A Conversation with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates

In the late 1990s, Bill and Melinda Gates were reading articles about the millions of children in poor countries who die from diseases eliminated long ago in the U.S.  They wrote a note to Bill Sr. with the simple statement, “Dad, maybe we can do something about this…” This was the start of a journey that created the world’s largest philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By deploying capital and talent, guided by the vision that every life has equal value, the foundation has achieved some incredible successes.  Over 500 million children have been vaccinated, with over 7 million lives saved… 3 million households have received access to drought-tolerant crops…. 99% fewer Polio cases are now reported worldwide… 8 million people have received access to anti-retroviral drugs, guinea worm disease is close to being eradicated, and almost 500 million mosquito nets have been distributed.

Melinda French Gates is a philanthropist, businesswoman, and global advocate for women and girls. As the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda sets the direction and priorities of the world’s largest philanthropy. She is also the founder of Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company working to drive social progress for women and families in the United States. In her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift, Melinda tells of her journey from a partner working behind the scenes to one of the world’s foremost advocates for women, driven by the belief that no one should be excluded, all lives have equal value, and gender equity is the lever that lifts everything.

I had the pleasure of catching-up with Melinda Gates to speak to her about her learnings in philanthropy, and creating lasting global change.

Q: How did philanthropy come into your life?

[Melinda Gates] I grew up in a middle-class household in Dallas, Texas. My dad was an aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo missions and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Even though we didn’t have a lot of extra money, my parents made a point of teaching us about the importance of giving back. I got that same message at my Catholic school, whose motto was “Serviam,” or “I will serve.” My siblings and I knew we were expected to contribute to making our community a better place.

The household Bill grew up in in Seattle looked different in some ways, but the underlying values were very similar. Even before we were married, we decided that we would give the majority of the wealth from Microsoft back to society. The question was never “if”—it was “how.”

Then, about 25 years ago, we came across an article that mentioned that hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries were dying each year of diarrhea. We couldn’t believe it. We started poring over the data and talking to experts about how we could use our resources to stop kids from dying of diseases that are easily preventable and treatable. Eventually, that led us to start our foundation, which opened its doors in 2000.

Q: At a time where it feels our world is turning inwards and nationalist, how can we continue building a case for foreign aid and international assistance?

[Melinda Gates] There are a lot of reasons why the rise in nationalism and isolationism we’ve seen across Western democracies is concerning, and the threat it poses to global efforts against poverty and disease is definitely one of them.

I think it’s important to note that, historically, people in both the U.S. and U.K. have tended to overestimate how much of their country’s spending goes to foreign aid. In the U.S., it’s less than one percent of the budget. In the U.K., it’s just 0.7 percent of gross national income. And the return on that relatively small investment is enormous. Foreign aid helped the world turn the tide against HIV/AIDS and has dramatically reduced the number of children dying before their fifth birthday.

As I wrote in our annual letter this year, I also think it’s important to underscore that investing in foreign aid doesn’t just benefit other people in other countries. Supporting stability abroad helps enhance security at home. Strengthening health systems overseas helps lower the chances that a deadly pathogen like Ebola will lead to a global epidemic. And ensuring people everywhere have opportunities makes it less likely that they’ll risk dangerous journeys to seek better lives in other places.

I don’t think there is anything about putting your country first that requires you to turn your back on the rest of the world. If anything, the opposite is true. So that’s the case we need to be making.

Q: How can innovation lead global change?

[Melinda Gates] In rich countries, “innovation” often means finding a better way of doing things. But in developing countries, it can mean finding a way to do things at all.

For example, in countries like the U.S. or U.K., a mobile phone offers a better and more convenient way to communicate. But in remote parts of Africa and Asia that never had landlines, mobile phones are even more transformative.

And as game-changing as talking on the phone is, mobile technology is of course enabling so much more than just communication. In places where people don’t have access to a bank, mobile financial services are connecting people to their first bank accounts and making their path out of poverty a little less steep.

As you can probably tell, I am a big believer in the transformative potential of technology, and I believe it can be used to break down barriers to equality. At its best, technology democratizes power.

But I also believe that if we want technological innovation to live up to its potential, we have to ensure that everyone has access to it. If technology is just for the privileged few, then it will concentrate power in the hands of those who already have it.

I’m part of a commission called the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development, which is working with businesses and government leaders in low-income countries to help ensure that innovation is benefiting the people who need it most. That’s going to be one of the biggest, most important challenges of this century.

