- Melinda Gates is the cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed over $45 billion to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems.
- Melinda Gates believes the ultimate problem that needs solving is poverty. Poverty leads to all sorts of problems, including childhood mortality. And after 20 years in the field, Gates believes the best solution is to empower women.
- Gender equality is key. That means having balanced relationships where both partners split the workload at home. This is something that even Melinda and Bill have had to work at.
- Gates details all these findings in her new book, “The Moment of Lift.” For more stories like this, read Business Insider’s homepage.
SEATTLE – Melinda Gates has had three careers.
The Dallas native was a high-powered Microsoft executive, managing a team of over 1,000 people.
Then she met and married her husband, Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft, and began her second job as a full-time mom to three children, Jennifer, Rory, and Phoebe.
Her third career started a few years later, when she and Bill formalized the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. Since then, the couple has spent about $45 billion trying to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.
The top problem they’re trying to solve is poverty, which Gates calls the most disempowering force in the world.
“Poverty is not being able to protect your family,” Gates writes in “The Moment of Lift.”
“Poverty is not being able to save your children when mothers with more money could. And because the strongest instinct of a mother is to protect her children, poverty is the most disempowering force on earth. The most unjust thing is for children to die because their parents are too poor.”
The most unjust thing is for children to die because their parents are too poor.
Gates thinks there’s a surprisingly simple answer to the poverty problem: gender equality. Specifically, lifting women up to be equals, on every level, with men. When women are treated as equals and able to generate their own income, it helps their families and the overall economy. But there are a number of ways the genders are unbalanced, and Gates has even witnessed it in her own home.
She says the key to a strong marriage is to have a balanced partnership, where each person splits the hours of “unpaid” work it takes to run a household – whether that’s driving kids to school, doing the laundry, or packing lunches.
Business Insider sat down with Gates to talk about her marriage, her career, her philanthropy, and her book.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What Melinda Gates saw at Microsoft that made her almost quit
Alyson Shontell: You’re from a Catholic family in Dallas, and you were a computer-science major at Duke University with a master’s in business. You landed at a smallish company called Microsoft, but you got there and things weren’t quite what you expected. What did you see at Microsoft that made you think maybe this isn’t for me and made you want to quit?
Melinda Gates: As you said, I came out of Duke University with both a computer-science degree and a business degree. And when Microsoft made me an offer, I literally called my parents and I said, “If this company makes me an offer, I will not be able to turn it down.” When I got there, what I had imagined was true. We were changing the world; we were creating products that never existed before. And I loved that part of it. And I loved being in tech.
The piece that surprised me a bit was how aggressive the culture was. I knew it’d be fast-paced, I knew it’d be competitive, but it was just quite aggressive. And I had seen some of that for sure in my undergraduate days. But the fact that it was pervasive often surprised me a little bit.
I actually questioned for a while, “Do I want to stay here?” I was about two years into my career, I loved what we were doing, and I had great friends – males and females around the company. But I finally decided, instead of leaving, which was my plan, that I would just be myself and see if I could still be successful.
And I ended up attracting all kinds of people from all over the company. And people would say to me, “How did you get that male software developer who worked on systems to come work on this new application you’re creating?” And I’d say, “Well, maybe they just want to work in this environment, the culture that I’ve created.” I learned to be myself there, and that ended up working for me.
Shontell: That is easier said than done sometimes. You had a great mentor in a woman named Patty who helped show you that you could be yourself. Unfortunately, there’s pressure to conform to how your boss acts. There have been studies that show that if you don’t act the way your boss acts, they promote people who remind them of themselves. So do women need to conform to be like men? Is it always possible to be yourself and be a leader?
Gates: It really depends on the culture of the company you work for. And I think that if you find yourself under a boss who’s not supportive, as fast as you can move under somebody else, the better off you’re going to be unless you can work with them.
Other young women who were in their early 30s who’ve talked to me say, “OK, I haven’t had the most supportive boss in the environment I’m in. But if my colleagues and I get together – men and women – to give that person feedback, and if they’re open and they hear it from multiples of us, then sometimes they’ll start to change.”
Honestly, I think the burden is both on the corporation to change or if it’s government to change and on the individual to say what’s right for me and what is it that I want. But it goes both ways there.
2 leadership traits the best managers exhibit are empathy and love
Shontell: There are two things that you talked about in your book, feelings that a leader should have. One is empathy and one is actually love. One of the topics people don’t like to talk about is love. But you call it the greatest agent for change in the world. Yet you never hear politicians talk about it. You never hear s boss is talking about it. Should we bring love into the workplace and into management?
Gates: I talk about empathic leadership, and I believe in being compassionate to everybody around you. Whether you talk about love explicitly or not, I think it’s what you do to role model. So when you have the employee who has a death in their family or has a loved one who’s ill or a young child they’re caring for, I think it’s in how you respond to them as a manager or in reverse that shows your humanity.
The best organizations are ones where people can show up as their full selves at home and at work, and that they don’t have to hide parts of themselves. That doesn’t mean if you’re going through something emotional at home that you want to bring all of that to work: You do have to manage your own emotions.
