Up close and personal with Melinda Gates

Friday June 17 2016

Melinda Gates chats with expectant women in Malawi. PHOTO | COURTESY | BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION

Well, I’m a woman who grew up in Dallas, Texas, which is in the southern part of the United States, in this Catholic family. I have three siblings and my parents worked very hard. It was not easy for them to put us through school.

My dad was an engineer, but from his salary and a little bit of business they had on the side, they always told us we would be college-going, no matter what.

So as I grew up, I knew that going to college was important. My parents and my family – my siblings and I — worked very hard so that I could go to college.

And then I met Bill not too long after I got out of college and had started working for Microsoft. And I think Bill and I share a passion. We’re both pretty optimistic people. We do share a passion around innovation: That innovations are things that change the world for good, and we also just like to have a lot of fun together.


The world knows Melinda Gates as the wife of Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the richest man in the world. She is co-chair (with Bill) of the largest charity in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works internationally to improve health, agriculture and financial solutions for the poor, among others.


Here, however, she’s responding to the question: “Who is Melinda, without the Gates name?”

It’s a humble simple-sounding girl-next-door introduction of herself. It says nothing about her academic success and her more than two decades of leading a foundation that today commands a kitty of $39.6 billion and employs 1,376 people in more than 100 countries.

Neither does she speak about her fierce fight for social justice on a global platform and fearless campaign for making contraceptives available to the world’s women. And, of course, she says nothing about the family’s wealth.

But two words — Catholic and college — stand out in the introduction.

Melinda the social activist

Melinda is a staunch advocate for contraceptives, and is currently leading a campaign that hopes to give contraceptives to 120 million women by 2020.

The Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to contraceptives — they interfere with God’s holy work of creation — and supports only natural family planning methods. Naturally, her stance puts her at loggerheads with the very institution to which she owes her moral formation. The very faith she still professes.

Does this disturb her?

“I definitely grew up a Catholic, I’m a practising Catholic, I share a belief with the church about social justice. The fact is that we want mums and babies, dads and young boys to be healthy, and the fact is that we ought to give them those opportunities. And for me, contraceptives are part of that. I’ve been very vocal about contraceptives; I will counsel all of my children, when they are of age, to use them,” she says.

She describes contraceptives as “a modern tool of choice for women.”

“In fact, in the United States of America, over 93 per cent of married Catholic women use contraceptives. In the developing world, I think it makes a profound difference because if you can space the birth of your children you’re more likely to be able to feed them and to have them educated and grow up healthy. So I differ with the Catholic Church on their view on contraception but not on the mission of social justice. And in fact, we work very closely with the Catholic Relief Services on agriculture work, on clean water, and so on.”

Not even the negative publicity resulting from claims that some of the vaccines (also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) are sterilising women will deter her.


She is hoping to dispel some of these “myths” during her visit to East Africa later this month as the campaign to reach 120 million women with contraceptives by 2020 gets to its midway point (from when it was set in 2010).

“I’m coming to East Africa to talk about where we are, what we can do to accelerate the progress of that work, why it’s so important both for young women themselves and for families and for countries. So far, we have given 24 million women access to contraceptives. We knew the first years we’d build the building blocks, we had to do a lot of groundwork, make sure supply chains were fixed, that women understood where contraceptives are available, make sure they understood what contraceptives do, so that it’s truly voluntary,” she says.

She hopes to use her time in East Africa to address the controversy around vaccines and growing resistance to them: “We’ve seen this resistance before in other places and if you really come and clarify that, all over the world, women and men use vaccines, and that they go through a rigorous safety process, the quality of those vaccines is very high, the same ones are used all over the world, you can start to break through some of those myths. We call it myth-busting that needs to happen.”

“Like the measles, mumps-rubella vaccine, which I know has got into some kind of controversy in East Africa — I gave that vaccine to each of my three children because it’s so safe, and because I didn’t want my children to get measles. Children die of measles.”

She also (with absolute support from husband Bill) used contraceptives to space the birth of her three children, all born three years apart.

Just an ordinary man

Again, Melinda speaks about Bill (Gates!) as if he were just an ordinary man, dutifully playing his role as dad and husband, including washing the dishes after dinner.

“He’s a dad who very much loves his kids and they know that. And I think one of the most important things is that a child knows that their parents love them. And they know that he loves me. One of the things my dad always said was that the most important gift you can give to your children is to let them know that their father loves their mother. And my kids know that.”

As an extremely busy couple, Bill and Melinda still manage to make time for their children.