Q: Do we have enough data to look at effective philanthropy around women and girls; and what are the problems with the data that currently exists?

[Melinda Gates] No, not even close. It’s amazing how little data the world has about women and girls. There are even gender gaps in the data we use to measure gender gaps.

In some cases, the data on women and girls is missing altogether. For example, there isn’t much data on women’s experience with domestic violence, in part because the world just hasn’t made gathering that data a priority, although there are certainly some organizations leading very important work on the issue.

In other cases, the data is flawed because it’s based on biased assumptions. For example, when the person going door-to-door conducting labor force surveys assumes that the man in the household is the breadwinner, that means they’re less likely to ask about the woman’s economic contributions. Multiply that times a few million households, and you end up with a data set that underestimates, underreports, and undervalues women’s role in the economy. We like to think of data as being objective, but the answers we get are often shaped by the questions we ask. When those questions are biased, the data is, too.

In business, in philanthropy, in almost every realm of life, better data helps drive better decisions. That’s why the missing data about women and girls is so harmful. It gets in the way of creating policies and solutions that will make their lives better. We can’t solve problems if we don’t understand them.

Q: What is the role of entrepreneurship in your work?

[Melinda Gates] I think that one of the most important ways to expand women’s power and influence is by investing in their ideas. The venture capital industry exists to get capital in the hands of deserving entrepreneurs, but the data tells us that venture capitalists often have only a narrow definition of what “deserving” means—and it often corresponds to being white and male.

I’m interested in correcting that so, a few years ago, I began investing in what are called “nontraditional” venture capital funds—which essentially means funds that are committed to investing in a diverse range of entrepreneurs. I’d like to see more women and minorities have the chance to turn their great ideas into successful businesses. And I think the market is going to respond very well to having a broader range of products and services to choose from.

Q: What have been some of the stories and journeys that have most inspired you in your work?

[Melinda Gates] There are so many. I literally wrote a whole book about the women who have shared their stories with me! But I’ll tell you one story that I carry in my heart, and that’s Anna’s.

In 2014, my daughter Jenn and I spent a few nights with a family in Tanzania—not far from Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the first time on one of my foundation trips that I’d stayed with a family in their home, and I was hoping it would help me understand the realities of women’s lives more deeply than I could through books and reports.

By then, I knew to expect that the women would be responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, and caregiving. Even so, until that trip, I had never felt the full weight of their days. The intensity of the labor was a revelation to me. But so was the fact that the couple—Anna and Sanare—had worked hard to make their relationship equal.

Anna told me that when they were first married, the nearest well to their house was 12 miles away, and, as in many places, the work of getting water was considered a woman’s responsibility. But after Anna and Sanare had their first son, Anna just couldn’t do it anymore. She packed up and told Sanare she was taking the baby and moving back to her parents’ house. When he asked what he could do to make her stay, she said, “Get the water, so I can nurse our son.”

Sanare did. At first, other men in the village joked that he’d been bewitched by his wife. But eventually, when they saw it was making life better for his family, they joined him—and not long after that, they came together and built a new system for catching water closer to the village. And it all started because Anna found the courage to stand up to a deeply ingrained cultural norm.

Anna made such an impression on me that I have a photo of her up on the wall of my home where I see it every day. I spend a lot of time wondering what her life would look like if she had more freedom and opportunity to shape it into whatever she wanted it to be.

Q: What would be your message to potential philanthropists, who have not yet ‘stepped up to the plate’ to encourage them to give and engage?

[Melinda Gates] I encourage potential philanthropists to look to the millions of ordinary people who use their resources to make the world a better place—often at great personal sacrifice. I don’t think it’s billionaires who are setting the standard for generosity. It’s people who are giving even when it’s hard.

But I think your question is an important one, and I absolutely believe that “of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” One thing I tell potential philanthropists is that the work of our foundation has been the most rewarding work I can imagine. Bill would say the same.

This is actually a conversation I have somewhat frequently. In 2010, Bill and I co-founded an effort with Warren Buffett called The Giving Pledge, which invites high net-worth individuals and families to commit to giving the majority of their wealth away. So far, we have 190 commitments from people across 22 countries.

A lot of people tend to be private about their giving, because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re doing it to get any kind of public credit for it. But I think it’s important to talk about, because it sets an example. We encourage people to talk about the fact they’ve taken the pledge, because that’s one more way to get this message out.


The original source of this interview is Vikas Shah’s interview with Melinda Gates, published in the June 2019 issue of BA Business Life

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.