But the more we let everybody be themselves, the more we will have empathic leadership. And to me that ultimately is when you reach out and connect with somebody over their humanity that ultimately is love, whether you name it or not.
Shontell: So while we’re on the subject of love, you met your husband, Bill, at Microsoft. You didn’t know you would be sitting next to each other at a work dinner, but then you hit it off. You get married and then become pregnant, and you shocked Bill by telling him: “I’m not going back to Microsoft. I’m going to be a full-time mom.”
And you said, he just responded, “Really? Really?!” Because he just couldn’t believe it. You had built this career and you loved it so much. But in your book you wrote that you “assumed” that’s what women were supposed to do. Why did you assume that? Where did that come from?
Why Gates ‘assumed’ she was supposed to quit her job to take care of her kids, and how she shocked Bill
Gates: I don’t know exactly where it came from. When I was growing up, a lot of the women in my neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, didn’t work. I grew up in a very middle-income family, but most women didn’t work.
Luckily, I had a role model in my mother, because my dad was an engineer working on the Apollo space missions. He would go off to work every day. She was home raising us four children, and they did it together in the evenings and on the weekends. But my parents could see that my dad’s engineering salary wasn’t going to put me and my three siblings through college, which was what they wanted. They always talked to us about being college-going and that they would pay for it. They started a small real-estate investment business, and my mom actually led that business.
She worked on it a lot during the day and in the evenings and on the weekends. So I did have a role model of a working mom in a small business, but I didn’t have a role model of a woman going off to work. I don’t know if it’s from that. I didn’t see that many women working, so I just assumed I would stay home and take care of the kids.
The other thing that played into it – I mean, we have to be honest: Bill was the CEO of Microsoft, right? That is a hard-charging tech industry. That was a very fast-growing company. I kept saying to him, “But somebody has to be home. If we want the values that we both believe in as a couple for the kids, somebody has to be home to instill those values.”
But then my view changed over time when I felt like I had created the environment where I could give my kids privacy and let them grow up to be themselves. We had the values, we had people around us who were also imparting those same values that we had. Then I felt, like, “OK, I do want to work, and I will be a working mom.”
The one thing I’ll say about Bill is he was incredibly supportive all along the way. Even after Jenn, our oldest was born, he would say, “What are you going to do?” Because he knew that I actually enjoyed working, and that was supportive to have a husband say that.
Shontell: And not because being a full time mom isn’t a ton of work. As you and I both know it’s a ton of work.
Gates: It is so much work.
Shontell: But he knew you needed something else in addition.
Women do 7 years more of work than men and get no credit or money for it
Gates: He knew that I would enjoy using my talents and my brain on something else in addition.
One thing in society we have put on women is we don’t talk about how difficult it is to raise children, how much time it takes. We don’t even talk about things like breastfeeding. We just assume women are going to go do it. It takes time and it takes energy, right? I talk in the book about unpaid labor – because male economists decided what was “labor” and what would be measured in our economy as productive work – we never looked at the unpaid labor, which predominantly women do at home. And I think it’s far time we changed that and have the real conversation about this 90 minutes extra of work that women do at home in the United States.
When you add it up over their lifetime, it’s seven years of work. I don’t know about you, but I think you and I could probably go and get a couple of graduate degrees and a Ph.D. in seven years.
Some of that’s work you want to do. It’s tender; it’s lovely. But some of it is also the mundane of doing laundry and the dishes and packing lunch boxes.
Bill and Melinda wash dishes together every night, and it symbolizes a feature every strong marriage has
Shontell: This idea of unpaid work is basically anything that you’re doing that’s not your leisure. You’re doing it for your household or you’re doing it for your family. In the US, it might be laundry. Other places, it’s sometimes walking miles to a well to get water for your family. So it’s this huge problem, and it was found that it would be the biggest sector of the economy if all this unpaid work counted.
You found that even in your own home there was some imbalance in responsibilities. How did you and Bill look at unpaid work in your own house and how did you balance it out?
Gates: First of all, it’s really important to say that our economies have been built on the back of this unpaid labor, and sometimes that unpaid labor is invisible in a certain way because in the United States we don’t think about that 90 minutes of work that a woman does at home.
I’m going to be the first one to say, look, I’m incredibly lucky. I can have somebody else, if I choose, purchase the groceries or help with childcare. I’ve had amazing support and help with child-rearing.
But there are still things we do in our home that I wanted to make sure we did as parents and that our kids participated in so they would know what it was to grow up and have responsibilities. One example is we always do the dishes together after dinner as a family. One night I realized I was still in the kitchen a good 10, 15 minutes after everybody else doing the last-minute things. Sometimes in the moment my frustration or anger just comes out.
So one night we stood up after dinner and people in the family started to melt away, like, off they go upstairs. So hand on my hips, I’m, like, “Nobody leaves the kitchen until I leave the kitchen!”
What happens is that last 15 minutes gets divvied up really fast. And then five minutes later we all go upstairs. So I think we just have to sometimes name these extra invisible things that people don’t even see that we do as women.
Shontell: So do you still do family dishes together?
Gates: We still do family dishes. Last night was just Bill and me for dinner, and we did the dishes together.