“We try to be there as much as we can for family dinners. For instance, he’s on the road this week, he’s off on the East Coast, and I’m home more for the family dinners. Whereas last week, I was travelling more and he was home more for family dinners. And then this weekend we’ll both be home for family dinners. After dinner, we all clean up the kitchen, and do the dishes, and put out the garbage. And Bill’s a part of that. In fact, his favourite role is actually to do the dishes and nobody else seems to mind because they don’t mind clearing the table and taking the garbage out. But he definitely role-models for them and shows them what a good dad should be.”

Children's privacy

Their three children, Melinda says, are like all teenagers: “They love to use their phones. So, yes, we have discussions about what’s an appropriate hour to put your phone away and to go to bed. And those are ongoing discussions in our household depending on the age. And what they’ve asked me to do is not to publicise our rules because they find them highly embarrassing.”

The Gates have tried to give their children an upbringing that protects their privacy, “so they can be whoever they are at school. So they’re not known as the children of Bill and Melinda Gates, they’re known for who they are.”

They’ve also instilled in them the sense of responsibility to give back to the world.

They would like their children to grow up “to be anybody they’d like to be.” However, they expect them to go to college and to work hard. “But, it’s up to them to figure out what their passion is and what delights them in life,” Melinda says.

For example, one of their daughters will be spending three weeks working at a government school in Rwanda this summer. “She’s not sure, but she thinks her vocation in life may be to run a school somewhere in Africa,” says Melinda.

Indeed, Africa seems to hold a special place in the Gates family since 1993, when Bill and Melinda came on safari while they were engaged. They visited Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Zaire — present-day Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We were mesmerised by the animals in the savannah, but, to be honest, we were completely taken by the people. You would go into the villages and the villagers would invite you to come and see what they were doing, what their home was like, and they would invite you to come and sit down and have lunch. And so we were so taken with the beauty and everything going on there.”

Setting up a foundation

However, when they got back home, they had many questions about Africa: Why isn’t the infrastructure better? Why aren’t there better roads? Why are the people having to walk so far to the markets? What is it about Africa that hasn’t happened?

It was while on this trip that Bill and Melinda Gates solidified the idea of setting up a foundation. And they decided to give most of their earnings from Microsoft to charity.

“It was a surprisingly easy decision for us. I think we solidified that decision while we were on that trip in the fall of 1993, because we were engaged by then, and then we got married in January of 1994. But at the end of that trip, we were on a beach as part of our vacation. Which is where Bill and I often make big decisions. We walk and talk on the beach.

"And I think we finalised on that trip that the resources from Microsoft, the vast majority would go back to the world. And it really was an easy decision for us because we felt that we wanted our kids to learn that they needed to make their own way in the world and work hard.

"And we both felt that because we were from families who gave back a lot growing up – I had a family that was very involved in volunteering in all kinds of things, as was Bill’s — and so we thought that there’s a role that a foundation can play by putting its time and resources and energy into changing the world. And we knew we wanted to be part of that. We just didn’t know exactly how it would play out, and we’ve let that unfold over time."

At first, Melinda worked fulltime at the foundation, while Bill did so during his free time while he served as CEO of Microsoft. In 2008, he retired from Microsoft and they now co-chair the foundation. This means a lot of travel, both together and individually. A part of what they call their journey of learning.

Their lives

Their journey as a couple began soon after Melinda graduated from college and went to work for Microsoft.

“I’d been working for Microsoft for about three weeks. And I was on a business trip to New York. And there was a dinner — a Microsoft-hosted dinner that I wasn’t even supposed to be at. But I was invited by someone and I came in late and took the second-last chair. Bill came in even later than me and took the last chair and that’s how we first met. It took him a while before he decided to ask me out. That took a few months, but eventually he did. And we dated for about five and a half years and then got married. And we started the foundation right at the time we got married.”

Being married to and working with Bill Gates sounds like a tall order. I imagine that any time they walk into a room, it is obvious on whom the attention is focused. After all, everybody knows Bill Gates is the smarter one. Does this bother her?

“I love that question, Pamella,” she quips.

“So, my background is in computer science and when I went through school, there were very few women in computer science. And there still are very few women in computer science. And so I got used to being underestimated at first, and then I always just proved myself, and it wasn’t really that hard for me. And then people would go ‘Wow’!, She actually knows what she’s doing! So, I’m pretty used to being in a role where I’m kind of underestimated, and I’m now so comfortable in my skin and that if somebody feels like, when we walk into a room, that Bill is smarter than I am or they think more of him for whatever reason, that’s their problem. And I don’t feel I have to prove it. I just say who I am and do what I have to do, and usually they figure out that they were wrong.”

Pamella Sittoni is the managing editor of The EastAfrican.