our home and live out. Kindness and respect.”
She and Jennifer spent one vacation living with a family in Malawi — a trip Gates will repeat with her son later this year. Phoebe and a friend will spend two weeks teaching at a preschool in Rwanda.
But Gates has also taken Phoebe to a Meghan Trainor concert in Portland. And last fall, the whole family went to see Katy Perry at the Tacoma Dome.
“It was supposed to be Phoebe’s birthday gift, but then Jen wanted to go and Rory wanted to go and Bill’s like, ‘Well, I’ll go.’ ”
Hang on — Bill Gates at a Katy Perry concert?
“Yes! It was fun.”