Something funny happened when Bill started driving his daughter to school
Shontell: I love the story of how you all decided to drive your children to school and the effect that that had on all the other parents at school. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Gates: When our oldest daughter, Jenn, was starting kindergarten, we both agreed on the school we thought she should be in long term. It was a good drive away from our house. And I was making the argument that there was going to be so many years of driving. Maybe we just wait and put her in that school when she was a little bit older.
Bill was really quite adamant that he thought we should start then. And he said, “I’ll drive them.”
And I said, “You’ll drive?” It meant him leaving our house, going to where her school was, and then driving back past our house to Microsoft. So it was quite a commute. But he started doing this twice a week.
A few weeks into the school year, some other moms sidled up to me and they said, “Hey, do you see what’s changing in the classroom?”
And I said, “I’m seeing more dads dropping off kids.”
They’re like, “Yeah, we went home and we told our husbands, ‘If Bill Gates, who’s the CEO of Microsoft, right now can drive his kid to school, so can you!'”
I hadn’t even realized that this moment Bill and I had at home of negotiating who was going to do what inadvertently role-modeled for other families something that was right.
Bill and the kids cherished those moments in the car. Listening to music together, the conversations over many years that they had – it’s a side of him that they might not have seen otherwise. It would’ve been a missed opportunity.
A woman was so poor and in despair that she asked Melinda to adopt and raise her 2 children
Shontell: I want to dig into a couple of stories in the book that were really powerful. One is the story of a woman, Meena. You decided early on that poverty was a huge problem you wanted to help tackle because the most unjust thing in the world is if parents who don’t have as much money as someone else have children suffer or die. Tell me about the story of Meena.
Gates: I met Meena in northern India, and she had just given birth to a beautiful little baby boy at a health facility that we had been part of supporting. We were talking about her experience, which had been very positive. Near the end I said to her, “What are your hopes and dreams for your sons?” And she just looked down for a long time and she went very silent after we had this glorious conversation. She finally looked up at me and said, “The truth is, I have no hope for my son. None. My only hope would be if you took him home with you.”
I’m there as a Western woman in a pair of khaki pants and a T-shirt, and she just knows that life would be better for her son. She ended up saying, “Take both of them.” She thought their lives would be better if I took them back to the United States.
It’s heartbreaking to be in these situations and to see parents who are doing their absolute best but because of their circumstances can’t feed or educate their kids. Something we can do something about as a world – should do something about.
Shontell: It’s unbelievable: She essentially asked you to raise her two children while holding the baby. That is the desperation that you’re seeing. And she clearly loved those boys there. And there are so many stories of similar depth and power and your book. One thing that I was really impressed by is that you’re trying to change traditions and help people think about traditions that maybe shouldn’t exist any longer and then introduce new ones.
So genital cutting for women was one tradition that you helped change, and then skin-to-skin contact at birth was something your team helped introduce. Talk about how you’re changing mindsets.
Gates: In other cultures that we go into, we go in with partners who’ve been on the ground, say, 30 years working in these communities. And what we try to do is to bring new knowledge and sometimes new tools from the United States, like a vaccine they haven’t had before. And then educate the community and let them decide do they want to take on these new norms, traditions, or tools because they will save their children’s lives. And it’s up to them at the end to decide.
Skin-to-skin contact, which we called “kangaroo care,” takes a newborn and, as soon as it’s born, you put it on the mom’s chest and you wrap it up in a blanket and you put it there. It is a life-saving technique that was proved out in the developing world before it came back to the United States. In the US, we were overusing incubators for kids, and once it got proved out in other places, we brought it back to the US, and now it’s become part of the standard care practice.
What we know about skin-to-skin contact is the mom and the baby bond more, her milk lets down sooner, and it saves the baby’s life, particularly in places in northern India, where you give birth and it’s cold. A child needs to be kept warm or they’re at risk for all kinds of things, like pneumonia.
The growing wealth divide between billionaires and everyone else has become a ‘national emergency.’ This is Gates’ solution.
Shontell: There’s time for two more questions. One: Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge-fund king, recently said he thinks it’s a national emergency that we have such a concentration of wealth in America. So many people increasingly have very little, and the middle class is being wiped out. You were raised middle-class. What is the solution here? How bad can this get?
Gates: I think the solution is a different taxation policy. The truth is we need to update our tax code in the United States. The wealthy in this country should be paying higher taxes than the middle class.
Shontell: Higher than 70%?
Gates: I’m not going to name a number; I’m not a tax-policy expert. But I definitely think the high-income people should pay more tax and can do it. There are lots of different ways in different forms to do it in, but then middle-class people should pay more than low income.
But even in Washington state, we’re one of the most regressive tax states. I think it’s time the US looked at taxes at the national and the state level.
How the world’s best problem solver thinks about solving a problem
Shontell: You’re probably the world’s best problem solver, tackling issues that seem impossible. What is your strategy for problem solving?
Gates: To surround yourself with experts and then go out in the field and do site visits and really hear from people on the ground what they want and how interventions will or won’t change their lives.
It’s only by taking the latest, greatest innovations in science and surrounding yourself with those people and understanding people’s lives that I think you can eventually create change.